It’s a simple concept; you temporarily trade your home for a home in a dream location. It could be on the French Riviera or a rural village in Ireland. If you want to travel the world, avoid spending money on accommodations and really experience life in other countries, home exchange is your answer.
In this audio interview, listen in as Elaine Masters, travel writer, author of Drivetime Yoga and the Host of The Gathering Road on WomensRadio, interviews me about home exchange. The Gathering Road shares journeys of courage, passion and uncommon adventure. Follow Elaine on Facebook, Twitter and on WomensRadio.com
Womens Radio – The Gathering Road
Elaine Masters Interviews Shelley Miller
Home Exchange: Travel and Stay For Free
Transcribed by Buffy Hogan
Elaine Masters: Welcome to the Gathering Road. Each week we visit with courageous adventurers who have decided to leave their comfort zone and take a gamble; whether that’s going to the other side of the planet or just across town. I’m Elaine Masters a travel writer, yoga teacher, and scuba diver but my passion is helping you get where you’re going feeling great. Visit TripWellness.com for tips and travel-ease books and audio. Now, if I can’t be traveling, I love trading stories with travelers. So get comfy. There’s someone I want you to meet. Shelley Miller is a home exchange expert. “A what?” you might ask. Well over the last 12 years she has stayed in European villages, in Asian apartments, on rustic but comfortable farms, and in beautiful cottages all for free. The home exchange phenomenon has taken off in the last few years and there are a lot of different ways to go but with Shelley’s help over the next few minutes we’re going to find out how to do it easily, safely, and have the most fun. Welcome Shelley.
Shelley Miller: Hi Elaine. Thanks for having me.
EM: Now, did you grow up traveling? Where did this lust for travel come from?
SM: It came out of the brain of my husband. No, I did not grow up traveling anywhere other than a few states and historical monuments near my home. I grew up in New Jersey. It was when my husband and I had been married about 13 years and our daughter was eight, our son was 12, and my husband came to me and said, “I’ve heard about this idea called home exchange. What do you think?” I protested because his first idea was to travel abroad and live in Europe for a year and I was, needless to say with young children, concerned about children’s schools and pets and we were both employed full time. Well we got it down to five months and then we joined a home exchange company and we started sending out e-mails and it happened and between April and August 2000 we exchanged with five families in England, Ireland, Germany, France, and Italy.
EM: That’s amazing. I can’t imagine handing the keys to my home over to people from five different countries.
SM: It’s a question that many people ask. I guess when you get to know somebody online and especially with social media what’s happened today I think people are becoming more and more comfortable with it. However obviously with social media you’re not inviting them into your home but you’re developing a relationship and that is what you do with home exchange. You send out an email. It’s thrilling. I just want to put that out there. I can’t think of any other word other than thrilling because you’ll hear from someone in Norway, you’ll hear from a person in Madrid, a family in Venice, and it will be just so exciting for you especially when you look at photos of their homes and you start the dance, the getting to know you dance. How many children? What do you do? Although that’s often on their website. Between the emails I think I’m probably pretty dependent on my intuition more so than I realize. Most people have intuition skills and you use them and you develop a comfort level and if you don’t, then don’t exchange with that person.
EM: Right. So this is happening over a period of time. How long in advance do you start planning for something?
SM: If you want to take a holiday in the summer if you wanted to go to Europe let’s just say, virtually all Europeans travel in August. It’s just like they close up the cities and they all go away. So right now I’d say April, March, even earlier would be the time to start the process and sometimes you get a really fast response. You just never know. We have booked home exchanges within a 2-week period. I mean it might be five months out but via emails back and forth because people want to get their airplane tickets, etc., but you could start now and book a home exchange in Europe for August, no question.
EM: There are a lot of different companies offering this service right now. How do you find the right match?
SM: There are about 70, if you can believe it. What I like about them is that they are a diverse group of organizations. One of them is for families or people who are Jewish because a kosher kitchen is important. There is one that focuses on disabilities, people with disabilities. Yet another is for Christians. One is for teachers. So you go online and you Google home exchange companies for professors, let’s say, especially for professors who want to take sabbaticals because it can be pretty expensive if you go somewhere for three to six months. Well you look for someone in another part of the world who also wants to go away on sabbatical and you just start looking for . . . One tip would be to, if you want to go let’s say to France perhaps you choose a company who has a lot of people from France. That’s one option. You oftentimes can browse the website of the home exchange company and see what feels comfortable. Is it user friendly for you? See how many photos they allow you to put up. Sometimes people limit you to the number of photos. Just go online and start your research.
EM: So you do the research, you find the right match, and you get ready to go. There’s a lot of preparation to leaving your house to visitors that are going to be there for an extended period of time. What’s that process like? I just have to say I’ve got my mother’s fine china or something like that. What do you do with some of the things that you would feel more comfortable if people were not using.
SM: If your items are like some china that can be boxed up or jewelry or a vase then you do that. You box them up and you put them in a basement, you put them in an attic. When we went away for five months, it was our first time ever home exchanging, and I put away my sterling silverware and my jewelry box. I put it at a girlfriend’s house and I think she stuck it under her bed. I don’t even know. When we came back I picked it up and all was well. Now that we’ve done 12 home exchanges in 12 years, I trust the people who we exchange with or else I wouldn’t be doing the exchange. Fundamentally, the kind of person I am, I trust people, I’m an optimist, and because we’ve done it so many times I’m very comfortable with this [home exchange] concept. For new people absolutely box it up, put it out of sight, because it’s not only theft. If the family you exchange with has toddlers you don’t want something breakable in a place where someone could easily bump it. So yes put it away. But just realize people are there to tour your city. They don’t want to tour your closets.
EM: You know taking kids away from their homes, sports, school, their friends, I can imagine it would be pretty guilt inducing possibly if you’re going for a long period of time. How do you do it and not have your kids disown you?
SM: Well when we lived in Europe for five months, which we’ve only done that one time. All of our other home exchanges have been for two week periods but if someone chooses to take this approach to a long exchange, which I strongly encourage, I did my best to communicate to our children, both my husband and I, throughout the process if we set up the home exchange and a photo would appear on the computer I would say, “What do you think guys?” The home exchange we did in England [the home swap partner] asked us if we wanted to care for their animals. One might think a fish or a bird or a dog, well it involved geese and sheep and dogs and fish and our daughter said, “Yes, yes I want to take care of them,” including the sheep. So she was thrilled and it wasn’t until about two months into the trip, after I had already shared the itinerary, every month they knew where we were and what family we were exchanging with it was about two months into the trip we were in a small village in Ireland on the west coast the name of the village is Schull and my son looked up at me, he was 12 at the time, and said “I want to go home.” I took him aside because I didn’t want him to influence my 8-year-old daughter who often took on many of her big brother’s emotions. I took him aside and we had a chat and I brought the itinerary with me and said, “Dillon we would disappoint these people,” and I pointed to all of the families who had planned to come to our home in San Diego and I said, “You know what? I know exactly how you feel.” I don’t know how I knew what to do but I listened to him and I put my arm around him and I acknowledged his feelings and I said, “Let’s go play a game of cards” and we went downstairs. We played a game of cards. He looked outside and he saw some of the local boys playing what’s called hurley in Ireland. It’s a game you play with what looks like a hockey stick and he looked at me and he looked outside. I said, “Go on!” Well, you know, that was his low point and he got past it and it helped that the neighborhood boys were playing sports in the courtyard.
EM: That’s great. I remember being on the island of Koh Tao in Thailand. This is a number of decades ago but I met a young woman from Canada and she was traveling with her
7-year-old son and they were taking off for a year. I was watching her son play with a little Thai kid. Neither of them spoke the same language and they were just having the time of their lives. They were playing with a hammock and spinning each around and it was amazing and she just seemed like such a brave and courageous person but I also have to say I didn’t meet many Americans that were doing that kind of travel. Are you seeing an increase in that?
SM: Absolutely. Social networking has made its entrance into the home exchange world and that’s really what’s going to catapult this forward because people are now they can see and this by the way will addressing your fear and concern of strangers what they are now doing is adding the layers of Facebook or the layer of Twitter or Linked In and let’s just say you worked at a large accounting firm and you see that, “Oh my gosh, someone from Philadelphia their daughter is looking for a home exchange in my city” and you can see the layers of home exchange people and families and some people that helps them to ease their concerns. Now the other thing I want to mention is consumption. People want to now decrease consumption, the carbon footprint, etc., and that’s also really helped the home exchange industry, if you will. You don’t have to build a hotel. There’s a house where we stayed in England that had been built in 1485, and so there were no carbon footprint issues with that! People like the idea of consuming less and experiencing more. So that has also helped the home exchange concept grow.
EM: Then you mentioned taking care of some animals. What if you had a dog or a cat that you cared about? Do you want to leave them with someone for a while? How do you know that that’s going to work?
SM: We did a home exchange in Seattle. They had a dog and we had a dog. We agreed [to a pet exchange]. This is all optional. I want your listeners to understand that if you don’t want smokers in your home you check the little box that says nonsmoking. If you don’t want a pet exchange fine. These are all options. We exchanged with this family in Seattle. By the way, they left their van at the airport. We never met. She called me and said, “Okay it’s in Level B19.” They put the keys under the mat. We flew into Sea-Tac Airport, went to their van, and found the keys and drove to their home because we did what’s called a car exchange. There was their cute standard poodle. We took care of their dog and they took care of ours and everyone was happy, including the dogs!
EM: That’s great. It sounds like such a wonderful way to really get into a culture too because whether it’s Seattle or the other side of the planet you’re in a life rather than a temporary transient kind of home like a hotel or a B&B might be.
SM: Right. As I like to say you get to live in a neighborhood not in a business district. And you have a kitchen and you get to go to the local market and you cook up some of the carrots that have been grown there in the French garden. You really do get to live authentically just as the people who are residents of that community. When we did an exchange in Germany, the neighbors were so kind to us and invited us over for a barbeque. I had just bought a dirndl dress you know the dirndl dress from “The Sound of Music” and I felt very local. Well come to find out, they really only wear those for parades and such but I had on my dirndl and they [the neighbors] had on their little khaki skirts. They looked like American women. It was so funny. We went to a barbeque at their house and had bratwurst and steak and the children were there playing with the hose and our children spoke English and their children spoke German and it didn’t matter because there was a hose and it was summertime and we got to feel like we were really German residents at that barbeque and it was pretty special.
EM Well it sounds like such an affordable and fun way to travel and I’m sure people would like to find out more. How can they get in touch with you and your program?
SM: My website address is HomeExchangeExpert.com. There are a lot of double e’s in there. My Twitter handle is @HomeExchangeKey. Include the @ sign if you do Twitter. Those are the two places where you can contact me. I have FAQs on my website. If people want to read specifics they can start there.
EM: Wonderful. Well thank you so much. I have been speaking with Shelley Miller and she is a home exchange expert and I just wish you many happy travels Shelley.
SM: Thank you Elaine. Same to you!
Leave me a comment below and let me know what you thought of the interview. What was your biggest takeaway?