{Travel} “I’m traveling the world for free–and you can, too.”

Would you ever do a home swap?

The risks: Virtual strangers move into your home, cook in your kitchen, sleep in your bed, use your phone . . . even look through your drawers and medicine cabinets.

The reward: A free stay at a destination like the one pictured above, a private villa in the South of France, with a pool, tennis court, and views overlooking a cherry orchard and the breathtaking Luberon Mountains.

FOF Sandra Harris did her first “homeswap” in 2005, trading her house in London during the dreary winter months, for a charming cottage on the beach in Apollo Bay, Australia. Since then, Sandra has traveled back to Australia several times as well as to Cornwall, Santa Monica and Sicily, all through home swapping with other eager travelers on HomeExchange.com.

She spoke to us from her latest homeswap destination, an Italianate apartment in the heart of Palermo, Italy.

Tell us a little about yourself so that we know you’re normal.
I am in my late sixties. I’ve lived in London for the past 40 years. I am married and we have three children, all adult, and three grandchildren whom I am dotty about. I work as a reporter and freelance writer.

How did you get started with your first “home swap”

Friends of friends in Melbourne had mentioned that they wanted to spend the winter in London. (Strange but true). My husband and I moved into their house for three months while they moved into ours.

Do you have to swap for that long?
No, although I personally recommend taking a longer trip when you swap. But I’m here in Sicily for just five days.

Were you nervous the first time you did it?

Oh yes. Mostly about spending three months somewhere we’d only seen in emailed photos, in a city we didn’t know. We’d be unable to change our minds.

Clearly it went okay, since you’ve now used this method of travel many times. But tell me why it worked.
That first experience was truly life-changing. We lived like locals. When we arrived in our new “home” in Melbourne, Val had left us a lovely bottle of Australian red, along with a detailed list of the best local restaurants, where to shop, how to take the bus–everything. Within a few weeks, we knew where to get the best croissants; I had joined the local pony club and become a proxy in Val’s cinema group. We made lifelong friends. . .

But what about the other side of the coin? Weren’t you nervous about people staying in your home? Using your things?
People who mutter about it being ‘a bit of a lottery’ just don’t get it. It is not a gamble at all, but totally reciprocal. You look after my house/pets/car/plants and I will do the same for yours. People don’t take advantage because they’re in the same position. Ed Kushins, the director of HomeExchange.com, told me that over 9 years and thousands and thousands of home swaps, no one has ever reported a theft of abuse of property.

Would you ever go back to hotel-based travel?

When it’s just for a short time, yes, I would. I like hotels. I like being waited on and ringing up room service. But it’s a totally different experience. It is about visiting a place and taking in the sights. Home exchange is about digging your heels in and becoming part of the life of a place.

Can you tell me a typical day during your homeswap in Sicily?
We start in a cafe with our daily cappucini and pastry, my favourites are the little horns ‘cannoli’, filled with custard cream and dusted with icing sugar. Today we visited a totally unique shop called Modusvivendi (The Way To Live, in Latin) a book shop that also sells glorious scarves and pashminas in intense Medici colours, the sort of thing you imagine Catherine Medici or Lucretia Borgia would have worn. The owner, Marcella, was providing coffee and cornetti for her customers. We visited the local food markets to buy ingredients for soup. Oranges are everywhere; pears bursting with juice and taste, and fat, round grapes. In the evening we went to Teatro Garibaldi for a Beethoven concert. And bed at 11 with a good book!

Any tips for an FOF who wants to try this out?
The secret it is that no money changes hands.The gas bills, phone bills etc–forget them. Once you start totting up bills and arguing about small change you’ve lost the plot. It becomes like a rental and that is a whole different bag of beans. Home exchange is exactly that.  Exchange.

Ed’s note: We became mildly obsessed with searching homeexchange.com after we interviewed Sandra, and found incredible homeswap opportunities in Turkey, Mexico, Bali, and many, many more (including all over the United States). Other sites worth searching include Homelink.org and exchangehomes.com.