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Swapping for Home Away From Home

November 19, 2000|EILEEN OGINTZ

Every year, the Arnolds pack up their three kids and explore a different European country, often staying in luxurious digs. But the trip dents their budget less than a shorter trip closer to home.

"Besides the air fare, we spend peanuts," said Lisa Arnold, who was getting her brood ready to leave their Connecticut home for Italy. Their secret? Free lodging.

Rather than paying for hotels, they swap houses with a European family interested in exploring the East Coast. Each family gets roomy quarters, a washer and dryer, fridge, stove and toys--all key to a traveling family's happiness.

The families trade cars (saving hundreds more), pets, housecleaners, baby-sitters and even kids' playmates. "I've taken care of dogs, cats, turtles and goldfish," said Jan Hartmann, a Massachusetts teacher who was readying her house for a French family. She never worries about opening her home to strangers.

"With e-mail, you feel like you know them before they come," she said. "I always find my house cleaner than when I left it."

Arnold, an artist, concedes that a home swap is a leap of faith. "But you get a whole different foreign experience."

That includes trips to the local market, the chance to sample unfamiliar toys and cartoons and a community where you might be the only tourists for miles. "In one Holland village where we stayed, everyone wore old-fashioned wooden clogs," Arnold said. "We went to little festivals--obscure places we never would have found otherwise."

Families have been swapping homes for decades, and some families have formed lifelong friendships as a result. The advent of e-mail and the Web made the process of swapping even easier.

"With the click of a mouse you can contact 50 prospects at once," said Lori Horne, veteran home exchanger from San Francisco and co-owner of Intervac USA, a home-exchange agency with 11,000 members around the world. Telephone (800) 756-HOME or Internet Horne estimated that a family with two kids can save $1,500 a week in hotel and car rental costs.

But money isn't the only reason so many families are opting to swap houses. Many are seeking a different kind of experience, off the tourist track, said Karl Costable of the Florida-based Homelink International, a home-exchange organization with 12,000 members. Tel. (800) 638-3841 or Internet "After a while, even nice hotels start to look the same," he said.

This is how it works. You join Homelink, Intervac or one of the many smaller agencies, such as San Francisco-based Invented City, tel. (415) 252-1141 or Internet, for a fee (typically less than $100 a year) to be included in its catalog and Web site. You provide basic information about yourself, your house and when you hope to travel. At the same time, you can search the organization's books and Web database for homes.

House swaps are popular at holiday and spring-break times as well as in the summer. They can last a couple of weeks or several months.

You can even trade with other U.S. families. Trade your mountain condo to a skiing family; swap your city apartment for several weekends in the country. Grandparents initiate swaps so they can visit the grand kids.

Many families use "their" house as a base for exploring another country or region, taking day or weekend trips rather than traveling for two weeks straight loaded down with gear. The more flexible you can be about dates and location, the easier the task. Those living on the East Coast, in Florida and California seem to have especially good luck.

"We just sit back and wait for people to contact us," said Lee Lavine, a teacher and mother of four from Miami who has traded houses in England and the French Alps. "After a day of sightseeing, it's so nice to come home instead of rushing around looking for a restaurant. The kids can go bike riding like they would at home."

Nor do parents feel as compelled to keep the gang on the go every minute when they're not springing for pricey hotels.

There is one drawback to this family travel plan, however: Swaps can be harder to cancel than hotel reservations because another family is involved.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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