A New Way To Save on Travel

Your vacation home away from home could be someone else's home.

By Lisa Rogak

When planning a trip with grandkids, if you heard you could stay in a place that had enough room for everyone with the amenities of home — and then some — your ears would perk up. If you knew that you'd pay a fraction of the cost of a hotel room — or nothing at all — you'd ask where to sign up.

Vacation-home rentals and swaps offer you an alternative to pricey hotel rooms, especially when family splits the cost. With a home exchange, your lodgings are free, but the dates that you and your host want to swap have to match. You will pay for a rental, but you can pick the dates you want from available times.

Grandparents who choose these options are in good company. According to a recent survey from TripAdvisor, 43 percent of travelers plan to rent a house or condo for vacation over the next year. And partly due to the success of the movie The Holiday, in which Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet swapped homes, home exchanges are increasing in popularity.

Advantages: Kitchens, Privacy, and More

For one, vacation homes are equipped with kitchens, which helps save you money on restaurants and makes it easier to prepare meals for picky children and others with dietary restrictions. Privacy is another advantage to renting or swapping a vacation home; you can rent one big enough for everyone to have separate bedrooms. Wanita McPherson of Zigzag, Ore., who's rented homes for trips with her grandchildren for more than a decade, knows this firsthand. “The kids are a lot more relaxed in a home because they have their own space,” she says. "In a hotel room, they're more hyped up and want to run around."

Karen and Gerald Stewart of Spring, Tex., are recent converts to renting a vacation home. When planning a multigenerational family getaway to Port Aransas, Tex., they appreciated the ease of e-mailing photos of potential homes to their son and daughter-in-law before making a decision. They also found that speaking with the owner beforehand was a huge help, especially concerning their three grandchildren, ages 5 and younger. "She told us about fun things to do with the kids and where the beach equipment was located," says Karen Stewart. "And the adults were able to spend the evenings in the family room visiting while the kids were snug in their bedrooms, just like at home."

Vrenda Lee and Larry Kellems, who live in New York City and Ashland, Ore., opted for a weeklong home exchange for their daughter's college graduation with four generations of the family in attendance. Not only would booking individual hotel rooms have been prohibitively expensive, but it also would have limited the amount of time that everyone could spend together. Plus, they realized that since Vrenda's parents were in their mid-eighties, they’d be unable to participate in all the events. A vacation house worked perfectly, providing them with public space for visiting and a private bedroom with bath nearby.

Book It Yourself, or Use an Agency?

Whether you rent or swap, you have to decide if you'll make your own arrangements, or use an agency. Dealing directly with a property owner can save some money as owners typically pay a fee to an agency each time the house or condo is rented. Still, many grandparents opt for an agency, which screens the home, posts reviews from previous renters and swappers, and accepts credit cards. And if anything goes wrong, you know whom to call.

"No exchange is done on a whim or without trust," says Lewis Fein, spokesperson for homeexchange.com. "In fact, many of our members become friends because they stayed in each other's homes." For those who worry about things breaking or disappearing, "The rules of renting or swapping are generally spelled out long before any keys or cash are exchanged," adds Claire Newell, a travel consultant and author.

Matt Doerner of vacation-renter.com believes that problems tend to crop up more with a direct rental. "Sometimes owners who are new to the rental business don't understand that certain items are necessary when renting a unit to the general public," he says. While family and friends staying at your place may not care that the microwave oven is broken or the bed-linen is scratchy, strangers who are paying good money do.

Eileen Buesing, spokeswoman for homeaway.com, says that clear communication is the key to a successful rental or swap. "It's important to communicate particular needs or requirements early on in the booking process," she says. "For example, if you need to stay in a property with minimal stairs, or the beloved granddog will be making the trip, tell it all upfront in order to avoid surprises."

And that works both ways. As Doerner put it, "The last thing you want to hear the owner say is, 'If the neighbors ask, tell them you’re my cousin from Alabama.'"

Related Information

Here, a few tips from Claire Newell:

  • It's a good idea to ask for more details when someone urges you to "make yourself at home." For example, using their cutlery, dishes, and linens is usually fine, but trying on their clothing or using their beauty products is not okay!
  • Make sure you explain to your grandkids that this is not their house and that they need to be respectful of the other family's things, just as they would want the same for theirs.
  • Bring some of their favorite toys, or bring some special ones they haven't played with in a while. That way they wont be too tempted to ransack the other children's playroom.



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