A home swap holiday is a brilliantly simple concept, but it's normal for families to have reservations. Nicki Grihault investigates the world of home swapping and talks to families who've been there, done it
Seen the film The Holiday and fancy staying in a cute cottage or an LA mansion for a spell? As the average British family spends up to two months’ salary on their summer holiday – with most of it going on accommodation – home-swapping is a no-brainer for families travelling for longer periods. It’s a simple idea. You offer your own home to travellers, while staying in other people’s homes for free while travelling the globe. Although home-swapping has been around since the 1950s, international websites such as Love Home Swap have breathed new life into the concept
Set up just five years ago, Love Home Swap is now the largest home swapping club worldwide, with 85,000 homes in 160 countries to choose from. It offers a two week free trial - and membership costs from £12 a month. Described as 'like a dating site but for your home', you pick a home you want to stay in, from a range of stylish properties, make the swap (either directly with the owner or through a clever points swapping system) and then off you go.
Unlike the instantaneous swap depicted on The Holiday, it takes a bit of effort to secure your dream property, from de-cluttering your home and taking decent pictures, to creating a personalised family profile and searching for places to stay and communicating with possible swaps. It requires trust on both sides. An obvious benefit of home swapping is the cost savings a family makes in staying in someone else’s home while opening your kids' eyes to the world.
Less obvious perks include homey conveniences on hand, from salt and pepper and kitchen towel to toys for the kids, which take the stress out of travel. Home swapping tempts families to consider travelling to places off their radar and allows them to travel like a local, as a part of the neighbourhood.
The Reillys met on a revolving dancefloor in Mexico in 2004, and as David is from the UK and his wife Alicia is from San Diego in California, they have a reason to travel. ‘We’ve been travelling to San Diego for over a decade to visit my family,’ says Alicia. ‘But now our family has grown, we’ve had enough of sleeping on couches and staying in spare rooms, and need our own space.’
As a lecturer and TV producer, David has summers off, so last year, with two toddlers in tow (Dylan three and Samantha 18 months), they wanted to find a way to spend the whole six weeks on the other side of the pond. They had considered house swapping before, but had worried about everything from their place being too small to swap, to potentially ending up with an illegal rave or their furniture on eBay. Perhaps even stumbling, jet-lagged, off the plane at the other end to find the advertised home didn’t exist. However, given the length of time they planned to be away, they put their fears aside, and decided to give it a try.
Failing to find a direct swap through Facebook, they considered a few house swapping websites before deciding on Love Home Swap. It featured stylish homes, including a good choice in San Diego, and was user-friendly. David uploaded their home in Fleet, Hampshire, they got hits straight away.
‘It’s not usually as simple as grabbing a coffee, jumping on your computer, choosing a house you like the look of and agreeing on a deal before your drink’s gone cold,’ says David. ‘It can take some time – and effort – to seal a deal.’ The Reillys took out a top tier platinum membership to give them enough points for a weeks’ accommodation – and complimentary airport lounge passes – and in a few weeks they had their first swap: a gorgeous big house a mile from the beach, with some great surfing spots, including one made famous by the Beach Boys, in Encinitas near San Diego. The ultra-modern furnishings made the house feel like a boutique hotel but it was comfortable and family-friendly.
‘Dylan still talks about the Star Wars themed bedroom and the cool zipline in the garden in Encinitas,’ laughs Alicia. ‘And the outdoor hot tub, which the whole family piled into after a day at the beach.’ After swapping their home for more points from members in Sweden and Spain, they scored a second week in the posh suburb of La Jolla (pronounced La Hoya), home to some of the most expensive homes in the world. Within 15 minutes’ walk was Windansea beach, with rock-pools to explore and La Jolla Cove, famous for its seals. The house had a fitted kitchen, complete with a steak searing grill and pizza oven for outdoor living. The Reillys were able to host family and friends for a BBQ.
‘Home swapping is a travel revolution,’ says David. ‘Thanks to Love Home Swap, we had two amazing beach-town properties for our two week stay in California, all for a £240 membership fee – the same price as two nights at a hotel during our Route One Road Trip, and a fraction of the cost of renting similar homes there in high season - around £3,500 per week.’
‘Home swapping was the most relaxing and fun trip we’ve had,’ says Alicia. ‘Yet it’s the cheapest. Home swapping ticks all our boxes, and creates a great community spirit. We now can’t imagine travelling any other way.’
After 15 years living in Singapore, Dan and Clair Prince felt the need to slow life down and spend time as a family while their four kids were still young. Inspired by the book The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss, they wanted to have a change and a break, but as a family of six, the cost of accommodation made it impossible to travel for very long. Coming across Love Home Swap, which was free to join, they listed their house in Ko Samui, Thailand – and got a flurry of interest from exciting places all over the world.
So in March 2014, when Kaitlyn was eight, Sophia six, and twins Lauren and Samuel were three, Dan quit his job in finance and the Princes left Singapore to use the power of home swapping to travel the globe. ‘We left as soon as the twins were out of nappies and we didn’t need a pushchair,’ said Clair. ‘We’ve been continuously travelling for two years now, and have done almost 50 swaps.’
I caught up with the Princes on a swap in a southern Spanish mountain village near Marbella, where they’d visited Granada, Gibraltar, Rhonda, Malaga and Seville. ‘Every place we visit is a springboard for learning,’ says Dan. ‘Our weekend in Seville, for example, gave us the chance to teach the children about the Spanish inquisition and the Arab invasion, and explore the largest cathedral in the world.’
Some swaps have been direct, and others not, and last from a weekend to a month. They have ranged from a 10-acre smallholding with cats, chickens and goats on the beach in New Zealand’s South Island, to an illuminating swap with a Jewish couple from Amsterdam whose parents went to school with Anne Frank in Amsterdam, following Caitlin’s interest in Anne Frank’s Diary and a beautiful, comfortable house on Bowen island near Vancouver with stunning views of the British Columbian mountain ranges across the water.
The children, who are being ‘roadschooled’, usually learn hello, please and thank you in the language of the places they visit. They love sampling the local food, and in Spain they tried almond cookies, and learned how to bake them. ‘Staying in a home, as opposed to a hotel, you get to see a country for what is,’ says Dan. ‘And, we have saved over £35,000 on accommodation by home swapping. Having missed European culture, the Princes have stayed homes in France, Switzerland and Italy, including a week in Rome’s city centre - a great history lesson for the kids.
The family fell in love with Croatia, exploring from their base - a 400-year- old villa on the tiny far-flung island of Vis, with crystal clear waters and a rugged landscape, dotted by vineyards, olive groves and centuries-old churches, and with the hospitable owners living nearby, to show them around.
‘Children are very adaptable, more than parents often given them credit for,’ says Dan. ‘Our children have learned such a lot, made new friends and have such fantastic memories to take home, and we have had time together as a family.’
‘In Amsterdam, there was so much history, and we got to go ice skating, and in Switzerland, we went to the mountains - it was the first time we’d seen snow,’ says 10-year-old Kaitlyn. ‘Kids think it’s so cool that we don’t go to school. We’ve learned so much, and it’s really really fun.’ Sophia [now 8] tells me how she had to get up at one in the morning on her seventh birthday to leave for Croatia – ‘the longest birthday ever!’ whereas five-year-old Lauren remembers swimming in Lake Como and eating yummy pesto and pasta, visiting Alcatraz, and Samuel being attacked by a monkey in a Cambodian temple.
‘The twins think travelling around the world is normal life, as it’s all they remember,’ explains Dan. ‘We recently visited a big National Trust house in the UK and Samuel asked, ‘Is this the next house we’re staying in?’’ Next up for the Princes are swaps in Northern Spain, and The Dordogne and Languedoc in France, and then an idea to settle for a bit so the kids can learn a second language. ‘People are often surprised or intrigued by what we’re doing, and often envious,’ says Clair. ‘Most people can’t imagine going on holiday with four kids, let alone moving to homes around the world.’
‘People hide behind their kids – saying that they couldn’t take them away,’ says Dan. ‘But they are projecting their fears onto their children. Any kid would jump on a plane tomorrow for the adventure of a lifetime, and to spend more time with their family.’