House swapping is growing in popularity and with good reason, says veteran swapper Ginetta Vedrickas, particularly if you are travelling with a family.
Swap hotels for more space and comfort in a home away from home
Rare are the times I can truly boast about being a trendsetter but with 10 years of home exchange under my belt, this is one trend that I can claim to have been in on from the start. Having spent this time holidaying in other people's properties around the world, I've always wondered why more people aren't open to the idea, though now it finally seems that they are.
A straw poll of the most popular home exchange websites reveals that listings are increasing dramatically. Debbie Wosskow founded www.luxehomeswap.com in 2010 and the site now has more than 1,500 listings. Wosskow now prefers holidaying in real homes over hotels.
"Small children and boutique hotels really don't mix. Home exchange is the obvious solution and I saw a gap in the market for luxury house swaps," she says.
Wosskow credits the global economic downturn for boosting home exchanges and says that research proves that savings are a major factor for boosting the trend: "Client surveys show that most save several thousand [pounds Sterling] on their holidays - it is a significant factor."
I first swapped my six-bedroom Victorian London terrace 10 years ago with a family from Cornwall. My then small children, Bruno and Tatiana, loved having access to other children's books, games, toys and even pets. As they've grown we've holidayed in fabulous properties in California, New York, Boston, Tobago and Dubai, as well as European destinations such as France, Italy and the occasional exchange in the UK when funds are tight.
We've realised that there are few places in the world where "strangers" who are happy to trust others don't exist and, wherever you live, you find that there is someone who wants to visit your part of the world. So far, so good, I hear you say, but what about the downsides?
Two common concerns are whether you can really trust a stranger with your home and prized possessions and what if they - or you - feel that your homes are not of a compatible standard? Architectural consultant Graham Jones, 63, recently asked himself both questions before bravely deciding to list his two luxurious homes on luxhomeswap.com.
He explains: "I wanted to make sure that any person I swapped with would be a like-minded individual.
"I think this site means that it's more likely that their property would be of equal standard to mine."
And that's a pretty tall order. Based in Abu Dhabi for seven months of the year, where he stays in a five-star hotel, Jones plans on exchanging his picture-perfect boutique villa, complete with staff, in Bali and his main home - an architecturally superb two-bedroom town house in Victoria, Australia, which has won seven design awards.
Now freelancing, Jones is at the stage of life where he could enjoy five-star travel around the world with his wife, Petronella, 60, but, with an eye on retirement, he prefers not to.
"I'd rather save money and take more trips so home exchange can work well for us," he says.
With three bases, the couple can be flexible and freelance consultancy equals greater freedom: "I really want to be able to spend a month or so in places like the French Riviera, Lake Como and Tuscany. We're not the sort of people who like arranged tours but prefer living like locals, sitting over a bottle of wine in a St Germain cafe."
Currently deep in negotiation for his first exchange trip to Morocco, Jones believes the advantages of swapping homes far outweigh any concerns.
"I'm sure there's always some apprehension," he says, "but the idea of exchanging with like-minded individuals gives us peace of mind."
Wosskow is seeing growing numbers of clients, just like Jones, who are choosing to use their most valuable asset as currency to fund their own travel. Exchangers typically are self-employed, creative types, many of whom travel for work and, she says, bad experiences are rare and largely avoidable.
"It's all down to communication beforehand," she says. "I'd advise around 20 email conversations to iron out the detail, boring things such as towels, linen and cleaning. Small, niggling things sometimes cause tensions." A year's subscription to luxehomeswap.com costs US$161 (about Dh590) and gives you access to around 1,000 often eye-wateringly attractive principal and second homes in places as far afield as Argentina and Australia, including a 19th-century French chateau and sumptuously staffed Thai villa.
Apartments and smaller homes are also listed and Wosskow maintains that, for exchangers, location is often more important than size, although she has rejected one property. "It just didn't look right," she says.
Whatever the standard of your property, listing detailed, accurate information on your home and location alongside the kinds of photographs you might use if you were selling it, is vital.
Currently, luxehomeswap.com lists just one UAE property but that, adds Wosskow, is an advantage for anyone tempted to try exchanging.
Another site, www.homeforexchange.com, currently boasts 14 UAE properties among its 14,000 listings.
A subscription costs US$65 annually and even relatively unknown destinations such as Kazakhstan and Fiji feature, although not as heavily as France and the US.
Having listed their spacious, three-bedroom Dubai apartment, which shares all the amenities of an adjoining five-star hotel, it's no wonder that Phil Taylor, 56, and wife Diana, 42, get a steady stream of offers from around the world.
"Dubai is such a great place for a holiday, with so many things to do here. Our serviced apartment has everything you could want, such as indoor and outdoor pools and gym; you'd pay a lot to stay in the hotel right next door," says Phil, who heads leisure consultancy Team Leisure, which is responsible for Ski Dubai.
Like many exchangers, Phil and Diana have two small children and have found that young families and hotel accommodation can be incompatible.
"We've stayed in hotels with our children and it's difficult keeping noise down and lights off when they are trying to sleep," says Phil.
"By exchanging homes you get much more space and comfort and often get toys and equipment that you can't take with you when travelling."
So far, the couple have undertaken two highly successful exchanges, in Denmark and Switzerland, which were problem-free and which saved them a great deal on their holiday budget. "Both were very good properties, really excellent and which we couldn't have afforded to rent," Phil explains. "As well as comfort, cost is also a factor."
The Taylors have two more exchanges in the pipeline and are eagerly awaiting a trip to London this summer. With family in Europe, they can afford to be flexible on timings and find that home exchanges work particularly well for anyone with a second home.
Exchanging a second home may be unproblematic but, for anyone planning exchanging their main home in the Gulf, exploring the terms of your rental lease is advisable, although it hasn't proved problematic for Phil.
"We're issued with guest passes for anyone staying in the apartment, as long as we supply names and aren't charging rent," he says
Phil's top tips for a successful exchange? "Keep an open mind and fully inform yourself of what size and type of property you are going to and be clear about how you intend using their property and how they will use yours. It's all about mutual respect."
For me, one of the best aspects of swapping homes has been "meeting", mainly virtually but occasionally in the flesh, like-minded folk from around the globe who are happy to share their homes and their tips for a great holiday into the bargain.
Thanks to my exchange partners I've enjoyed their favourite restaurants, bars, beaches and galleries, resulting in a far more rounded experience as a local, rather than a mere tourist. I may not have saved the maximum that luxehomeswap.com estimates some of its members have saved on accommodation - US$50,000 has been the biggest saving for a customer so far - but my experiences on the trips and memories are priceless.
The Facts: Tips for would-be home swappers
• Check out your lease to see if home exchange is allowed
• Inform your house insurers to see if they are generally OK with someone being in your home while you're away
• Include plenty of detail on your home, location and yourself so that exchangers can match themselves with you
• Having de-cluttered, post the kind of photographs you'd expect from an estate agency, emphasising your property's positives
• Consider what "extras" you can include as part of the deal. This could be major items such as a car or boat, or less valuable but often useful things such as museum membership, discount or travel cards
• Browse a range of home exchange sites to see how many and what sort of properties and destinations they list and what service they offer
• Be proactive and contact potential exchange partners in destinations and homes you want to visit
• Communicate thoroughly with any potential exchange partner. If you have any doubts, back out
• Once you've found an exchange partner, discuss all aspects of the deal, particularly things like cleaning, use of towels, linen and telephone
• Consider signing an agreement that many sites now offer as part of your subscription. They generally spell out what each partner expects from the exchange
• Consider specialist travel insurance. Again, the best sites offer suggestions
• Second homes are easier to swap as they are typically rented anyway but principal homes should be left clean and tidy and with space cleared in bedrooms for guests' belongings
• Before the visit, cast a critical eye on the property and see if there are aspects that you can improve upon.
• Ask a friend, neighbour or cleaner to meet and greet your guests, show them around the property and be on-hand for potential problems
• Leave a selection of maps, and guidebooks as well as detailed information on your property and holiday tips for guests