July 6, 2010

Frugal Vacations

The following is a reprint of a previously published post.

That's a photo of me taken last summer in London. Yes, it's freezing. It's cold in London in the summer. But it was a fantastic trip! We went there for the theater, the museums, the Indian food, the history, and walking the streets. We didn't go there for the weather. You probably wouldn't expect to see London in a discussion about frugal vacations, but this one was very affordable. How could an extended holiday of 5 weeks in London be frugal, you ask? Because we did a house swap. And it was one of the best travel experiences we've ever had.

HOUSE SWAP: We're hooked on this type of travel now. As long as you're planning a destination vacation, and not touring an entire region, it's a great way to get to know a place. I originally considered it because of the cost savings, but it turned out to be so much more than an affordable way to travel.

We've become friends with the couple we exchanged homes with, and we feel like we've lived in London. We got to know the neighbors, the ethnic neighborhood markets, the Tube (underground) lines, and adopted a local pub, as well as our favorite Indian restaurant within walking distance. Instead of having to rush out the door in the morning, stay out all day, and pay for three meals out, we'd eat breakfast at "home," and then relax and go out for an afternoon of adventure and an evening play and dinner. A few nights we stayed in and cooked and then went to the pub for a nightcap. Our schedule was completely flexible, which was much more fun and relaxing. If we didn't make it to a museum one day, we'd go the next. Sometimes we'd like one so well (they have absolutely fabulous museums in London, and they're free!) we'd visit two or three days in a row.

A lot of Europeans do want to swap for a month or even more, but since most Americans don't have that option, you can arrange your holiday for whatever length of time suits your schedule. You just have to come to an agreement with someone who wants to visit your town. The whole concept works best if you live in a big city that's a tourist attraction, but it's not mandatory. There are home swapping opportunities listed for all over the U.S., you just have to focus on what your home and neighborhood have to offer to a visitor. And maybe that's just getting away from it all and enjoying a little peace and quiet.

If you're interested in a Home Swap holiday, I recommend both Home Exchange and Homelink. We ultimately did our exchange through Homelink, but we had many interactions with people on both sites. The cost is less than $100 for a year, and you'll list your home with photos and a description. Then you sit back and wait for the offers or start making inquiries about places you're interested in visiting. The websites answer all your questions and lead you through the steps of setting up your listing.

And if the idea of having strangers in your home worries you, let me reassure you that by the time you do the swap, they're not strangers anymore. You've exchanged many emails and had lots of phone conversations, and you have come to know them. Our exchange partners even picked us up at the airport, brought us to their home to help us settle in, and took us on a motor tour of the countryside the following day. They bought us a pub lunch and showed us the 12th century church their daughter had been married in. They slept at another daughter's home down the street before flying to Los Angeles the next day. Even if this extra attention might not be the norm, if you're nervous about the "strangers" in your house, remember that you're in their house as well. So really everyone has an incentive to treat their surroundings with respect.

I consider it a marvelous bonus that we have new friends who live in London. They are fascinating people who've travelled all over the world on two teacher's salaries by doing home swaps. And they've assured us that we always have a place to stay whenever we pass through their city.

A few other frugal vacation ideas:

COUNTRIES WHERE THE DOLLAR IS STRONG: Right now, that list includes Argentina, Costa Rica, Morocco, Vietnam, and Panama. Most of your budget will go to the flight, and once you're there food and lodging will be very cheap. Another one of our favorite vacations was to the Mexican Riviera, where we spent two weeks several years ago. I'm almost embarrassed to quote the budget of our trip, but we spent $700 on two plane tickets to Cancun, and then less than $600 for accommodation, food, and all other expenses. That's what I call a budget vacation. We left Cancun immediately, and headed for more off-the-beaten-path destinations, and stayed in simple but clean motels. We went snorkeling, saw Mayan ruins, and ate plenty of seafood and Mexican food and drank margaritas. We didn't feel like we were penny-pinching. Click here to read an article about places where the dollar is strong right now.

STATE DEPARTMENT LIST COUNTRIES: I might lose a few of you here, but hear me out. Even when a country makes this list, the odds that you'll come into danger are usually very low. For example, my brother enjoyed a holiday in Bali a few years back while it was on the list after being the site of a terrorist attack. And there was even another attack while he was there. But he wasn't anywhere near the discotheque where it took place. The odds of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are small, and could really happen anywhere. So consider traveling to a country like Bali, which has natural beauty, marvelous culture, and warm, friendly people. Their economy relies on tourism, and it's so sad that these isolated incidents keep travelers away for years.

POST-CRISIS AREAS: Along those same lines, you'll probably have a lot of luck visiting a city or region that's recently been hit by tragedy. You'll be warmly welcomed, and will most likely enjoy great deals. Places like Bali after the terrorist attack, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and New York City after 9/11. Your trip may even take on a significance and poignance as you make your journey into an area that needs assistance. You could almost consider your vacation a form of charity, especially if you do some post-crisis volunteering while you're there. Habitat for Humanity works all over the world to rebuild homes for families who've been struck by disaster.

Finally, STAYCATIONS. This is a marvelous option, especially for families who can't spend a lot of money on plane flights or gassing up the car. Instead of waiting for out-of-town guests to enjoy the attractions of your own city, visit them on your own. Have each family member pick an outing of their choice, and then order pizza and watch a movie at night. Or if you have young children, camp out in the backyard! The options are endless, but the key is to do things you don't normally do in your everyday life, spend a lot of time together, and make it special.

What are your vacation plans this summer? What's your best frugal vacation idea? Please leave your thoughts, tips and questions in the Comments section.


frugalista said...

Try visiting Malaysia the next time. It's tropical weather, great Asian food and the fact almost everyone speaks English and the cheap lodgings and transporttion makes it an ideal location.

Mary Beth said...

Thanks so much for posting this. I'm really curious about house exchanges so was interested to hear your experience. Would love to house exchange to Germany!

Karen @ Abundance on a Dime said...

Thanks for sharing your house exchange experience! I've been curious about this but haven't known anyone who has actually done it! We live in a fairly "prime" location between two very touristy destinations (Toronto and Niagara Falls/Niagara wine country) and are less than an hour from both, so I think doing that type of exchange might be a good option for us.

Lois, Home Base Holidays said...

Thanks for your excellent description of home exchange - and I'm pleased that you enjoyed your stay in my adopted city, London! You wouldn't recognise it in the last two weeks - the weather is very hot (no, it doesn't always rain in London - that's a myth).

My only suggestion is that, when looking for home swaps in particular countries, look beyond agencies based in your own country as those actually in the country you plan to visit are likely to have the best choice of exchange offers and you won't be competiting with as many members from your own country for the best offers (Home Base Holidays, based in London and Bangkok, has been providing a home exchange service for 25 years). Also look for join and expiry dates in listings before you join so that you know only up-to-date offers are circulated on a site and join only private, member only sites that charge a modest fee rather than a free site that may attract many people not too committed to arranging swaps.

Happy home swapping!

Rachel said...

Great article and lots of information that is helpful. I am interested in house swapping and glad to hear about someone else's experience.

Laura said...

Add me to the list of those who have been thinking about doing this, but wanted to know and hear from someone who had actually done it.

Lots of great vacation tips. We can't afford one this year, but hopefully next year or the year after.