How to Stretch Your Travel Budget: Free Home Exchange Accommodation

Today's post was contributed by my friend Nola Beard. As I am uploading her post she is enjoying the sun in a home exchange in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Please give Nola a warm welcome, enjoy, and please share her post. Thanks very much Nola!

nola beardNola Beard is a passionate travel speaker, trainer and writer, and founder of New Take Travel, the source for ‘How to Travel Often & Richly Within Your Budget’. She is obsessed with travel, a lover of beautiful hotels and a home exchange aficionado, having completed more than 25 exchanges to date.



Vacation vs. Travel Budget

We all have budgets to manage, and we have to work it all in somehow: mortgage or rent payments, groceries, car, gas, taxes, know the drill.

There’s not always a lot left for vacations.

But does a tight travel budget mean you have to lower your standards? Not even close.

By the way, free might sound good, but what do you really expect to get for free?

Hold that thought.

Tight Budget Tricks

home exchange

Visions of camping memories, Sunshine Coast, British Columbia

A modest travel budget has never scared me.  Campground memories can’t be beat and I wouldn’t trade my hostelling trips for the world. But that’s not my dream for every vacation.

The major vacation budget busters are transportation, accommodation and meals. So how do you stretch your travel budget?

Transportation is easy: Airline reward points if you have them, seat sales if you find them and driving trips if you don’t.

What about accommodation and meals? Do you book vacation rental homes so you don’t have to eat out for every meal? Do you content yourself with clean and basic rooms? Do you wait for off-season rates? Are you a Priceline or Hotwire groupie? (Me too!)

I used all those tactics and still do. But eight years ago I discovered something that made discounted accommodation sound much less impressive.

I found accommodation that’s not only free but more comfortable, too.

Travel Budget Meet Home Exchanging

home exchange living room

Our ocean view home exchange, Washington State, USA

I learned that I could trade my home with other travelers almost anywhere in the world. I’d stay in their home and they could stay in mine. For free. It’s called home exchanging or home swapping.

I’ve done 25 home swaps: New York City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Washington DC, San Francisco, Virginia, Lago di Garda Italy...

So far, I’ve stayed for free 166 nights – no taxes, no tips; parking and Internet access included. If an average hotel night costs $120 then I’ve saved...$20,000.

But in reality I’ve saved a lot more because I’ve had a lot of free nights in the heart of expensive cities. In fact, the year I home swapped for 8 days in Manhattan, the average price of a hotel room was $404/night. Then there was my 1st home exchange in pricey Washington, DC. And there are all the restaurant meals I’ve avoided thanks to having kitchens, too.

How would a $120/night hotel room compare to the 6,000 square foot house on 24 acres shown in the photo above?

And, it was free.

An Ultra-Budget Home Exchange Vacation

home exchange kitchen

Our future oceanfront home exchange, Whidbey Island, Washington State, USA

So what does a real life example of a super-budget home exchange vacation look like? Here’s one.

Just this week I accepted an offer to swap our home for this three bedroom, two bathroom waterfront vacation house. The family of four will use our home to stay for free during their spring break vacation week, but we can use theirs anytime.

It’s about a two hour drive for us to get there and there’s a small town nearby with conveniences, coffee shops and casual dining. 

Our days will be filled with exploring the waterfront and nearby parks, farmers’ markets and artisan studios. Our exchangers even tell us they fish salmon from the beach. With comfortable sofas, a stereo, a flat screen TV and some good books, we’ll still be content (and dry!) on a rainy day.

If we have a budget for activities, there’s a golf course, whale watching and kayaks for rent. If we’re desperate for bargains we could drive about 80 minutes to a major outlet mall, too. We could treat ourselves to a lunch or dinner in town, but we could equally eat very well and happily in that beautiful kitchen.

The bottom line? A week of exceptional waterfront vacation comfort for as little as:

  • Transportation: 200 miles worth of gas, or a rental car if needed.
  • Accommodation: $0. (Except for the home exchange web site membership fee, see below.)
  • Restaurant meals: $0.
  • Activities: $0.
  • Welcome card and bottle of wine for home exchangers: $25

And we won’t even have to pitch a tent.

Home Exchange Basics

home exchange view

Our future oceanfront home exchange, Whidbey Island, Washington State, USA

Almost anyone with a home can home exchange. It can be a family home or executive home, urban studio or rural retreat. It just needs to be clean and in good repair.

Home exchangers use home swap websites to list their home with photos and descriptions. They search for homes in destinations they’re interested in, and send and receive offers via secure and confidential message systems.

Although there are free ones, for several reasons I only recommend home exchange websites that charge a membership fee. It’s usually a flat annual fee (regardless of how many exchanges you might arrange) ranging $80-150 USD.

My Take

Home exchanging is the single best way I know to make the most of your vacation budget and travel in comfort, too. Yes of course I still use traditional accommodation, but by adding home swaps to the mix I can see a lot more of the world than my budget would otherwise allow.

If you want to slash travel costs without slashing comfort, a home exchange is the ultimate solution.

Your Take

How could your vacations change if you could stay for free?


    • John S @ Frugal Rules

      John S @ Frugal Rules 01/28/2013 6:51 a.m. #

      Great post! My wife and I have been wanting to try something like this for some time, though I question how much someone would want our three little ones running around in their house. :)

      • Nola Beard

        Nola Beard 01/28/2013 4:14 p.m. #

        How about another family with the same? :) Homes that are fully equipped with toys, playpens, etc. for kids are a bonus for traveling families.

        I'd love to hear if you do try it. And I'm happy to answer questions for you along the way.

    • AverageJoe

      AverageJoe 01/28/2013 8:18 a.m. #

      Wow! Those are some gorgeous properties. While we have a beautiful home, would anyone want to come to Texarkana while we're staying in their beachfront house? Don't get me sounds like an awesome trade to me....

      • Nola Beard

        Nola Beard 01/28/2013 4:30 p.m. #

        Arkansas or Texas? If Texas, I just saw a listing for someone who's exchanged 4 times.

        You never know :) People travel for all kinds of reasons. They need a place to stay when sightseeing, attending weddings and family reunions, visiting kids in college, giving their kids a rural vs. urban (or vice versa) experience, outdoor activities like fishing or hiking... Maybe using a central home as a home base for day trips.

        There might be someone within about a 3 hour drive who'd like a change of scene and a long weekend away in a nice home like yours, too. Don't discount it too quickly! Connect with me directly if you'd like.

    • Jacob

      Jacob 01/28/2013 10:37 a.m. #

      Nice! I recognize those views, looks like Edmonds or Mukilteo WA (I'm a local). I like the idea, not only do you get to go somewhere on the cheap, but you can have a WHOLE FLIPPIN' HOUSE! Not bad, not bad at all. I may have ot look further into this :) Thanks for the info!

      • Nola Beard

        Nola Beard 01/28/2013 4:45 p.m. #

        My pleasure! The upcoming one is on Whidbey Island, the big one on the hill was near Fairhaven.

        I truly love a good hotel but I've become fussy now and would actually prefer to have separate areas to kick back in. A whole house is a bonus!

    • Grayson @ Debt Roundup

      Grayson @ Debt Roundup 01/28/2013 10:38 a.m. #

      This is something that intrigues me, but I am sure that no one would want to plop in the middle of a crappy neighborhood with no view, so that I can live in their nice house for free. Plus, I don't trust people that I don't know enough to allow them in my home. This is something that would not go over well in my mind.

      • Nola Beard

        Nola Beard 01/28/2013 4:58 p.m. #

        Thanks for your comment, Grayson.

        A truly crappy neighbourhood and truly crappy house? Likely not. The house does have to be clean and in good repair. Then, if it provides free accommodation for a person when they need or want to be in the area? An exchange may well go through. We have a nice home, but when I'm approached by a very basic home for a sunny place during the winter? Trust me, I'm very motivated to kick back in a basic home that is likely equally or more comfortable than a basic hotel room.

        Certainly not everyone trusts enough to allow people in their home. Usually experienced exchangers respond that they are comfortable because
        1) "we are in their home and they are in ours" (basically, mutual respect) and
        2)they build a rapport with them during exchange discussions before committing and know that they can evaluate each swap offer as they receive it. That's why, for those who are really on the fence but tempted, I suggest they list their home for a year and see how they feel about it as they connect with people.

        Some exchange websites also offer insurance, if that were to address your particular concerns.

      • eemusings

        eemusings 01/30/2013 6:45 p.m. #

        Yeah, we aren't yet at the stage where we could really partake in exchanges! We've always lived with other people, or in tiny dark studios in the burbs I can't imagine anyone would want to visit, even for free. Perhaps in the future though! We currently partake in couchsurfing and when we eventually buy a house I'd like to look into Airbnb and exchanges.

        • Nola Beard

          Nola Beard 02/06/2013 3:46 p.m. #

          Makes sense! I haven't done the couchsurfing thing but have done Airbnb and both those experiences (a townhouse in Spain and a bedroom/bath in Palm Desert, California) were great. Happy travels!

    • krantcents

      krantcents 01/28/2013 10:42 a.m. #

      Some of my best vacation memories were when our children were small and budgets tight. We shared a house on the beach with friends and split the cost. We cooked or brought food to keep the expenses low, but still managed to have fun. As we started to make more money we added a night out. It was the best of times. We did that for years.

      • Nola Beard

        Nola Beard 01/28/2013 4:32 p.m. #

        Thanks for sharing that. I absolutely agree! We now have our 'bigger' vacations but can add more of these very comfortable low-cost ones in between. Especially when we can take friends, they've been great times away! And, as you say, you tailor each trip to your budget at the time.

    • DC @  Young Adult Money

      DC @ Young Adult Money 01/28/2013 10:56 a.m. #

      I agree with Grayson on this one. I doubt anyone would trade for a suburban home that has no view and is not on a lake. I wouldn't trust people I don't know either and the hassle of locking up all my stuff would pretty much make it too much of a hassle to be worth my time.

      • Nola Beard

        Nola Beard 01/28/2013 4:42 p.m. #

        Hi DC!

        As for suburban home vs. lakefront -- remember that while it's always a bonus to stay in a nice place, people don't usually travel *to* stay in a home. People travel and need *a* home to stay in. Usually their alternative is a hotel room and, often, that's not hard to beat with a suburban home! It might be the only way someone can afford to see a city they want to see.

        I've traded my 1300sf apartment for a 400sf studio apartment -- because I wanted to visit the city it was in. I've also traded the same urban apartment for the home on 26 acres in the middle of nowhere for a retreat experience.

        Exchanging is largely about mutual respect. You're in their home and they're in yours. Trust varies by person and this isn't for everyone. You judge each offer you get and the exchangers who are contacting you individually. You're never obligated to accept.

        As for lock-up, again this varies by person. We have little we secure (just a filing cabinet) and that effort far outweighs the number of trips and places we see thanks to the savings.

        Thanks for your comments!

    • Pauline

      Pauline 01/28/2013 11:05 a.m. #

      Great post! So far I have stayed with couchsurfing at people's place but now that I have a home I'd like to start swapping. Guatemala is quite a sought after destination and with a lakefront property I guess it can be easy to find swaps. I imagine people accept mainly similar properties (a 3 bed for a 3 bed)?

      • Nola Beard

        Nola Beard 01/28/2013 4:50 p.m. #

        You're right - I hear more and more talk of Guatemala and lakefront is always a bonus for people.

        'Equality' is definitely not a must with exchanging. Picture it: A couple with a 3 bed/3 bath house wants to go to San Francisco and someone with a studio apartment there sends them an offer. It's nicely furnished, is well located and their dates coincide. That offer will likely be accepted.

        In fact, to ensure they don't miss out on offers, some people with extraordinary homes actually state in their listing, "Please contact us if you are interested. To us, travel is about experiencing the destination and we do not require a comparable home."

        Hope that helps. I'm open for questions!

    • Corina Ramos

      Corina Ramos 01/28/2013 11:14 a.m. #

      Oh my, I caught myself just gazing at the pictures and imaging I was there! It doesn't look like travel is in my budget right now but it is definitely part of my retirement plan! These are some great ideas Nola shared and I'm keeping these in mind when I'm ready to hit the open road!

      Hope you Ladies are having a great day, have a wonderful week!

      • Nola Beard

        Nola Beard 01/28/2013 5:01 p.m. #

        Thanks Corina! There are definitely times I pinch myself (even when I'm in a basic home because I'd rather have basic accommodation for free vs. paying $80/night for it!) and it's certainly part of our retirement plans. In fact, I dream of the day I have a retiree's schedule to be able to exchange at will.

        Great week wishes to you, too!

    • Shannon @ The Heavy Purse

      Shannon @ The Heavy Purse 01/28/2013 11:25 a.m. #

      Interesting article. I've heard of home exchanges, but haven't personally tried them. It certainly appears that Nola has stayed in some lovely homes and saved quite a bundle doing so. There are definitely ways to afford nice vacations on a budget with a little creativity.

      • Nola Beard

        Nola Beard 01/28/2013 5:05 p.m. #

        Thanks Shannon! We have stayed in some extraordinary homes, and a few more ordinary ones, too.

        As for creativity, I always assure people that this is not the *only* way I travel. I still love a good hotel and all-inclusive resorts when I can afford them. But staying free means I can afford to travel while I save for those. Cheers!

    • Kim@Eyesonthedollar

      Kim@Eyesonthedollar 01/28/2013 3:54 p.m. #

      I would consider that but we have dogs and a small kid, so our house always seems to need something painted and our furniture is pretty bad because I don't want to buy anything new until our daughter is older and not so messy. Maybe I could trade with someone else with small kids.

      • Nola Beard

        Nola Beard 01/28/2013 5:10 p.m. #

        Hi Kim - Lots of people with kids and pets, and 'typical' family homes do exchange. And, exchangers are a pretty good representation of the average population --families included-- few of whom live like kings!

        So although the designer Paris penthouse will attract countless offers, don't discount yours too quickly. I'd suggest you take a look at the FAQs on my site where I suggest home exchange websites that allow you to browse their listings before becoming a member. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.

    • KK @ Student Debt Survivor

      KK @ Student Debt Survivor 01/28/2013 8:56 p.m. #

      I've heard a lot about home swaps lately. I think it could be fun if you find the right person to swap with. Anybody want to swap NYC for a beach house? I could use a little sun right now :-)

      • Nola Beard

        Nola Beard 01/29/2013 12:42 p.m. #

        Ooh! I feel your pain :) I live in winter-sun-shy Vancouver and my recent Florida home swap was so welcomed!

        So, I couldn't resist. In a quick look at one site I saw listings for couples in Mexico, the Canary Islands and Florida that have specified wanting a NYC home swap for Feb/Mar. Gotta love it!

        Hope you have a chance to try exchanging some time. In the meantime, for some dream-time, you could check out the link near the bottom of the post, right above the "My Take" title. That's where i list some websites that you can browse without becoming a member. Cheers!

        • KK @ Student Debt Survivor

          KK @ Student Debt Survivor 01/29/2013 8:50 p.m. #

          Nice, I'll definitely take a look. It would be great to be able to swap and not have to spend any money on hotels. Mexico sounds lovely.

          • Nola Beard

            Nola Beard 01/30/2013 11:14 a.m. #

            Sure. If you have any questions along the way, just let me know.

Comments are closed.