I just did the math that led to that $10,919 figure and it blows my mind, too.
Here's the gist of it … over the past few years I have fallen in love with HomeExchange.com, a home swap platform that allows you to exchange homes with people all over the world. I'd used it once two years ago to stay in a big, old house in a small town in upstate New York, while that home's family stayed in my New York City apartment. Then, last summer, I used the heck out of it — to the tune of more than $10k! That is more than $10,000 of free travel as a single mom.
HomeExchange works a bit like Match.com or OKCupid. Sign up, pay $150, then browse more than 400,000 homes in 187 countries. Each member posts images and descriptions of their home and neighborhood, a bit about themselves and family, and what they are looking for in exchange partners. It is up to you to reach out to potential exchange partners and arrange the dates and terms of the swap (again, like online dating!).
HomeExchange members are as varied as can be. They include:
- Single people
- Pet friendly
- Pet adverse
- Single-parent families with kids
- Married couples with children
- Multigenerational families
- Friends traveling together
- Families traveling together
One of my favorite features of HomeExchange.com is the ABSOLUTELY UNREAL selection of homes that can potentially be yours within a matter of days. Examples of homes (some of whose owners actually reached out to me for a swap) include:
- A 5,000-square-foot horizontal, white, hyper-modern home with an affinity pool that ended right on the sandy beaches of Australia
- A charming-yet-intimidating country estate in Ireland
- A glamorous 1920s Spanish-style Los Angeles house with a pool and palm trees (of course)
- A sprawling Beaux Arts apartment overlooking Champs-Élysées in Paris
- A 4,000-square-foot round villa in a mountaintop coconut grove in Fiji
Seriously, even if you don't sign up, just have a look and drrooooooooolllll.
But I did sign up, and had a killer summer as a result. Here's the run-down of my awesome, free summer with HomeExchange.com.
How to get free travel with home exchanges
First, my two kids and I exchanged our home — a decent-sized and sunny Queens two-bedroom apartment — for an art- and antique-filled 3,500-square-foot historic 5-bedroom, 3-bath house steps from the beaches of Charlevoix, Michigan for 10 days. Our hosts were a lovely older couple whose stash of toys (presumably for their grandchildren) in the cabinet under the staircase are still talked about by my kids. The huge, modern kitchen and adjoining pantry (with a second refrigerator) were stocked with every spice, utensil, condiment, pan and gadget you can fathom. My kids — used to sharing a room at home — opted to cozy up in a queen-sized bed in a room next to my mammoth master suite. Three full bedrooms went untouched.
When we arrived, I called one of the numbers my hosts had left — a woman in town who was also a writer and had visiting grandchildren the ages of Helena and Lucas. She immediately rode her bike across town, sat on our sunny deck and talked about work, love and heartbreak (she was a widow). She immediately offered to lend us her bike, which had attached a two-seater trailer, perfect sized for four little buns belonging to my kids. We were all thrilled.
We spent the next week and a half exploring the area, picking strawberries, eating fried seafood by the harbor, playing at the beach and joining my writer friend and her large family on a picnic at the lake. The next-door neighbors invited us by, and my daughter and theirs immediately huddled off to the corner to play as girls do. We ate burgers and hot dogs on the patio and after the kids went to bed, I sipped beer and watched movies in one of the two living rooms. We explored Charlevoix, the village a short walk from our house, with its award-winning public library, darling local shops, including a salt-water taffy store. One of the town's attractions is its collection of “mushroom houses” — quaint, slopey-roofed cottages, each unique and designed by the self-taught local architect Earl Young. Mornings, I packed the kids breakfasts in individual paper sacks, loaded them in the bike bucket, and pedaled around town hunting mushroom houses.
Day excursions included the Traverse City cherry festival, and exploring Sleeping Bear Dunes — one of the prized destinations in the whole country.
I estimate that renting that gorgeous house would have cost $6,740, based on similar Airbnb rentals in that town for the July 4 week that we stayed. In all, it cost a few hundred dollars for extra gas to drive there, a few restaurant meals more than normal, several attraction admission fees, and a gift bottle of wine for our bike-lending new friend.
A week after we returned from what would be a 3-week road trip through Chicago, Milwaukee and my home town of Sycamore, Ill., seeing friends and family along the way, my kids flew to Greece with their dad to visit family there, and I flew to Copenhagen where, again, I swapped homes.
This time I stayed in a bright, pretty one-bedroom apartment owned by a single woman who, like me, is a freelance creative person. Her home was full of a mix of vintage, antique and modern art and furnishings, her very modern kitchen equipped with excellent knives and beautiful Japanese pottery, and upon arrival, I was met by her lovely neighbor, who promptly showed me around the building and introduced me to my new friend: A pale-turquoise bike with a leather seat and wooden crate. We jumped on our bikes and headed to the local supermarket, where Cassandra showed me around and translated the variety of fish and explained the recycling system before we packed our purchases into our crates and cycled home.
The next three weeks were full of dinners with new friends — some friend-of-friend-of-acquaintance introductions, others blog followers who invited me to dinner, and still others, interesting women I found online who graciously invited me to their homes for tea and homemade limoncello cake or to their towns to explore ancient castles and charming streets. Cassandra and I shared meals in our building's courtyard.
When I was not writing in my new, pretty home, I rode that bike around and around and around the small and beautiful city that is Denmark's capital. “The town is nearly all beautiful,” remarked my friend Thomas who visited for a few days from his home in Munich. Thomas has traveled to scores of countries. “Most cities have a few interesting neighborhoods, but all of Copenhagen is interesting,” he said.
Copenhagen is a water town, and it is a bike town. Everyone bikes, every place is accessible by two wheels, and everywhere you go, there is water — canals, harbors, inlets and lakes. The town is safe and it is rich and there is good food and good-looking people everywhere you look. One of Dane's favorite words translates to “cozy.” The restaurants, bars and cafes are small and cozy. Homes are modest, well designed and cozy. People like to have intelligent conversations at small tables and drink good wine and excellent coffee and eat simple, unpretentious, good food. And that is what I did for three weeks, and it was wonderful.
I could not have stayed in Europe for three weeks if I had to pay $4,179 — the Airbnb value of my apartment for those 21 days. Instead, I stayed for free thanks to HomeExchange.com, while my lovely exchange partner Ellen worked and explored from my apartment. We checked in with one another periodically, asking for recommendations for restaurant, or where to find the Woolite.
Staying in someone else's home through HomeExchange.com is an intimate experience. You get to know them without knowing them. So when I returned to New York a few hours before Ellen was scheduled to leave, I was happy not only to find our cat, a ginger named Gala, in top, happy form, and my plants healthier than ever, but to give my guest/host a lift to the airport. Even though we only chatted for the half-hour ride, I found her just as lovely as I expected her to be after living as her pseudo-double for nearly a month. We continue to be in touch today.
Lasting relationships are indeed a possible perk of travel. Of course, I can't write a post that doesn't have a little love and sex in it … so, just like I used HomeExchange.com as a dating site to find vacation accommodation, on one of my last days in Denmark I used an actual dating site to accommodate my need for a date. After a lovely evening and following day together, a special single Danish dad and I continue to know each other, and next week I am looking forward to a second visit to my New York City apartment — the type of visit that I do not advertise on HomeExchange.com.
Have you done a home swap? What was your experience? Share in the comments!
This post was created in partnership with HomeExchange.com.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.