*Not quite. You will have to purchase transportation, food and your travel-reading of choice.
Long before Airbnb (and before we all grew weary of the term “sharing economy”), thrifty, adventurous travelers saved money on vacations by participating in home swaps–my NYC apartment for your Cape Cod bungalow, my Catskills cabin for your South Beach condo. Swappers find each other via listings in the back of travel magazines, or by going through a swapping service. Or, for the internet savvy, I highly recommend using the Housing Swap listings on Craigslist. With three successful swaps under my belt, I’m here to tell you it’s an easy alternative to the potential legal headaches involved with Airbnb.
If you read the recent New York Times story about house swapping, you may have thought, “neat concept, but I don’t have a Manhattan townhouse or a 4,000-square-foot loft, or a pied-à-terre overlooking the Seine to trade.” Trust me, great swaps are possible with normal New York apartments. Indeed, the whole concept may have you thinking, “Ohmygod strangers in my house and they’ll rob me blind and hold orgies in my breakfast nook and eeeeew my mattress and my Xbox and that is just crazy.”
Let’s examine that reaction for a moment. Is it really weirder than sleeping in a hotel previously inhabited by whom doing what exactly? And what about that stranger you had in your bed four months ago, did you call the FBI first? Have you forgotten that the term is “swap” not “pillage”?
* You may even have the thing travelers desperately want: a nice, relaxing apartment in Manhattan, Brooklyn or Queens. Have you been in a hotel room in New York? They are even tinier than your place.
* The idea of a swap may freak you out a bit, but ultimately…
* …you aren’t putting anything at risk that your fellow swapper isn’t.
* You won’t regret it.
My boyfriend and I are three-time swappers having traded our Hell’s Kitchen apartment for Christmas holidays in the Ebisu area of Tokyo, an art-filled week in Berlin’s Kreuzberg and a two-week winter getaway just steps from Waikiki Beach in Oahu. Not a penny changed hands; we were letting “friends” stay in our place and we in theirs. Upon return, the only thing different in our place was finding, say, a carton of leftover milk in the fridge or a thank-you note on the table. Terrifying.
Multiple vacation swap sites exist, but Craigslist is free, global and has worked for me.
Here’s the basic, risk-reducing tutorial:
1. Answer someone else’s ad rather than post your own. The poster is taking the first step, ergo, is taking the first risk, not you. Look both on the New York Craigslist and on the local Craigslist of the place you seek. Your friendly reply should be brief, stating your interest in trading places, your timeframe and basics on what your housing offers. If the poster is serious, they will get back to you within 24 hours.
2. Exchange a couple of emails about the details of what each of you want and offer. It’s like online dating, you need enough information to take it to the next step, but not everyone’s life story. During these emails you learn and reveal: everyone’s full name, the address of each property, the mutually agreed dates of travel, pictures of the apartment interior and a time to have a phone/Skype conversation. This voice contact is crucial–even if everyone does not speak perfect English–you need to hear this person in order to trust, and vice versa. You will also be Googling your swapper and Google mapping the property to see if all stories line up.
3. After speaking to your swapper, buy the airline tickets. This is the moment of truth. The moment you trust that this swap is going to happen and that you can drop a bunch of non-refundable ticket money. Ideally, your fellow swapper is also making this purchase at the same time (though some posters know they are coming to NYC and seek swaps for specific dates, tickets already in hand). With our Hawaiian house-swap pal, we hung up from our conversation, all bought tickets and then exchanged email confirmations within 15 minutes.
4. Be helpful to each other prior to swapping. Email about how to exchange/pick up keys We’ve mailed keys, met people as we left, picked up keys under a doormat, whatever works best for your situation–enticing a friend to welcome your guests can work, too, though it might drive your total expenditure up to a neat souvenir or a bottle of wine.
Create and send a guide to your building and neighborhood listing MTA stop, laundry options, wifi password, grocery stores, super’s name or a local contact and whatever you want to know about where you’re staying. Leave a copy in your kitchen, too.
Notify your doorman and/or immediate neighbors that your friend “Ron” will be staying in your apartment for a bit so they don’t call the cops.
Clean your apartment–duh. Put fresh bedding and towels out. Check the toilet paper supply. Stash away all valuables in a secure location or with a friend. Nothing is going to happen, but you’ll feel better.
5. Savor your free vacation home. Let your swapper know when you’ve successfully entered their place, and have them email you the same. No need for daily phone or email contact, but keep lines of communication open. We had a freak rainstorm in Hawaii that caused a flood in the living room. Our swapper said, “No worries. It happens once a year or so.” We mopped and went back to snorkling.
Okay, get a move on already. Today’s Craigslist postings have Paris, Miami, San Francisco, Chicago, Milan and Maui on offer. You better click before I do.