How to travel comfortably without spending a penny on accommodations

Brian Lindblom and Nancy Dobson stand in front of their home in Ottawa. They recently swapped homes with a couple in Quebec City. You’ve found that home swapping is a great way to travel the world on a budget.James Park/The Globe and Mail

When I catch Brian Lindblom and Nancy Dobson on the phone, they’re relaxing in the living room, conversing in the familiar way of a longtime couple. They had a full day in Québec City: they walked downtown before coming home to cook dinner. But they’re not at their home – they’re at the home of Jean-Christian Auclair and Lyne Des Groseilliers, while Auclair and Des Groseilliers have stayed with them in Ottawa.

They are all members of HomeLink, a global organization where members can swap homes to create an intimate travel experience. More personal than a hotel but without the expense of an Airbnb, Lindblom says home swapping makes for a more relaxed vacation experience. “We don’t feel rushed, like we need or need to go to a museum [something] simply because we have to make the most of the time. It costs nothing.”

Over the past decade, Lindblom and Dobson have visited New Zealand, Amsterdam, Sweden, Norway, Mexico and various parts of Canada, all through home exchanges. They originally came into play when looking for ways to save on expenses while traveling. A home exchange means no hotel fees and no money is exchanged between participants, allowing them to move further afield and often stay longer.

However, you have to be flexible. Home exchange often begins with an inquiry. Lindblom and Dobson may reach out to several members in areas they may wish to travel to see if they are open to a trade. Or they could receive inquiries themselves, asking to open their home in Ottawa. From there, they see where they could go.

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“We’ve been in places we wouldn’t even think of,” says Lindblom. “Eventually we went to south-central Mexico. Not a tourist resort or anything, but we never would have thought of going to that town until someone asked us to swap places with them there.”

There are also the little touches that make the home exchange more personal. When Lindblom and Dobson arrived at Auclair, there was a bottle of wine, cheese and snacks waiting in the fridge. It’s a welcome gesture, but Auclair says it’s also an important aspect of home swapping; It’s a sign that you really allow people to feel at home in your space.

That’s the flip side of the experience. While you’re traveling and staying with someone, you also need to be comfortable with people in your space. “Your mindset needs to be free of material possessions, they’re not very important anymore,” says Auclair. “[Some people] I don’t want anyone in her bed, but it doesn’t take long to get over it.”

Auclair and Des Groseilliers receive about 25 requests for their Quebec City home each year, particularly during the summer months. This is not surprising; According to HomeExchange, another home exchange site, Quebec City is one of the most popular travel destinations in Canada along with Whistler, Toronto, Vancouver and Mont-Tremblant. When traveling, Canadians typically look for swap meets in Paris and New York.

HomeExchange data shows members are making up for lost travel time during the pandemic. Exchanges in September 2022 increased by 126 percent compared to the same period in 2019. However, not all of them take place at the same time.

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“About 70 percent of exchanges are non-reciprocal,” says Emmanuel Arnaud, HomeExchange’s chief executive officer.

There are several ways to exchange the apartment. It is easiest if both parties travel at the same time and stay with the other at the same time. There are non-simultaneous barter deals where each party stays in the other’s house, but not for the same period of time. (Dobson and Lindblom actually set out for a summer home while Auclair and Des Groseilliers stayed at their home, and made their way to Quebec City months later.)

But with 100,000 paying members, according to Arnaud, the vacation opportunities are almost endless. More importantly, there are few surprises when it comes to home swapping. With no money changing hands, there is no reason to sugarcoat a home’s quirks.

“It’s going to be a lot more reserved, down-to-earth,” explains Arnaud. “If you come to my house, I want you to have a good stay.” When members list their homes on the site, they’re open about every detail: the sticky lock on the upstairs bathroom door or the leaking kitchen faucet. Arnaud says this also reduces problems with scammers or security issues. Because nobody markets a property like they would for a short-term rental, few people fiddle with the details. According to Arnaud, HomeExchange facilitates 250,000 exchanges a year, and they have an incident rate of less than one percent.

For many home exchangers, this type of travel is like a lifestyle. The first exchange that Auclair and Des Groseilliers participated in was with a couple in California who had been part of the HomeLink network for decades, when it was still a printed directory with mailing addresses listed. For Dobson and Lindblom, the appeal is obvious.

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“Going away for a month and being in a hotel all the time and eating three meals a day at restaurants is just so unattractive,” says Dobson. “I can’t imagine living like that.”

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