Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Real Cost of a Home Exchange

Have you been intrigued by a home exchange? A home exchange is a direct exchange of housing, where you stay in somebody else's home for free while they stay in yours for free. No money changes hands. It could save you thousands of dollars while letting you experience your destination more like a local.

Go to the home exchange sites, and you'll be instantly dreaming of your vacation in beautiful homes around the world. The homes look really, really good. There are mansions and penthouses as well as cottages and chalets. It seems there is always a beautiful one in the best location and I couldn't help but imagine I'd be staying in all of them for free.

I mean I really couldn't help it- I signed up and paid the fee. The way the sites work, you can browse for free, but when you want to actually communicate with an owner, you have to signup and pay an annual fee (typically $100 - $300+).

I convinced myself it makes a lot of sense for our family. We already booked a free trip to Europe with points, but we don't yet have accommodations. The two places we plan to visit in Europe are Stockholm and the Swiss Alps, neither of which are inexpensive. Also, we hadn't traveled to Europe since becoming parents, and so were unaware that most European hotels don't offer a single room for 4 people. The whole trip would be very expensive without a home exchange, but could be done inexpensively with one. So, after convincing my family that our house was ready for it (by agreeing to tackle a few neglected projects), I paid the site fee and we tagged a few possible exchange homes we liked.

I soon started contacting the owners, and that's when I realized how expensive this process would be. One couple appreciated my offer, but the home wasn't available when I wanted to visit. Another family told me their kids would be back in school when I suggested dates for an exchange. And those were the ones that replied - many didn't bother. Although other exchangers were also contacting us with their own offers, they were for places like Colorado or California, and would be no help to our already booked trip to Europe.

Browsing the website, I might have thought the probability of a successful exchange was 1 in 10, or maybe a little lower. I figured that our chances were above average considering we're offering a nice house in a nice neighborhood in a city that gets a decent amount of tourism. But 10 offers easily went by without a single acceptance, and I began to realize it's much, much lower.

I changed my contact letter, figuring it wasn't personal enough or maybe not witty enough. Still no takers, and I was well past 20. I ran out of homes in the top tourist locations, so expanded my search into neighborhoods that require a quick subway ride to get downtown. Still no takers.

This was getting expensive - not in terms of money, but in time. Making each contact can take at least 10 minutes, as it takes a while to find a situation that's right for you. And this was in addition to the hours I spent tackling neglected house projects, taking pictures of our house, and writing up marketing comments so our home would be appealing to other exchangers on the site.

It takes time for each contact because some homes look phenomenal, but you quickly realize you're wasting people's time trying to exchange a stunning 5BR/4BA penthouse with 360-degree views and a rooftop pool in a top tourist location for a 3BR/1BA house on a quiet residential street in your little city. In some cases when the match felt about right, I would read closer and see they only want to exchange for beach destinations (we don't live near a beach). Or perhaps the listing says the home accommodates 4 people, but my idea of "accommodate" is very different from theirs (which involves pulling couches together).

Housing choice aside, the biggest factor by far in negotiating a successful exchange is timing. The more flexible you are with your dates, the more likely it will work. Because we already bought our tickets, we are not very flexible on dates.

Another huge factor is being flexible on location. The first offer we received for Stockholm was slightly beyond the last subway stop outside the city. Although the timing actually worked and we were getting desperate, we decided that location was more important than saving money, and so we declined. Shortly after, we received an offer from Copenhagen, and thought seriously about changing our destination by adding a short connection on a cheap European carrier. However, Copenhagen wasn't Stockholm, and we weren't going to let a home exchange site change our vacation on us.

I persevered through all those challenges, and eventually, it did pan out. Still nothing for the Swiss Alps, but we will soon have an exchange with a very nice family from Stockholm. They have already been incredibly helpful, and so I have no doubt we will enjoy the city like locals. It will also likely save us over a thousand dollars. But at 244 contacts sent, my hourly wage is only slightly better than a fast food worker's.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Divide & Conquer When 4 Seats are Impossible

One of the challenges of using points to travel with a family of four is finding seat availability. It's hard enough to find one or two seats on a reasonable itinerary; four can be next to impossible. I ran across this challenge while booking flights for my family on a summer trip to Washington, DC. 

Four free seats can be hard to get.
[courtesy debsch, rgbstock.com]
I had a dream of jetting my family non-stop to DCA from SEA on an Alaska Airlines flight I hand picked for its arrival time. I had prepared perfectly- the points were in my account, I knew exactly what I wanted, and I was ready well before the 331 advance days when the flight would become available. Nothing was going to stop me.

Or so I thought. Closer to my booking date, I did some dry-run sample bookings 331 days out so I'd have the booking process down pat. But the flight was not available. At least not for four travelers. One or two travelers, yes, no problem. But three or four? No luck. No matter how late I stayed up and how close I got to the actual time when the award seats became available, never could I find more than two seats on this flight.

I started going through my list of possible compromises. I could sacrifice the convenience of non-stop. I could take the two available seats and hope more award seats would open up eventually. Maybe now was the time to pay for a service like ExpertFlyer to help me watch for future seat availability? I was reluctant to spend additional money on what was merely a wish, as there was no guarantee future flight availability would ever show up. And leaving half the family behind or paying a steep fare closer to departure (because I was out of flexibility) were not risks I was willing to take.

My solution was to hold firm on the non-stop, but instead be flexible with the airport, and also split us up. While I was searching for my perfect flight with two travelers, I noticed a flight to Baltimore, a nearby airport, that left and arrived at almost exactly at the same times as my dream flight. This one was also unavailable when searching for more than two passengers, but at least there were two. I looked into the train ride from BWI to Washington: forty minutes and six dollars. We booked two tickets on each of the separate flights. 
Two different flights with similar departure and arrival
times, but to different airports serving the same metro area.
We all make decisions that expose our priorities, and mine was the simplicity of a non-stop flight. While it isn't ideal in that we'll split up, at least we can all travel together to the airport.