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Travel

Free Getaways Around the World

Swap your home and all you need to do is get there.

Even with the beaten-down travel industry spilling out deals on airfares like candy from a busted piñata, vacation planning nowadays often ends with, "It still costs too much." But suppose you could stay free in a vacation home? Those sweet deals might look a little more tempting.

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Swapping houses with other would-be vacationers is one way to get a free stay. And the pool of homeowners looking to trade places is growing rapidly. At HomeExchange.com, the biggest Web site for home swappers, the number of listings jumped to 26,000 in January, up from 20,000 a year earlier. "The word's getting out that exchanging homes is really a recession-beater," says HomeExchange president Ed Kushins.

The savings can be dramatic. Real estate agent Lori Koppel-Heath made her first swap ten years ago, when she was living in Coto de Caza, Cal. Lori and her husband, Michael, a stockbroker and financial planner, were looking for a stay in Great Britain. Instead of paying $400 a night at a London hotel for six weeks, they traded their four-bedroom home for a five-bedroom house in Amersham, a town north of London. Total savings: $16,800.

And the couple's temporary home turned out to be as breathtaking as their savings -- an 80-year-old English Tudor surrounded by rolling hills and meandering footpaths. "It just looked like a fairy tale," says Lori.

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Trading Down

Exchange clubs offer various kinds of lodging worldwide, whether you want to relax in simple digs or hold court in a castle. Just don't expect to trade a modest apartment in the hinterlands for a four-bedroom Parisian penthouse. The easiest swaps will be for homes similar to your own.

However, it's a common practice to trade down in house size if you're looking to visit popular destinations -- such as London, Paris, New York City and Hawaii. When Lori and Michael visited Scotland for their second swap, in 2000, the St. Andrews house they stayed in wasn't as big as their own 4,500-square-foot home. But it was in a fine location for the British Open that year. "A fair swap is one that both parties are comfortable with," says Lori.

Mary Lang has also happily downsized a bit in her exchanges. Swapping out her four-bedroom lakefront home in Cazenovia, N.Y., about a half-hour from Syracuse, Lang has settled in smaller, three-bedroom homes throughout Europe, including just outside London and Paris. The cozier quarters provided plenty of space for Mary and her husband, Vaughn, a real estate lawyer, and their two sons. "A small house is still much more spacious than the alternative -- a hotel room," she says.

And, again, the savings can be impressive. Mary, who recently retired as a professor at Syracuse University, estimates the family saved "easily $10,000" on each month-long vacation. Over the past four years, the Langs exchanged homes seven times.

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Curb Appeal

You don't need to live in a palace of your own to arrange an attractive swap. Serial swappers Sam and Judy Robbins, who hail from Washington, D.C., get all kinds of offers for a stay in their 1,300-square-foot condominium. Members of three swapping networks, the Robbinses consistently get about one inquiry per week. Trading for apartments and houses all over the world, Sam and Judy have swapped abodes about 40 times since 1995.

Throwing in extras can enhance the appeal of your home. The Robbinses, for instance, are able to offer a car and their second home, a restored 1840s log cabin on a 300-acre tree farm in Lexington, Va. The whole package makes for an exchange worthy of a larger home with a pool or garden.

Highlighting the best features of your home and neighborhood can sometimes secure surprising swaps. "Our friends ask us, 'Who the heck wants to come to Syracuse, especially from Paris or London?'" says Lang. "But if you have a family and you're looking for a wholesome vacation, this is a quiet and charming spot."

In addition to offering a spacious, architect-designed house on the shore of the 6-mile-long lake around which the peaceful country town was built, the Langs include use of the family's pontoon boat in their exchanges.

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Be Flexible

The more flexible you are, the easier it is to arrange swaps. Originally the Langs exchanged their home only during summer breaks. But later they began taking winter jaunts as well. Mary found that just when she was ready to escape to warmer weather, other vacationers appreciated her area for its great skiing and picture-postcard Christmases.

RELATED LINKS

SLIDE SHOW: How Far Can You Stretch Your Travel Dollar

Best 30 Travel Sites

Visit Our Smart Travel Center

Sam and Judy Robbins are so flexible that they often let the inquiries they receive dictate their travel plans. For instance, they hadn't really considered a vacation down under until an Australian couple contacted them in 2003. They ended up making Australia part of a four-month-long trip around the world. "These ideas can come from nowhere and develop into quite a nice experience," says Sam.

But exchanging homes is also becoming a popular strategy for arranging quick getaways closer to home. "With the economy the way it is, there has been a real increase in weekend vacations," says Kushins.

Getting Started

To set up your home exchange, you first choose a network, then sign up online, review the listings and send inquiries to potential exchange partners. Travel expert Bob Jones, of BookingWiz.com, recommends using established home-exchange sites because they offer broader networks and better protection from shady swappers. Costs range from $45 to $200 per year.

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With most networks, you can start perusing listings even before you join. Choose a destination country, then narrow your search by specifying a city and a range of travel dates. The pickier you are, the more difficult it will be to arrange a trip. Still, it's possible to swap homes even if your travel plans are fixed. The trick to booking specific dates is to post your inquiries well in advance; it's best to start the process six months before your trip.

Good Housekeeping

Once you set your sights on an exchange, it's time to get to know your potential partner. One thing you should be sure to discuss via e-mail or phone: housekeeping. Although the complaints Kushins has heard over the years have been few, most have concerned different standards of cleanliness. He was once compelled to remove a member from the site because the member had left an extreme mess for guests. However, he says, "there's never been a case of malicious damage or theft." To avoid becoming a victim, keep your valuables locked away in a closet or safe.

If you do encounter a housekeeping problem, complain to your network and take pictures to prove your case. HomeExchange investigates each complaint, and some networks include message boards and member ratings to address such issues. To head off problems, be diligent when setting up an exchange. In her seven swaps, Lang was disappointed only once, when a house she stayed in, though beautiful, was "in serious need of repair." She has learned to steer clear of that situation by asking for more pictures and requesting references.

Kushins also strongly recommends that you ask for references. "A home exchange is a little bit like Internet dating for your house," he says. But with swapping, you can use past relationships to screen suitors and find your perfect match.

Take Precautions

To prepare for guests, turn off the pay-per-view and long-distance capabilities on your TV and phone, says Jones, of BookingWiz.com. Also, stow away all your financial information, and get your neighbors involved. "They'll be certain to let you know if a moving van shows up," Jones says.

For a $25 fee, HomeLink offers cancellation insurance; if your temporary home is unavailable in an emergency, a representative will help place you in another home or hotel. You send lodging receipts to HomeLink, and at the end of the year the insurance fund is divvied up proportionately (meaning you may not be fully reimbursed).

Check your homeowners insurance for coverage for exchange guests, and review your auto-insurance policy before you swap cars. HomeExchange.com reports that most policies cover visitors as invited guests. Many exchange sites offer sample agreements for both homes and cars to help you formalize the terms of the swap.