With Long Term House Swaps, Travelers Experience a Destination’s Culture Through Local Lens
Last Updated on August 24, 2020
Are you a traveler who is keen to experience a destination through locals’ eyes? To get under the skin of a culture and celebrate its uniqueness, as well as feel part of our universal shared human condition? And get free lodging in the process? Then a long term house swap might be right up your alley!
A group of European teachers seeking to travel cheaply during their summer break founded Intervac International in 1953, offering the opportunity to barter homes through their network. A New York teacher had the same idea and created “Vacation Exchange Club”, now known as HomeLink, in 1953 as well. Almost four decades later, Ed Kushins started what is now HomeExchange.com; three years later, he made the internet the program’s platform.
While cost-saving may have been a primary motivator early on, this mode of travel has become an effective grassroots form of cultural diplomacy. In an era where some governments are pursuing isolationist strategies built on fear and designed to keep people from other countries out, home exchange offers a way to foster international relations that is based on trust.
Joie and Syd Galloway of Virginia and Florida are participants of HomeLink and began home exchanging in 1985 and have made at least 140 long term house swaps since then, with more than half of those outside the U.S.
“Each exchange is unique,” Joie observed. “Being in a home for two to four weeks, you learn a lot about the couple and their culture. We try to meet our exchange families by inviting them to our home a day early or by going to their home a day early.”
House Swapping Offers Benefits Both Practical & Social
Those brief introductions can reveal cultural differences that, while minor, could be cause for confusion or even taking offense, as evidenced by a discussion Joie & Syd had with hosts in Aix-en-Provence, France.
“The French family was home when we arrived and in a conversation that afternoon they asked if we noted any differences they should be aware of while in the U.S.,” Joie explained. “We pointed out that Americans expected to be acknowledged in passing even if they did not know the person. We had experienced the opposite in France—unless the person knew you, they would not acknowledge or even look at you. We explained that this American Midwestern habit of a greeting even applied when passing others by car with a simple as raising a finger off the steering wheel. The French family found this U.S. custom amusing and strange.”
Karl Costabel, the owner of HomeLink USA, says: “We are, and I suspect will remain a niche market. Our main demographic is the psychological profile of the individual: They must be easygoing and open to the idea of turning over their home to a stranger. There is little middle ground. When a person hears about this, there are two common reactions, either ‘This is great, how do I join,’ or ‘You’d have to be totally deranged to offer your home to a stranger.’ I tell people openly that if they have any concerns about security they should not join as they would not be able to enjoy their vacation.”
Ed Kushins, 61, who founded HomeExchange in 1992 with one listing – his own – agrees to a point. “The idea of a stranger in your home isn’t just a potential concern; it is probably everyone’s primary concern if it’s their first experience. But by the time homes are actually exchanged, the person is anything but a stranger,” he said, citing all the information posted on each homeowner’s page on the website, the extensive communication leading to an exchange, and the ability to check references.
For a mainstream vacation alternative, Kushins sees home exchange as being at the tipping point of acceptance. He said 10 years ago his membership was skewed to teachers and retirees but today it’s also newlyweds, empty nesters, young families, and people with teenagers. Many have taken to the concept wholeheartedly.
“The popularity of home exchanging reflects major trends that are changing how we travel,” said Emmanuel Arnaud, CEO of the French company Guest-to-Guest, which acquired HomeExchange in 2017. “We are all closer today, the world is shrinking due to technology like computers, phones and low-cost air travel. We are all becoming neighbors.”
“In a hotel, or even in many AirBnBs, you have no way of knowing what country you are in by the decor,” he observed. “With home exchanging, you stay in a home that someone actually lives in, and the local culture is visible through the spices in the kitchen and the books and CDs on the shelves, the art on the walls, and even by the architecture of the structure itself.”
Ana Neto, of the Portuguese island of Madeira, agrees. She has done 28 home exchanges in the past 13 years with InterVac and found the structure of some of the homes she has stayed in to reveal aspects of the history and culture of that destination.
“In Amsterdam, we stayed in a very tall and narrow building, right in the center, next to a hotel and in front of the main museum, the Rijksmuseum,” she said. “My husband and I were traveling without our daughters, so it was just the two of us and we had five levels all to ourselves. It was very strange to be on the computer on the 5th floor, go down to the 1st floor to go to the toilet, go up to the 3rd floor to wash my hands (the bathroom was split into two parts on two different levels) and then back to the computer on the 5th floor. All because back in the sixteenth and seventh century, Dutch authorities levied taxes from citizens based in part on the width of their houses!”
“For my family, the greatest cultural difference was when we traveled to NY, as all our other exchanges were in Europe,” she explained. “We stayed in a beautiful penthouse on 96th Street with a view over Central Park. For us, it was very interesting ordering in Mexican food. Of course, we also order food back home, but I had never been given so many choices over the phone and I was very surprised to also get disposable plates and cutlery and napkins with our order.”
“The experience made me realize several cultural differences between NY and Madeira. In NY, ordering food in seems much more common and all kinds of restaurants seemed to have that option. Everything in the apartment we exchanged to was much bigger than back home… except for the kitchen, which was tiny according to our standards. It looked like people don’t cook their own food as often as in Portugal. Back home, I might order food once a month or even less than that.”
“I realized restaurants would only delivery within a certain number of blocks, which makes sense given the number of people on each block,” she continued. “In the whole of Funchal there are 150,000 people, and any restaurant that makes home deliveries covers at least the whole city.”
“The size of a city block in NY is still mind-boggling to me,” Ana said. “The building we stayed in didn’t feel that big compared to others in the area—and it had 400 apartments! It was the biggest building I have ever stayed at although it was not big by NY standards. My own apartment block where I lived in at the time had 14 apartments and it is the biggest on my street! I lived in Old Town Funchal, in a street that is actually 700 meters long and the oldest one in Madeira, dating back to the fifteenth century.”
Home exchanging offers not only cultural perspective but the ability to get the scoop on an area from locals—and make friends in the process.
The benefits to home exchanging are practical and social,” said Laura Foulkes of Westfield, MA. “By the time you get there, you already know the best bakery, the museum that is a ‘must-see,’ the road to avoid. If you want, you can meet everyday people, the exchange family’s friends and neighbors. We’ve been invited to wonderful dinners, been toured around town, and sipped wine in evening neighborhood get-togethers. We are still in touch with several of the families.”
Lisa Weiler of Lexington, MA said, “The people who own the house we stayed at in St. Lucia are restaurateurs, and we got to know some of their staff. I spent a lot of time talking with a woman who came to the house every day to wash the napkins from the restaurant. Meeting her was one of the most interesting aspects of being there for me. We were roughly the same age, and had a tremendous amount in common, although our lives are completely different.”
Scott Haas of Cambridge, MA, who with his wife, Laura, and two children have been home exchanging for more than 15 years, heard about the concept from a fellow parent while dropping his kids off at school. A member of Intervac, also dating to 1953, Haas and his family have traded homes in Venice; Lucerne, Switzerland; Toulouse, France; and Iceland, Greece, and Hawaii.
Haas listed the reasons they are committed exchangers: “Traveling with kids is, of course, expensive. It saved us tons of money. Having a kitchen is great. I love to cook. We could stay abroad longer. We were visitors rather than tourists. We were integrated into communities.”
The Haas family “paid it forward” while enjoying a month in Hawaii two years ago. Haas had approached a couple whose Maui home they had stayed in a decade earlier. The couple declined a second exchange, saying they were afraid of spending time away from home; one of their mothers, Ivy, was 95 and frail and living in a downstairs in-law apartment. Haas reminded the couple that his wife is a physician and in an emergency, they could be counted on. They accepted.
“We stayed in their gorgeous house and Ivy joined us nightly for ice cream and we got her fish dinners from a take-out place we all liked. In the morning we spent time with her feeding the tropical songbirds,” Haas said.
Home-Swapping: An Introduction to Cultural Traditions and Nuances
In making a home exchange, people often commit to a visit of two-four weeks which means slower travel that is not a “drive-by” or rushed experience affording only a superficial glimpse of a destination.
“Home exchanges are more than trips,” said Claudia Weston of San Diego, who with her husband RJ has done nine exchanges in the last five years with HomeLink. “They are revelations. Our recent exchange to Victoria and Vancouver, Canada, is just one example.”
“Our first day in a community is often spent just walking our new neighborhood. In Victoria, we strolled the beautiful and historic downtown area,” she recalled. “I glanced down at the marina and saw a graceful canoe with that iconic pacific northwest Indian artwork on it, alongside the usual retinue of yachts, sailboats, etc. This was our first clue. We only put together how deeply integrated the area was with their First Nation populations as we settled into our very Victorian exchange home.”
“As we passed through the month we saw street signs in both English and First Nation dialects,” she continued. “We noticed that in our neighborhood, local children had picked bottoms of telephone poles to paint, emulating the beautiful totem poles that seem to grow out of the landscape. Saturday morning TV included First Nation cartoon characters celebrating a potlatch ceremony. Aboriginal art graced everything from gift shop postcards to wall murals.”
“Victoria offers an entire museum, The Royal BC Museum, which pays tribute to the local indigenous population, the Coastal Salish and other Pacific Northwest tribes,” Claudia said. “This museum houses incredible examples of totem poles, masks, clothing, and other artifacts-colorful wooden pieces of British Columbian history. Amazing modern First Nation artists are featured as well, leaving visitors with a sense of who these people were and who they continue to be.”
“For example, we have never seen a Native American cartoon character,” she said. “Unless close to a reservation, Native American artwork is absent from gift stores or popular culture. These are superficial examples, yet point to the lack of “presence” and assimilation Native Americans typically have in our county.”
“Home exchanging, wherever you go, is the opportunity to live with the community,” Claudia said. ‘Looking underneath the typical one- or two-day turnaround in an area can be startling—in a good way. We are always surprised how different, and delightful, the local cultures are compared to what our inexperienced impressions were. It is amazing how much we don’t know and how fun it is to learn on a little bit deeper level.”
“What other mode of travel could be this deep?” she asked. “Home exchanging is, almost by definition, a seamless way to understand, enjoy and gratefully accept other cultures.”
Craig Stewart of New Zealand had the opportunity to immerse in a time-honored French cultural tradition while on a HomeLink exchange in 2016.
“Our first exchange was in France, where we stayed in a grand old family home in a small village named Mathieu, near Caen in Normandy,” he said. “Our French exchange partners had asked several of their groups of friends to contact us to make us feel welcome.”
“A few days after we arrived, we received a phone call from one couple who lived nearby and who invited us to their home for aperitifs a few days hence, “ Craig explained. “Of course we gratefully accepted their kind invitation.”
“However we had never experienced French aperitifs occasions before and had no idea what it entailed—but I had a feeling that there would likely be a considerable amount of etiquette and convention associated with these occasions,” he said. “I guessed it would be somewhat different to inviting some friends around to our home in New Zealand ‘for a few drinks’.”
“I spent quite some time searching the internet for the etiquette of French aperitif occasions. There was a wealth of suggestions available—the do’s and don’ts, what to take and what to not take by way of a gift, which flowers were acceptable and which were not, how long to stay, things that would be best not discussed—and so on. It was great fun doing the research.”
“We walked with some trepidation to our guests’ home and, despite some small language difficulties, we had the most marvelous time—it was wonderful fun. Lovely, friendly gracious people.”
“A further few days later, we had a similar invitation call from another couple and again we accepted. We went to their home and had a similar experience to the first one except these people had the most outrageous senses of humor and we spent the hour or so in fits of laughter. Again lovely people.”
“A few more days, and a third call. This time from a couple who lived in Paris, friends of our exchange partners, who were staying with other friends nearby. Of course, by this time we considered ourselves to be ‘experienced, old-hands aperitifs-goers—so this time it was our turn: ‘Would you like to come here for aperitifs with us’?”
“The third couple duly arrived and quite quickly we were all much at ease. They apparently did not embrace the ‘only two drinks’ rule—we had a ball. It turned out that he was a very high-ranking French civil servant who had involvement with New Zealand at times in his earlier career. They were a very interesting and convivial couple and we enjoyed their company immensely.”
“Later we reciprocated with individual aperitif invitations to the first two couples to come to our exchange home. These occasions were a delightful introduction to a very French custom and we felt honored to have had the opportunity to experience it. Apart from anything else, it was fun.”
Joie and Syd Galloway also got a similar chance to experience an authentic dimension of another culture while home swapping.
“The parents of our exchange family lived next door and invited their close golfing friends and us for tea one day,” Joie recalled. “One of these guests invited us to their home the next day and asked if we had ever ridden in a “narrowboat”. When we said ‘no’, she said she owned one and invited us to go out with her the next day.”
A narrowboat is made to fit the canals of the United Kingdom; the first of these played a key part in the economic changes of the Industrial Revolution and were drawn by a horse on a towpath. By the end of the 19th century, it was common practice to paint roses and castles on narrowboats and their fixtures and fittings. This tradition has continued into the 21st century.
“Syd got to steer the boat under the bridges and, at one point, the canal actually went over the top of the road!” Joie said. “Each couple at the tea invited us to their home and all were friendly and helpful. By letter and phone, we kept a friendship going for years.”
Joie also observed that cultural differences can occasionally create confusion and snafus in the exchanging process.
“A doctor from North Carolina wanted to have a family gathering at our home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina so we exchanged for his home on the island of Evia in Greece,” she said. “Before going to the Greek island, we met the doctor at one of his homes in North Carolina. He totally ignored me and wanted to only converse with Syd. I kept asking him logistical questions we needed to have answered in order to find his home. He kept telling me ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry.’ ”
“We had never gone to a home exchange without a key or clear directions to find the location,” she said. “The doctor told us to go to a particular restaurant and ask for ‘Jacque’. Well, we had multiple flight disruptions that significantly delayed our arrival on the island, and our luggage got lost in the process. By the time we got to the restaurant, it was after midnight and no “Jacques” was there because the restaurant was closed. We finally found some taxi drivers and despite the language barrier, they knew the name of the doctor whose home we wanted to find.”
“The taxi driver took us up a twisty road going up a mountain and brought us to the home of the doctor’s caretaker,” Joie recounted. “The taxi driver shouted ‘Maria!’ out into the silent darkness! He did it twice, and finally, an elderly lady appeared in her beaded doorway. We explained ‘no bags’; while she spoke no English, she clearly understood us, as she went inside and came back out with her deceased husband’s pajamas for Syd and a new nightgown for me. She took us to the doctor’s property, and Syd & I dropped into bed and fell fast asleep”
“The next morning we opened the shutters and lo, down in the courtyard stood Maria, a friend of hers who spoke English, a card table, a dish of figs from her tree and a homemade coffee cake,” Joie said. “We had a lovely breakfast with them.”
“Our cultural takeaway from this exchange?” Joie asked. “Don’t believe Greeks when they say ‘don’t worry,’ and appreciate the innate kindness of the people.”
Alexander Grit and Maaike de Jong of the Netherlands have made more than 15 HomeLink home exchanges, with three of those being with homeowners in Boulder, CO. Their experience of day-to-day American culture was nuanced but revelatory.
“Every Thursday night in Boulder is the crazy bike ride; people bike in funny dresses and the route develops,” Alexander said. “I watched the bikers and I liked the event for its positive energy and social nature. I wanted to bike with my wife and daughter. Two mountain bikes were available in the home, but no option for transporting a child. In the park, I saw a family of four and the youngest child was sitting in a two-seated bicycle for children.”
“I decided to have a chat with this family, and the chat lasted two hours,” he continued. “The next week, we did the Thursday bike ride together, and my daughter and the family’s daughter shared the child’s bicycle. During this home exchange vacation, we became friends and spent a lot of time in each other’s houses.”
“Our lives somehow become integrated and we became part of each other’s logistics,” he said. “Suddenly you know someone else’s agenda for the day, you eat together, take the kids to the sports clubs, meet their friends and parents. Our new friends owned companies and I learned a lot about the staff members and about taking risks. We let the dogs out and ate pizza at eleven o’clock at night and were present when the au pair was picked up by her boyfriend for an evening out. Our family became somehow integrated with the other family, however, this never was never actually discussed. My wife and the woman of this family shared a special interest and later, she and my wife became business partners.”
While on their second home exchange in Boulder, Alexander & Maaike enjoyed another instance of serendipity in a simple encounter.
“We visited the farmers’ market in Boulder center—the atmosphere was almost like one of these movies made about Woodstock festival,” Alexander said. “By walking through the market, I thought ‘How can I fit in, how can I be part of this? By buying a piece of organic cheese?’ As I was wondering this, my daughter found a stuffed mountain lion that was on display at the local police department booth. Finding this stuffed animal resulted in us talking to the volunteer for two hours with a cup of tea sitting on the stairs. He instructed my daughter how to avoid encounters with mountain lions. Moreover, he pointed us to his favorite hikes in the area and he spoke about his personal experiences on these hikes—which influenced our own experience in a positive way.”
On another visit to Boulder, Maaike got a glimpse of a cultural tradition not unique to that area, but one she would not necessarily have encountered without home exchanging.
“I was invited to a Seder meal by another Boulder family,” she said. “We learnt a lot about how one family celebrates Seder, bits and pieces of the Jewish faith, and family celebrations. Without our home exchanges in Boulder, this fantastic hospitality would not have been something that easily would have crossed my path as a tourist otherwise and I was very grateful for the friendship and cultural insight.”
Alexander’s interest in home exchanging extends beyond his own experience. As an international academic, he made this mode of travel the subject of his doctoral dissertation. From that perspective, he came to the conclusion that home exchanging is the antithesis of “McDonaldization,” a commercial process in which everything becomes commodified, mass-produced, and standardized in a constant drive to increase efficiency—one that results in predictable experiences. Alexander’s study identified home exchanging as a de-McDonaldization network, bringing back the human dimension to travel lodging and changing it from a transaction to an interaction, with participants experiencing valuable, transformative, unique experiences.
The number of home exchange platforms has grown since Intervac and HomeLink were founded more than six decades ago. Some companies now offer options beyond a simple reciprocal home-to-home swap that include a system that awards your home points based on its size and location, and non-simultaneous schemes that allow a third party to stay in your home on the basis of a previous exchange with another participant. And now there’s home exchanging for the elite, with Thirdhome, which has an initiation fee of $2500 and requires participants to own a luxury vacation home, and invitation-only group Behomm.
HomeLink owners Karl & Katie Costabel plan to stick to their knitting.
“We have no plans to shift from offering our members the same traditional, reciprocal, non-monetary home exchange opportunities we’ve been offering since our inception some 66 years ago,” Katie said. “This traditional type of home exchanging is what our members prefer and have come to expect.
“Whether the evaluation is anecdotal or analytical, the consensus is that home exchanging is a unique way to forge connections with your fellow man that are both global and local. With a plethora of programs to choose from, you’re sure to find a match suited for your personal style. What are you waiting for? Begin your cultural immersion as a home exchanger!