With spiralling covid numbers and inconsistent vaccination rates worldwide, avid travellers may be despairing as to whether they will ever be able to travel again, especially overseas. In Australia, and at the time of writing, borders are firmly closed between the homeland and other countries except for only exceptional circumstances and Victoria and New South Wales are in lockdown.
My ‘scratch off the countries’ travel map has been rolled up and tucked away and my extensive travel book collection is gathering dust on the bookshelf. However, with plenty of leisure time to fill in, lockdown has been an ideal time to reflect on past travels and I feel grateful that I have been able to travel to 35 countries and access a particular style of accommodation that enabled me to experience countries in a unique, comfortable and leisurely manner.
The Concept of Home Exchange
I can’t quite remember how I found out about the concept of exchanging homes, but I know I was looking to experience something different in travel and wanted to feel like I lived in the place I was visiting rather than racing around like a tourist. I have always been a wanderer and prefer staying in the one location for more than just a few days to really experience it. As a teacher and art gallery educator I had toyed with the idea of teaching at an international school or taking on a long internship in a gallery overseas, so the idea of House Swapping appealed to me as a way to meet other travellers, save money and experience living, not just travelling.
My first trips using Home Exchange
Having taken the plunge and signing up with Homeexchange.com in 2011, I initially found it difficult to obtain swaps. My home is in Bendigo, a regional city in Victoria, Australia and despite its excellent offerings, it was rarely known to anyone outside of Australia. International travellers on homeexchange.com looked to visit the tourist hotspots such as Sydney, Uluru, Great Ocean Road, the Great Barrier Reef and maybe, Melbourne. Therefore, I was thrilled when first approached for an international swap by an enthusiastic couple, Trish and Terry, from Tauranga, New Zealand in 2011.
My partner of the time was actually a New Zealander, so we thought a visit back home to see family could work alongside a longer stay in Tauranga, in the centre of the North Island. In 2011, international phone calls were still usually STD, and even Skype was relatively new; however, Trish and I exchanged many animated phone calls prior to our swap, building our anticipation of our respective journeys. Once my partner and I arrived at their substantial home, I feared that Trish and Terry may not consider it an equal swap; their large two-storey modern home was blessed with multiple different living areas, a gigantic kitchen and all modern conveniences, unlike my period home which at the time did not even have air conditioning (and the temperatures hit 40+ that Summer!).
New Zealand Home Exchange
Thankfully, Trish and Terry were not angry at surviving the heatwave and were also willing to take on looking after my cat, Honey and even joked that they were taking her with them when they departed. At Tauranga, my partner and I mainly used the house to rest in as we had been hot footing it around the South Island, kayaking and mountain trekking and by the time of our arrival, we were exhausted. We devoured their book collection, slept in and generally lounged around until I urged us outside on day excursions. In retrospect, I have learnt that having a few ‘days off’ from the hectic pace of an itinerary can actually prevent travel fatigue and allow time for reflection, rest and time to reset and I now often seek exchanges of a week in length.
Things got even better
Things got even better, years later, when I was approached by an Italian couple asking for a one-month exchange. Their house was in Lecco, in North Italy, the town flanked by the sumptuous Lake Como in one direction and Resegone mountain in the other, and only 38 minutes by train to Milan. “There must be a mistake! What are they going to do in Bendigo for a month?” my adult daughter probed. I discovered that Marcella and Salvatore had been to Bendigo several times before and actually loved it!
This swap precipitated my plans for a subsequent six-week Europe tour. With ‘balloons’ in hand (gained through inviting Melbourne home exchangers to stay at my place while I visited friends) I found non-reciprocal stays in Vienna (in a mansion with the largest bedroom I have ever slept in), Bratislava (Slovakia) and, by listing ‘Preferred Destinations’ I was invited to give a balloon in return for a two-night stay in a unique Art Deco period home in Perpignan, France. The home exchange homes I visited during this stay were all unique but it was meeting the hosts that best provided a great insight into the countries. In the apartment in Vienna, the home was so huge that I actually shared it with the daughter (and boyfriend at the weekend) of the hosts and our morning chats gleaned insightful information about living and studying in Vienna; the boyfriend having just completed his compulsory national military service.
When I eventually arrived in Lecco, I was in for a real treat. Marcella and Salvatore’s home is triple-storeyed and I had sole use of the top floor with two bedrooms and two bathrooms and the ground floor which included the laundry, kitchen and massive dining room which approximated an Italian restaurant. Avid ballroom dancers, the floor was put to use on my first night as I was treated to an Italian feast and a foxtrot lesson. Although I enjoyed sufficient privacy, the peppering of my solitude with text messages from Marcella such as ‘Would you like to try some of our Sicilian soup?’ were welcomed greatly.
Home Exchanging in Eastern Europe
Inspired by my 2018 journeys, I escalated my interest in international home exchange and the following year brought joy in the way of the now point-based stays in Tirana (Albania), Ohrid, (North Macedonia), Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Sofia (Bulgaria), Nis and Belgrade (Serbia). With all invitations, I offered the hosts the option of either points or an actual swap, not expecting any to take up the swap option. After all, in Australia, we don’t get many tourists from Albania and my North Macedonia host taught me that they are were actually not allowed to travel in Australia, which made me feel privileged, as an Australian to be permitted to travel so widely.
Once again, I was surprised then, when the Sofia host, Geri, not only agreed to an exchange, but to a swap, and noted that her husband was actually born in Bendigo! What are the odds? In the Balkans, I enjoyed some memorable and unique stays: in Tirana, my host and her husband lived in an apartment in the same building, the one I slept in being his architecture studio that he rarely used being in semi-retirement. Kozeta met me every morning for coffee at the café opposite the building. In Tirana, almost every second shop is a coffee shop, it’s like a way of living; this suited me as a coffee addict. I was also entertained by joining Kozeta and her husband at the avant-garde exhibition opening of their daughter, chauffeured by a handsome architect partner in a Mercedes.
Not all exchanges are this romantic
Not all exchanges were this romantic and at one apartment I arrived to a fridge full of out of date food, as the host also used it as an Airbnb and expected the guests to clean up, but at the same home, I enjoyed the best view of the city from the large open windows.
Later that year I enjoyed a hosted stay in Hualien in Taiwan. The host, Sean’s impressive profile on home exchange was only usurped by his infectious enthusiasm for showing off his city and remarkable canyons.
Exchanges don’t always mean that you meet the hosts and live with them, and more often than not you don’t, but as a mostly solo traveller, I have found this to be a wonderful way to break up the solitude and learn more about a country.
Since COVID-19 Home Exchangers turn to domestic travel
Since the outbreak of Covid-19, international travel has been on hold for Australians, but this has forced us to look locally and this year I have been blessed with exchanges to Geelong, Torquay, and, (one off the bucket list): Katoomba (think Blue Mountains). And the gifts keep giving: it was only at my most recent exchange in Torquay in June, that I admired the paintings the host Rudi, had created and decorated their house with to find, three months later, one posted to me that he had created, based on an image in one of my Art Deco books.
Exchanging a home is not for everyone. If you are not comfortable with someone else sleeping in your bed and potentially looking at your stuff, then don’t bother. Many hosts like to lock up valuables or private matters in a separate room or locked cupboard to solve this problem. I have found, however, that most home exchangers are trusting and reliable people, and you can always read the reviews if you are not sure.
For me, although international travel is off the radar for the moment, Home Exchange has enabled me to look to Australia for a unique holiday, save money and enjoy travel at a relaxed pace. After all, as Marcel Proust says: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but having new eyes.”