Friday, April 19, 2013

Trading spaces


This summer, for the third time in six years, we're participating in a home exchange. The first two times (winter of 2008 and summer 2012) were both in Northern France, in a town called Rouen, in Normandy. This summer we're heading south, to the Mediterranean town of Arles, in Provence.

Whenever people hear that were doing a home exchange, they ask a lot of questions about the details: how we find swaps, how we work out the details, if we worry about our stuff, etc. 

Here, in a nutshell, are my answers:

How do we find swaps?
Our first swap was pure chance. I was looking for a French class on the Portland Alliance Francaise website and noticed a little ad mentioning that an instructor with the school was looking for a swap for her parents, who lived in Rouen. It happened that they wanted to come during the winter holidays and that Anna was young enough then that time of year (i.e. school schedule) wasn't an issue yet. The same family contacted us three years later to ask if we'd be available to swap again, this time in summer. We gladly accepted that offer as well.

Now, I do have to point out that my own personal philosophy comes into play here. It is this: if the universe (or a random French family) offers you an opportunity, you take it and figure out the logistics later. I'm a firm believer in saying “YES!”

This year I decided to go ahead and sign up on One nice thing about these kinds of websites is that they allow you to be very specific about what you're looking for. We are willing to consider any destination, which gives us a lot more opportunities, but we're only available in the summer.

We received a lot of inquiries through, but most of them didn't really fit our interests or timing. Then I heard from Peter, whose location sounded great but the timing was off. Nonetheless we corresponded and it turned out he was flexible with the timing. A little bit more talking and a house swap in Arles for this summer was arranged. :-)

How do we know it's legit?
Honestly, we don't. Here's where trusting your gut comes into play. There's a certain amount of due diligence that one can put in (asking for, and calling, other folks they've swapped with, for example), but you really can't know for sure. There is always the possibility that when we get where we're going, it won't be what we were expecting. That said, so far those types of issues have been minor, and always unintentional (like the bizarre bathtub issue we had in 2008!) Ultimately it's chalked up to part of the adventure, and is always something we laugh about later.

How can we afford it?
The biggest advantage we have is that David is able to work remotely. The first time we swapped, David and I were both freelancers, and we both had active client work we took with us on the trip. Currently David is an employee at the fabulous iovation, and they've understood and supported our desire to have this flexibility (thanks, Kurk!).

Because we're trading homes (and cars), the expenses stay very much the same as at home. We continue to pay our mortgage, utilities, etc., and our hosts pay theirs. Where it can (and does) get expensive is with plane tickets. In the few years we've been doing this we've seen costs rise dramatically. That said, we've found a few workarounds:

  • Frequent flyer tickets: We have, and use, Delta Amex cards. Delta partners with Air France, so we've been able to accumulate miles over the years. Of the six tickets we've had to France over the past years, I believe we've only paid for 2 of them.
  • This year we had some major sticker shock looking for tickets, so we decided to try the new website, Their angle is that they make a game out of your travel plans, inviting “experts” to compete to find the best rate/route for you. They claim to save most folks an average of 30%. We took a chance and paid their $24 fee, which definitely paid off — ultimately they saved us over $1,000. Yes, we have two layovers instead of one, and it's not on Delta so we won't get those frequent flier miles (we will get them on British Airways, however). But for a $1000 savings it was well worth it to us. 
  • Consolodators: Through FlighFox we learned of ticket consolidators, specifically Though their tickets are nonrefundable, the savings are impressive.

Don't we worry about our stuff?
In a word, no. This is an easy one for us, but I think very difficult for most folks. Doing this has really brought home the idea that our stuff is just stuff. That said, shit happens. Things can and do get broken, and that goes both ways. We did some minor damage to our host's car last summer and we felt terrible. We explained the situation, had them get an estimate to fix the damage, and paid up. It was a bummer for everyone, but no one was hurt and no one was angry.

The one thing we do worry about is our cats. So far we've asked that whomever stays here takes care of them, and that hasn't been a problem, yet. I wouldn't let our cats be a dealbreaker as far as working out a swap, but it would definitely be harder to pull off with someone who couldn't, or wouldn't, be okay with them staying at home.

So now what?
Well, we're off to Arles for two months this summer (late June to late August). We've never been to that part of France and really didn't know much about it, but it sounds amazing. Roman architecture dating from the 5th-6th centuries, the Camargue (a marshland populated with wild horses and flamingoes), and the quality of light made famous by Van Gogh (he made over 300 paintings there, including Starry Night and The Night Café). I'll be blogging about this new adventure, which promises to be very different than our times in Normandy. Arles is very much a Mediterranean town, with a population made up from Northern Africa and Spain as well as the French.

I first posted the quote below last June, but it really sums up my attitude about these adventures, and about life in general. I hope you've found some inspiration here for cliff jumping:

“Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.”
— Ray Bradbury

Happy travels!