In just two years, I have swapped homes with strangers over a dozen times. My two-bedroom flat in Barcelona was bartered for a townhouse in Brooklyn, romantic studio in Milan, park-facing pied-à-terre in Madrid, city escapes in London, and even a penthouse in Paris with views of the Sacré-Coeur. When my fiancé Gustavo and I moved to a new apartment in Edinburgh, one of my first considerations was if we'd be able to home swap with it.
How did I become a home swapping evangelist? Necessity. Travel is one of my biggest priorities—and bank account drainers. At 27, I’m too old to sleep on my friend’s couch for two weeks, but too young to stay in a luxury hotel without it causing financial ruin. With hidden fees and legislation making affordable, high-quality Airbnbs harder to find in major cities, house swapping has become one of the only options that makes sense for my lifestyle (personally, if I’m going to spend the big bucks on travel, I want to be in a five-star hotel, not ticking off a chores list).
And as they say, desperation is the mother of invention. Two years ago I moved out of New York City and that summer, I wanted to return with Gustavo to visit friends. A quick search for hotels made it clear that I’d need divine intervention to afford a two-week stay. Later, a friend suggested house swapping, which I had never heard of anyone doing. Though I originally thought the idea was absurd, I reluctantly checked out Yes Nomads, a Facebook group for home sharing, and posted an Instagram story asking if anyone was interested in swapping their New York apartment for our Barcelona flat.
I was surprised when I was met with a flurry of requests. On Yes Nomads, I met a couple in Brooklyn who could swap for one week, and on Instagram, a friend of a friend agreed to swap for the remainder of my trip. In the end—after more hours than I’d like to admit spent fielding inquiries, arranging dates, and setting up key-handoffs—I essentially vacationed for free.
Despite the cost benefits, I was still apprehensive before my first house swap. I’m particular about my space and prayed nothing would be ruined. Are Post-It notes with instructions passive aggressive? I wondered. What if they open our junk drawer? But beyond stashing away a few family photos, I generally left the apartment as is. After reviewing our home guidelines and walking through our apartments via video call, there was a mutual sense that they would treat my home as if it was their own, and vice versa.
Guided by this understanding of trust, the swap went beautifully. I managed to not kill the couple’s plants and with only one instance of someone getting locked out of the apartment (me), I’d say it was a roaring success. When I returned home to my apartment in perfect condition and my bank account filled, I knew I was converted.
What I didn’t expect is that home exchange would be such an intimately personal experience, despite spending no time with the home swappers themselves. I returned to a thank you note and a book on the table that the couple thought I’d enjoy (having observed the titles on my bookshelves). Whenever I discuss the experience with others, I catch myself wanting to reference my home swap counterparts as my friends—not strangers I met on the internet.
I’m far from the only traveler that has used home swapping to match my expectations for both trip cost and quality. Justine Palefsky, CEO of home swapping platform Kindred says the company has seen a “huge groundswell of people interested in home swapping for the first time,” with seven times the number of nightly stays in 2023 compared to 2022. And according to Palefsky, 2024 is looking even stronger.
How to arrange a house swap
In many ways, home swapping is an answered prayer to travelers who have grown accustomed to the live-like-a-local experience that Airbnbs make possible. As popular travel destinations like New York City, Paris, and Barcelona, among others, crack down on short-term letting, home swapping has emerged as a way to circumvent the legislation, at least for the time-being, while also allowing travelers to form more personal connections than staying in never-lived-in investment properties.
But despite the recent surge in interest surrounding house swapping, when it comes to finding one it’s still a bit of a Wild West. While I personally had a good experience using Facebook and Instagram, the informal organization means you personally assume the risk of your trip.
For a more risk-averse home swapper like me, HomeExchange’s $220 annual membership is a good option. The $500 security deposit required for each swap guarantees reimbursement for property damages and financial compensation if theft occurs, which made me feel more comfortable leaving my belongings at home. With a global user base of 150,000 members in 145 countries, I’ve been able to find great apartments in London, Milan, and Madrid on HomeExchange. That said, availability is up to each host, so it can be a bit of a hunt to find a property with dates that work. I often have to request twenty or so swaps to find “the one.” My only other gripe is that the pre-arrival cleaning process is not standardized, so I’ve had apartments with varying levels of cleanliness.
Most recently, I joined the waitlist for Kindred, which has listings in 100 cities across North America and Europe. After submitting an application online, that requires adding four to five photos or a video of your space, I was accepted. The standard wait time is two weeks, but it can be faster. While there isn’t a membership fee, you pay a cleaning and service fee for each swap. Personally, I haven’t paid more than $300 per trip—and that was for an eight-day trip to Madrid.
Kindred has been my smoothest home swapping experience by far. Their team has been able to alleviate some of the most salient pain points of home swapping: logistics, cleanliness, and trust. Doing a home swap on Kindred is very hands-on, with staff members facilitating introductory calls, setting up cleaners for before and after the swaps, and sending toiletry kits and new sheets to their hosts. Team members provide advice on best practices, help you create your home guide, and are on-call 24/7 via WhatsApp if you have any issues with the apartment. The apartments themselves are obviously vetted through the application process—every home I’ve seen on the platform has great interior design.
Of course, it’s not always perfect, especially if you’re traveling in a group. While planning a family vacation to New York through Kindred, it took two weeks of requesting apartments and meeting potential hosts until we were finally able to nail down a place for five people. Knowing how rare it was, we ended up booking our flights around the apartment’s availability instead of the other way around.
Would it have been easier to just book a hotel? Yes. But do I love the thrill of finding an amazing home swap and paying $300 for an eight-day trip in New York instead of $3,000? Absolutely yes. Home swapping isn’t for the inflexible traveler, but if you’re willing to put the work in to make it work, I couldn’t recommend it more.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler