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by Elizabeth Pope, August 28, 2006
THE OPEN ROAD BECKONS travelers in autumn when destinations are less crowded and plane fares drop. If whirlwind package tours and sterile hotel rooms don’t appeal to your inner explorer, consider home exchanges and hospitality clubs. Participants swap houses or play host to each other for a few days, saving money on hotels, car rentals, and restaurants.
Stretching travel money is only one benefit. Living in a neighborhood, shopping in local markets, and chatting with hosts over the kitchen table can lead to new friendships and a deeper understanding of the world. Here are three options to suit the eager traveler:
Teachers’ House Swap: Intervac. In 1953, a group of Swiss and Swedish teachers agreed to swap houses during summer vacations so they could travel longer and bring international experiences back to the classroom. That pioneering home exchange program became Intervac—a blend of “international” and “vacation”—which now lists 11,000 homes in more than 50 countries. Intervac helps vacationers swap homes (and often cars, pet care, and plant care) usually for one to four weeks, although shorter stays and sabbaticals are possible.
Fees start at $79 for a year’s online access to the international Intervac database or $129 to also receive a printed catalog of photos and listings. Swappers then arrange the exchange on their own, with no more money changing hands. Although Intervac does not pre-screen participants, it provides you with a checklist of advice and a suggested agreement form that both parties may sign.
Paula Jaffe, a retired elementary school teacher, has swapped her four-bedroom house in Tiburon, CA, six times for lodgings in England, Italy, France, and Spain. “I’ve never had a bad exchange, just a broken Mr. Coffee pot, which the family replaced,” says Jaffe. Register in the fall for summer exchanges, she advises, and get to know your fellow swappers through correspondence, telephone calls, and e-mails.
Guest Rooms Gone Global: Evergreen Club. Got a spare bedroom? Consider joining a network of more than 2,000 club members who agree to play host to each other for short stays. “Evergreeners” are 50-plus adults who pay their hosts a modest gratuity of $15 a day for two ($10 for singles) in return for up to three nights in a guest bedroom with breakfast. Friendly conversation and sightseeing advice are added pluses. For annual dues of $60 to $75, members receive two directories a year listing hosts and their locations, employment, hobbies, nearby sights, type of breakfast served, laundry privileges and pet information. Guests make arrangements directly with hosts.
Since 1982, the club has grown from 68 members to more than 3,500, with about five percent living overseas. On average, members host four or five times a year, some more frequently and some less so because of their location. If you live in New York, Los Angeles, or Orlando, expect a lot of requests, which you are free to turn down.
Academics are well-represented among Evergreeners, says Carol Hussey, membership director. “Teachers are usually versatile and adventuresome,” she adds, two traits that serve club members well because each household is unique. Accommodations may range from a luxurious home to a cabin in the woods to a yacht. “But you can’t always expect a kingsize bedroom,” she warns. “These are private home-stays, not expensive, commercial B&Bs.”
Cross-Cultural Understanding: Servas. Ever wished you could travel the world without leaving home? Or learn more about a foreign land from people who live there? Servas is not a travel club, but a cultural exchange network that promotes peace and goodwill through person-to-person contacts. Founded in 1948, the nonprofit counts more than 15,000 members in 130 countries from Argentina to Zimbabwe who share daily life in their homes as either host or traveler (and preferably both).
Overnight hosts accommodate travelers in their homes for a minimum of two nights. Others act as day hosts, meeting travelers at hotels, cafes, or museums. Travelers pay Servas a membership fee of up to $85 and are personally interviewed to weed out those only interested in free lodgings instead of cultural understanding. Hosts are also interviewed and asked to make a $40 donation. Travelers then receive a list of hosts for their destination and are free to make contacts before departure.
“Many of our hosts are begging for someone to visit them, particularly if they live off the tourist track,” says Servas board member Gilbert Sherr. Wherever they go, Servas members are urged to find a way of serving the family—setting the table, washing the car, cooking a dish or tutoring a child in English. Sherr once stayed with an English teacher near Bangkok who asked him to tour the city with her students. “I ended up giving a bunch of 15-year-olds an impromptu English lesson,” he recalls. “How could that ever compare to staying in a stale, impersonal hotel room?
Elizabeth Pope has written on travel for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Time magazine. This article was published in NRTA Live & Learn, Summer 2006.
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