Jennifer Allen, a special needs mom and disability travel blogger, shares her experience with HomeExchange, including the pros and cons of this way of travel. For those traveling with a disability, HomeExchange has a "disabled access" search filter to use when finding vacation accommodations, so you can browse more than 13,000 homes that have been labeled as accessible.
As a disability travel blogger, I spend a lot of time researching wheelchair accessible places for family stays. Do you know what I find? Typically, a big fat nothing. Bed and breakfasts are usually old and beautiful: filled with charm... and steps. Lodges are rustic and connect you with the nature feel: filled with adventure... and steps. Home rentals are spacious and cozy, but again, we've never been able to find any that are wheelchair accessible. Most home rental agencies have a filter for finding accessible homes, but they just don't have many listed. We typically stay in modern hotel chains that we're comfortable with and that have accessibility down.
I didn't find HomeExchange. They found me. Because of their passion for inclusion, they reached out to me about sharing tips on travel planning for families with disabilities with their audience. When they asked about partnering together for a home exchange, I quickly brushed them off and explained that we can't do exchanges because we have children and pets and we try to stay in accessible locations.
They responded by letting me know that they have over 13,000 wheelchair accessible homes, that plenty of families love swapping lived-in homes, and that there's even a system in place for either taking your pets with you or letting the visiting family care for them.
Feel free to take as many moments as you need for all of that to sink in, before reading on.
What is HomeExchange?
The main idea is pretty straight forward. You join a community of people willing to exchange homes, and you trade places on your next vacation. Since life is rarely that simple, they also have a points system for non-reciprocal stays. I'm paying with points for my current stay, but I'll make those back when someone stays in my home.
How Does HomeExchange Work?
You start by creating a profile for your own home. This took me a full week because I can only have one room clean at a time (don't judge...). You can add your home's availability when you're creating your profile, but you don't have to. Your completed profile earns you a generous amount of guest points to get started - enough for your first stay, depending on where you're headed.
Once you have a profile, you can search for homes! If you're ready, you can send messages to hosts that you would be interested in exchanging with. You don't have to pay a dime until you finalize an exchange. It's $220 for a year of unlimited exchanges. That being said, I paid early because they had a great Black Friday sale.
The Perks of HomeExchange
Let me start with the general perks of staying in a home vs. a hotel.
Home vs. Hotel
-Laundry (free, and without having to drag the kids along)
-Closed doors (without paying for a second room)
-Full kitchen (usually with basic spices and cooking essentials)
-Dining space (no more making the kids eat over a towel...)
-Space and comfort of a home environment
-Tidiness - the ability to make as big of a mess, or clean as much as you like, without worrying about housekeeping services (you can take the trash out whenever you want and not have to worry about stinky diapers smelling up your room)
-Less expensive (even before the savings of being able to eat in)
-Noise levels - in most situations you don't have to worry about partiers next door... or about your own kids making noise too early in the morning
-Safety (significantly less likely to have dodgy parking situations or shared entry)
-Health (you have your own space - no worries about shared elevators, stairwells, check-in lines, breakfast areas, or other germ zones)
-Have I mentioned laundry?
Those are the main reasons a home might be preferable to a hotel, but why HomeExchange over the many home rental platforms or other exchange systems?
HomeExchange vs. The Rest
Community. This is the biggest thing that's really stood out to me. You're not just staying in someone's home so they can make money while they're away, you're exchanging spaces with like-minded travelers who will communicate with you and care for your home because they're sharing their space, too. We're all taking care of each other - regardless whose home we end up staying in.
Living like a local. You're staying in the home of someone who knows the area and can tell you the best pizza joint, playground, and cocktail hour. The real bests - not just what you can find online.
Pet care. Our pets are hands-down our biggest obstacle in going away. There are families who would love to have a dog for the week. Your pet could be loved on and cared for while you're away, in the comfort of their own home, without you paying a fortune.
Accessibility and inclusion. All of the home rental platforms have filters for accessibility. Unfortunately, if you filter by accessibility, you just won't find anything on most of those platforms. HomeExchange doesn't just have thousands of accessible options, they are constantly checking in on the pulse of all minority groups to see what there needs are and how they can better meet them. Before I even did an exchange, I received surveys asking for input on diversity and how they could better serve their community. I've never seen anything like it - from any company! They see us.
The Downsides of HomeExchange
Ok. In the name of complete transparency (which I pride myself on), I need to also share the drawbacks. To be fair, I only joined mid-pandemic, and all of my negatives could be directly related to COVID-19.
Extra planning time. I love to wing it and go where the wind carries me. That doesn't fly when you're staying in someone else's home (See what I did there? I crack myself up...). When you find a home you love, you send a message stating your request. Everyone has been very responsive, but we received several no's (about 15) before we got a yes. Granted, 70% of those were because they're not taking guests during the pandemic. Either way, it's a little more involved than driving as far as you can make it and then pulling up your hotel app to book whatever's closest.
Flexibility preferred. I couldn't find an available home that met our needs for our time in Orlando (ok, it was Christmas week during a pandemic...). When you're working with someone else's schedule, there needs to be a little give and take. I'm in communication with someone for a swap in France this summer, but we're going to have to agree on dates.
Once we were able to find a place, it was smooth sailing and we loved our apartment on the water for the week. Even if we don't do another exchange this year, it was worth the membership fee for one week. It was a little time consuming to find the right exchange, but I'd like to revisit that post-pandemic and see what the differences are.
Overall, it seems to be a great option for budget travelers, family travelers, wheelchair travelers, and anybody else looking to leverage their own space while they gallivant the globe! For now, I'm happy with the stay we had, and excited for the options we'll have for this summer... if we're able to travel...