Travel tips

How to Holiday (Almost) for Free

Last updated 5th June 2017

Thousands of families are joining the homestay movement – and saving lots of money, says Mark Hodson.

The idea

The boom in homestay holidays has driven by three factors: the ease of booking online, an increased desire for authenticity in travel and the simple need for squeezed middle income families to save cash.

Renting private homes is much less expensive than staying in hotels and, if you’re exchanging, then your only cost is the agency’s annual subscription and your flights. Many home swappers also exchange cars, which slashes costs even further.

It’s not just about saving money

Whether you rent a private home through a website such as, or do a straight swap via, or, you’ll have more space and get to experience life as a local, shopping at markets and chatting with the neighbours.

Swap with a family that has children of a similar age

You’ll walk into a house with all the age-appropriate toys and gadgets. The only downside is the housework. You’ll have to clean and tidy your own house before you set off, and your holiday home before you leave it. However, of the tens of thousands of swaps each year, very few lead to complaints.

House swap in Spain

Mark Hodson did a House Swap with a family in Malaga, Spain.

What would you pay to rent a smart four-bedroom house in Spain with a swimming pool? For two weeks? In August? If you went through an agency you’d be looking at upwards of £2,000. For us it was free. This was our fourth house swap using HomeLink, after three successful trips to France – family houses in Montpellier and Aix en Provence, and a beautiful high-ceilinged apartment in central Paris. Our terraced house in Tooting, south-west London, is nothing spectacular, but we get 50 to 100 offers each year from other HomeLink members, from Australia to Belgium to California. We’ve become fussy: we like to have our own pool.

The house in Spain

It was on a recently built estate a few miles south of Malaga, about five minutes’ drive from the beach. The owners lived in Marseille most of the year and, judging by the fixtures and fittings, weren’t short of money. The basement contained a home cinema, X-Box and table tennis table. Twelve homes shared a small swimming pool surrounded by lawns and fruit trees, but few of the other owners were around, so most of the time we had the pool to ourselves.

With the mercury hitting 35ºC, we were happy to spend our days loafing around the house, lying beside the pool, eating on the shaded terrace and taking occasional trips to the local supermarket to stock up on wine and ice-cream. We tended to go out in the evenings, dining at beachfront fish restaurants and wandering around the cobbled streets of Malaga. Our one big excursion was to Granada. Relaxation was the main priority. Our children, aged seven and 15, rated it one of their best ever holidays.

The hardest part of home swapping…

is the organising – sifting the offers, emailing back and forth with questions, agreeing on dates and finally booking flights with fingers crossed that the other family is doing the same. HomeLink allows both parties to sign an online agreement, but it is not legally binding.

The inevitable pre-arrival-day nerves can be mitigated by regular communication in the preceding days and weeks. We met two of our exchange families beforehand, including the Parisians who arrived on an early Eurostar train armed with croissants and cakes. We shared a coffee and swapped keys before heading off to their apartment.

Friends ask us if we’re worried about people breaking things or looking at our personal stuff. Frankly, I don’t care if someone pokes around in my bedroom drawers, but I’d be surprised if they did. As for damage, after four swaps we’ve had one drink spilled on a carpet, a broken kitchen knife and a cracked shower handle. The knife was replaced, and £20 was left to cover the cost of a new shower handle. Compared with the cost of a regular holiday, it’s peanuts.

Price: Annual membership £115;

More info: Homelink

Family home in Montreal

Anna Tobin rented a family home in Quebec, Canada.

I’ve stayed in several holiday homes with my family and I’m always slightly on edge during the time of booking and arrival. Will it be true to its description? Will it be clean? Will it be safe for my little ones? What happens if it doesn’t match up? What I like about HouseTrip is that they don’t hand your money over to the homeowners until 48 hours after your arrival. So, if the property is found to be unacceptable and contrary to its description, you can check out and get your money back.

Discovering Montreal

I’ve heard from a couple of Quebecois that the heart and soul of Montreal lies not downtown, where most of the city’s hotels are, but in and around the Plateau-Mont-Royal neighbourhood. So I searched on HouseTrip to see if it had anything in this area and it came up with a stylish two-bedroom house for £124 a night. We would have paid double that for two interconnecting hotel rooms and we got a kitchen, a large lounge and a terrace. It also had a bath and a washing machine, essential when you’re travelling with young children.

The house in Montreal

It was true to its photos. The owner met us at the door with the keys and pointed out all the local amenities. We were two blocks away from the boutique shopping district of Rue Saint Viateur. Here we found the famous St-Viateur Bagel bakery, whose bagels are shipped across North America, and numerous other shops and restaurants.

We never had to use our kitchen. It was lovely to be able to come back to the house after a day of exploring, however, and fi nd the kids had room enough to play hide and seek, as they would at home. By the end of our stay we felt like locals, picking up snacks from the grocery store and hopping on the bus to explore Old Montreal, the port and Mont Royal, the park that locals call the mountain because it towers majestically over the city.

The best bit, however, was the fantastic Espace Pour La Vie. The former Olympic park has been transformed into an insectarium, botanical garden, planetarium and biodome. We could have spent all day there, watching animals interact with each other in four recreated American ecosystems. There is so much of the city that we didn’t get to see, we’re already thinking of returning.

Price: Apartments from £47 per night, houses from £114 per night

More info: HouseTrip

Idyllic retreat in Tobago

Ginetta Vedrickas swapped her London home for an idyllic retreat in Tobago.

Funny how one email can change a whole summer’s plans. From contemplating a sodden summer entertaining fractious teens with an unpromising south-London staycation, a stranger’s email offering a ‘free’ Caribbean holiday was one temptation I couldn’t resist.

Like me, Ginny Plumpton is a member of Home For Exchange and wanted to swap her four-bedroom yoga retreat in Tobago for a summer base in her native London to visit her son. A quick scan at flights and two emails later, Ginny and I co-ordinated dates and agreed our exchange.

To the uninitiated, trusting strangers in your precious home is the stuff of nightmares, but leaving Ginny – and her husband Kelly – in our six-bedroom terrace wasn’t a worry. Ever since our children were tiny we’ve spent many holidays in strangers’ homes around the world, looking after houses, cars, even pets as they – always meticulously – have cared for ours.

Embarrassingly, on our return the house is usually cleaner than we left it. We’ve enjoyed holidays abroad most years: Rome, Toulouse and much of Europe in the early days and the USA, Bali and the Caribbean as the children grew.

Often we don’t meet our exchange partners, but Ginny and Kelly wanted to show us around their home, introduce Lucky the pot hound and tell us about their beloved home and island, so we arrived a day before they left and enjoyed a delicious fish supper while marvelling at our new home’s position high inScarborough’s hills with the sea on one side and the rainforest below. While Ginny filled us in on their favourite beaches and restaurants, a mild panic grew as I wondered how they would fare in the depths of south London.

In the end we enjoyed a fabulous two weeks, eating in local restaurants and exploring hidden beaches with the space and home comforts you can’t find in hotels. Thankfully, Ginny’s follow-up emails – we still keep in touch – were reassuring: ‘We wanted somewhere with entertaining space and a garden. We celebrated my son’s birthday with a delicious home-cooked meal using organic lamb from a wonderful local butcher, and there was a barbecue, too, so enjoyed an English garden once again.’

Ginny and I have vowed to exchange again one day, but the temptations that drop into my inbox are truly endless. This summer we’re swapping our place in London for a riad in Marrakesh.

Price: One-year membership £42

More info: HomeForExchange