With Long Term House Swaps, Travelers Experience a Destination’s Culture Through Local Lens
Are you a traveler who is keen to experience a destination through locals’ eyes? To get under the skin of a culture and celebrate its uniqueness, as well as feel part of our universal shared human condition? And get free lodging in the process? Then a long term house swap might be right up your alley!
A group of European teachers seeking to travel cheaply during their summer break founded Intervac International in 1953, offering the opportunity to barter homes through their network. A New York teacher had the same idea and created “Vacation Exchange Club”, now known as HomeLink, in 1953 as well. Almost four decades later, Ed Kushins started what is now HomeExchange.com; three years later, he made the internet the program’s platform.
While cost-saving may have been a primary motivator early on, this mode of travel has become an effective grassroots form of cultural diplomacy. In an era where some governments are pursuing isolationist strategies built on fear and designed to keep people from other countries out, home exchange offers a way to foster international relations that is based on trust.
Joie and Syd Galloway of Virginia and Florida are participants of HomeLink and began home exchanging in 1985 and have made at least 140 long term house swaps since then, with more than half of those outside the U.S.
“Each exchange is unique,” Joie observed. “Being in a home for two to four weeks, you learn a lot about the couple and their culture. We try to meet our exchange families by inviting them to our home a day early or by going to their home a day early.”
House Swapping Offers Benefits Both Practical & Social
Those brief introductions can reveal cultural differences that, while minor, could be cause for confusion or even taking offense, as evidenced by a discussion Joie & Syd had with hosts in Aix-en-Provence, France.
“The French family was home when we arrived and in a conversation that afternoon they asked if we noted any differences they should be aware of while in the U.S.,” Joie explained. “We pointed out that Americans expected to be acknowledged in passing even if they did not know the person. We had experienced the opposite in France—unless the person knew you, they would not acknowledge or even look at you. We explained that this American Midwestern habit of a greeting even applied when passing others by car with a simple as raising a finger off the steering wheel. The French family found this U.S. custom amusing and strange.”
Karl Costabel, the owner of HomeLink USA, says: “We are, and I suspect will remain a niche market. Our main demographic is the psychological profile of the individual: They must be easygoing and open to the idea of turning over their home to a stranger. There is little middle ground. When a person hears about this, there are two common reactions, either ‘This is great, how do I join,’ or ‘You’d have to be totally deranged to offer your home to a stranger.’ I tell people openly that if they have any concerns about security they should not join as they would not be able to enjoy their vacation.”
Ed Kushins, 61, who founded HomeExchange in 1992 with one listing – his own – agrees to a point. “The idea of a stranger in your home isn’t just a potential concern; it is probably everyone’s primary concern if it’s their first experience. But by the time homes are actually exchanged, the person is anything but a stranger,” he said, citing all the information posted on each homeowner’s page on the website, the extensive communication leading to an exchange, and the ability to check references.
For a mainstream vacation alternative, Kushins sees home exchange as being at the tipping point of acceptance. He said 10 years ago his membership was skewed to teachers and retirees but today it’s also newlyweds, empty nesters, young families, and people with teenagers. Many have taken to the concept wholeheartedly.
“The popularity of home exchanging reflects major trends that are changing how we travel,” said Emmanuel Arnaud, CEO of the French company Guest-to-Guest, which acquired HomeExchange in 2017. “We are all closer today, the world is shrinking due to technology like computers, phones and low-cost air travel. We are all becoming neighbors.”
“In a hotel, or even in many AirBnBs, you have no way of knowing what country you are in by the decor,” he observed. “With home exchanging, you stay in a home that someone actually lives in, and the local culture is visible through the spices in the kitchen and the books and CDs on the shelves, the art on the walls, and even by the architecture of the structure itself.”
Ana Neto, of the Portuguese island of Madeira, agrees. She has done 28 home exchanges in the past 13 years with InterVac and found the structure of some of the homes she has stayed in to reveal aspects of the history and culture of that destination.
“In Amsterdam, we stayed in a very tall and narrow building, right in the center, next to a hotel and in front of the main museum, the Rijksmuseum,” she said. “My husband and I were traveling without our daughters, so it was just the two of us and we had five levels all to ourselves. It was very strange to be on the computer on the 5th floor, go down to the 1st floor to go to the toilet, go up to the 3rd floor to wash my hands (the bathroom was split into two parts on two different levels) and then back to the computer on the 5th floor. All because back in the sixteenth and seventh century, Dutch authorities levied taxes from citizens based in part on the width of their houses!”
“For my family, the greatest cultural difference was when we traveled to NY, as all our other exchanges were in Europe,” she explained. “We stayed in a beautiful penthouse on 96th Street with a view over Central Park. For us, it was very interesting ordering in Mexican food. Of course, we also order food back home, but I had never been given so many choices over the phone and I was very surprised to also get disposable plates and cutlery and napkins with our order.”
“The experience made me realize several cultural differences between NY and Madeira. In NY, ordering food in seems much more common and all kinds of restaurants seemed to have that option. Everything in the apartment we exchanged to was much bigger than back home… except for the kitchen, which was tiny according to our standards. It looked like people don’t cook their own food as often as in Portugal. Back home, I might order food once a month or even less than that.”
“I realized restaurants would only delivery within a certain number of blocks, which makes sense given the number of people on each block,” she continued. “In the whole of Funchal there are 150,000 people, and any restaurant that makes home deliveries covers at least the whole city.”
“The size of a city block in NY is still mind-boggling to me,” Ana said. “The building we stayed in didn’t feel that big compared to others in the area—and it had 400 apartments! It was the biggest building I have ever stayed at although it was not big by NY standards. My own apartment block where I lived in at the time had 14 apartments and it is the biggest on my street! I lived in Old Town Funchal, in a street that is actually 700 meters long and the oldest one in Madeira, dating back to the fifteenth century.”