by Janis Fisher Chan

Our traveling life started late:  once our kids were on their own, we moved from the dark, sprawling home they’d grown up in to a compact, sunny home overlooking a marsh where snowy egrets stalked their breakfast. But we were restless.  We wanted to spend a couple of months in Rome, where we had good friends. We wanted to go to Paris, Mexico, China…just about anywhere.  We had the time. What we didn’t have was the money.  The only way we could afford the kind of traveling we wanted to do was to swap or rent out our sunny new home.  So that’s what we did!

Over the past couple of decades, we’ve traveled for a month or more at a time every year.  We’ve done home exchanges, and we’ve done short-term rentals.  Both accomplish our dual purpose: to make travel affordable, and to make sure someone is caring for our home while we’re away. Still, there are some big differences between them.

Home exchange is more personal than short-term rental

With both home exchange and short-term rental, you agree to let strangers live in your personal space. But with home exchange, you also live in theirs, creating an odd sort of intimacy.

For that reason and others, home exchanges work best when you and your partner share some sense of what’s important about the place you live in. If you like elegant surroundings, you’ll have a hard time feeling at home if an exchange partner’s pad has thrift-shop furniture and needs paint.  If your exchange partners crave spacious light-filled rooms, they may find your ground-floor studio apartment a little depressing.

Clear communication is even more essential for home exchanges

Problems with short-term rentals and home exchanges can nearly always be traced back to poor communication. A few email exchanges are not enough to avoid the surprises and misunderstandings that can ruin your trip – and in extreme cases, your home.

The back-and-forth of an ongoing conversation with prospective tenants and exchange partners helps you get to know them, clarify expectations and spot issues that indicate a poor fit or other possible problems. But short-term rentals are business transactions, while home exchanges are built on a foundation of trust.  You need ongoing, direct communication to build that trust.

Home exchanges require lots of flexibility

We get lots of inquiries for home exchanges in August (which is when many Europeans travel) and exchanges in suburban neighborhoods like ours.  But we like to travel in the spring or fall, and we prefer cities to the suburbs or the countryside. That’s why we started to rent out our home.  Renting out our home while we’re away and renting a place at our destination gives us more control over our when we travel and where we stay.  

Home exchanges require flexibility in other ways, too. Home exchange agreements are not firm contracts, secured by money.  You have no recourse if a home exchange partner decides to cancel at the last minute.  That doesn’t happen often, but it does happen, so it’s important to make backup plans.

But there’s an upside.  Home exchanges also offer unexpected opportunities.  We hadn’t planned a trip to Mexico this spring, but an exchange request for a beautiful home in San Miguel de Allende landed in my inbox in early February.  Three weeks later we were on our way.

Home exchange can be an adventure

When you book a hotel room, you usually know what to expect.  That’s not always the case with a home exchange, especially when you travel abroad. Your exchange home might be located in a neighborhood that tourists never visit (one of the best things about home exchanges!) Neighbors and shopkeepers might not speak your language. Grocery stores will carry unfamiliar products. Using hot water heaters, washers, and other appliances can be tricky.  Most exchange partners leave some instructions, but mostly you’ll be left to figure things out on your own.

Home exchange helps you get to know a new community

Many vacation rental hosts leave maps, guidebooks, and other information to help their guests find their way around. Home exchange partners might do that as well. But home exchange partners are more likely than rental hosts to delight in sharing their favorite places to shop, their favorite cafes and restaurants, hidden bike and walking trails, off-the-beaten path attractions, and more.  They are also more likely than vacation rental hosts to introduce you to their neighbors and friends, helping you forge new connections with people you would otherwise never have met.

Home exchange isn’t right for every trip

What if you plan to drive through the villages of northern Spain, hike in the Canadian wilderness, or take a cruise?  A home exchange won’t work.  If you want someone to stay in our home while you’re away and/or need to stretch your travel budget, you’ll need to look for a short-term tenant instead.

Janis Fisher Chan is a writer and passionate traveler who recently launched TravelontheHouse.com to provide information, tips, and advice about home exchange and short-term rentals.  You can reach her at janis@travelonthehouse.com.

A version of this post originally appeared on TravelontheHouse.com.

Addendum from Dawn @ ShareTraveler:

I really like this post from Janis for the clarity it brings to distinctions between home exchanges and short-term rentals. I also want to mention one thing Janis left out: the option of non-simultaneous points-based swapping as a way to “earn” exchange credits while you’re away on a cruise or hiking in the wilderness. And also a potential way to find several short swaps in the villages in northern Spain spending points for each night. Points-based exchanging isn’t for everyone, but it’s definitely an option to consider if you aren’t able to make simultaneous home exchanges work for all of your travels.