A Cheapskate's Passport to Paradise

If you’re willing to swap homes with a (somewhat vetted) stranger, you can globe-trot for a song—and live the fantasy that you’re a native, not a tourist

By Naomi Wolf
home swap Thailand photo
Stay virtually free in places like this luscious abode in Phuket, Thailand
Photograph: homeexchange.com

I would never have thought that a kitschy Hollywood romantic comedy would utterly change my world, ushering in real-life magic and romance, but it happened.

The movie in question was the 2006 chick flick The Holiday, with Cameron Diaz playing a rich but stressed-out L.A. producer and Kate Winslet a bookish Brit. Each woman, on a whim, visits a website that enables people around the world to take largely free (except for airfare) vacations by exchanging homes. The two end up trading not only spaces but, to some extent, friends and lives, and that in turn brings out aspects of their hidden selves. The stressed-out mogul takes the time to find love, home and family (via her new boyfriend’s adorable children); the repressed English homebody finds her inner rock and roller and a caring beau.

Forget the rock and roll; what raised my temperature was the houses, one a Beverly Hills mansion, the other a sweet English cottage. Moving into either for a week or two would be fun—and much more exciting than the usual hotel experience, which I have lately found to be ever more processed and predictable. Twenty years ago, you were more likely to discover a small hotel dominated by the crazy, megalomaniacal eccentricity of its owner—like the Parisian fleabag I stayed in as a graduate student. Presided over by a massive, heavily made-up North African woman, it was decorated in a wild, hand-painted, ancient-Egyptian motif. When I passed that same hotel not long ago and peeked inside, it was yet another cutesy, trendy boutique operation, with a standardized dried-flower arrangement in the sterile lobby.

None of that in Kate Winslet’s little Mr. Mole’s house. I was also intrigued by the home-exchange concept because at my age (49), I’ve realized that identity can become all too fixed. Though I have an interesting life and a fun job, I sometimes get bored with my category: Greenwich Village yuppie mom and journalist. So after seeing the movie, I set out in search of some new destinations and perhaps a new life or two to sample. First step: registering on the website that inspired the Winslet movie, the well-established HomeExchange.com. (See “Trading [Vacation] Spaces for details about this and other home-exchange sites.)

The sign-up process is simple. You fill out a questionnaire listing your ideal destinations; this even includes a “surprise me” option. You write a paragraph about who you are, when you hope to travel and how many people are in your party. Then you post photos of your own house or apartment, answering easy questions about location, number of bedrooms and whether you have cable. Filling out the form makes you see your neighborhood with new eyes: You scan familiar landmarks looking for what might please or deter people from abroad. And preparing to photograph your home’s interior is definitely a long, hard look-in-the-mirror moment. That broken Roman shade? Not cute. The bookcase clutter? Must be cleared out. References are encouraged but not required; the site is set up so that guests can leave feedback about their stay. And the swaps don’t have to be simultaneous; you can go to Italy in May and not lend your own home until December. Of course, in that case you need to have another place to stay, since you obviously have to vacate your abode before the visitors arrive. I’m lucky enough to have that kind of flexibility: My kids divide their time between my apartment and my ex-husband’s, and I also have a small cottage upstate, so there are places for us to go when we are “hosting.” Other options are to schedule visits for when you know you’ll be on vacation or traveling for work.

Business travelers also play a big role in the swap market. In return for even, say, a modest home near Detroit or a small flat in Queens, European businesspeople will offer a plethora of beguilements, which sometimes include their second homes in the Champagne region of France or their ski chalets in the Alps.

Originally published in the April 2012 issue

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