When people ask me where I live, I say “Hawaii, California, and Europe”. The next question usually is: “How do you manage to do that?!”. I think the answer is interesting; so I decided to turn it into a blog topic. Welcome to My Top 3 Tips for Low Cost Travel!
My Top 3 Tips for Low Cost Travel are home exchange, frequent flier miles, and home-cooking. And, here’s why.
Hotels, airfare, and dining out are the biggest travel budget blow-outs. Years ago, after spending lots of cash for vacations, I decided to stop vacationing and learned to travel instead. Yes, there is a big difference between the two! I also decided to spend big blocks of time traveling, so, I needed a new plan. I could earn more money, save more money, travel on a lower budget, or think out of the box. I’ve always been out of the box, so I went with that. For 8 years and counting, I generally divide my time between Hawaii, California, and Europe. Now, it’s a lifestyle I created that includes work, play, and wandering. Took me a little while to figure it out by trying it out. Here’s how I “do” it, whittled down to My Top 3 Tips for Low Cost Travel.
Yeah, that’s right. I trade homes with perfect strangers! Most of my exchanges are simultaneous. Meaning I’m in their home when they’re in mine. Some are non-simultaneous exchanges, only possible when one of the exchange partners has a second home or makes alternative arrangements. That’s my gig. I have a vacation home in Hawaii with a property manager, so it’s easy for me to offer a home exchange. Most people that I exchange homes with, however, do not have second homes and are exchanging their primary residence.
I’ve had 25+ home exchanges to date, and for me, it’s been a good experience. The biggest cost of travel is housing. Where ya gonna stay? Outside of the camping arena and couch surfing, sleeping gets expensive. I’ve exchanged my home for apartments in Paris, Lausanne, San Francisco, New York City; chalets in the Italian and French Alps, a contemporary, techno-house overlooking Lac Leman in Montreux, a 16th c. Appenzeller house in rural Switzerland, a beautiful adobe in Taos, New Mexico, a farmhouse and suburban home near Zurich; gorgeous, new homes in St. Gallen, Gossau, and Widnau also in Switzerland. Once you get into the swing of things, home exchange is fun, easy, and cool. But, it does take a lot of planning and attention to detail that go way beyond making a hotel reservation. Selecting a good match for your exchange is key. (More on that later.) Creating and clarifying understanding across cultures and languages requires patience and consideration.
My switch from vacation to travel started by renting apartments in places I visited rather than checking-in at hotels. Not only was it more interesting living in a typical neighborhood, but less expensive, too. When I learned about an online service specializing in connecting home owners for home exchange, I decided to give it a try. My first exchange was spectacular! A beautiful, contemporary, techno-house perched on the cliffs above Lac Leman in Montreux, Switzerland. Parking was on the roof, and I took the elevator down into the house. The owners left the keys to their Porche on the kitchen counter with a laptop, just in case I needed them. Kindness and consideration rules! Here’s a snap of the beautiful view from the rooftop parking deck!
Since then, I’ve had home exchanges through the online service, personal referral, and repeat exchanges. Often, I don’t meet my exchange partners in person (although we meet several times in advance over Skype). I do meet their kids, best friends, neighbors, family, and sometimes pets. It sounds crazy, but it’s not. Truth is, we’re all, mostly, the same. We want a wonderful exchange experience with an exchange partner we can trust. Someone who will respect our home, personal belongings, is trustworthy, helpful, and considerate. Sometimes the relationships become solid. Others are temporary lasting the course of the exchange. Both are good. I use homeexhange.com for my own listing, and find it to be a good vetting tool in addition to a good service. I also consider private exchanges, meaning outside of the online service, with people I already know or people who come recommended or referred to me by people I already know and trust.
How to Find A Good Home Exchange Partner
My method for finding a good home exchange partner is simple. First, I’m open to possibility. Early on, I spent a lot of my time looking at properties and sending inquiries to potential exchange partners with little response. Hawaii is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, far away from everywhere and expensive to get to, so I decided to wait and see who the Universe brought to me. I didn’t have to wait long. People from all over the world want to come to Hawaii. I just had to decide where I wanted to go!
Housing is the biggest expense in travel, so having an exchange partner makes it possible to stay longer at a lower cost. It’s not as though it’s free, however. I’m paying a mortgage AND giving up rental income for the time of my exchange. So, for me, it’s more like a trade in value. I find that home exchangers are more conscientious and respectful of my home than renters. After all, I’m in their home when they are in mine! Value is not necessarily an even exchange. I have no problem exchanging my 3 bedrooms with an ocean view for a 1 room apartment in Paris 2 blocks from Notre Dame. Each exchange is unique given the details. If I’m traveling alone and my exchange partner is traveling with 4 plus their 2 friends who also want to visit; well, that’s a big difference in expenses to me for utilities like water and electricity (both very expensive in Hawaii). I might ask for a few extra days at their place or use of their car to bring the exchange in balance. When the details don’t feel quite right, or fair, I simply make the requests I need to make it a feel good transaction for me. Or, I let it all go and wait for the next opportunity.
Because I’m an intuitive, I also send out a vibe asking the Universe to bring to me the best possible travel experience.
After deciding where I would like to go, I ask the Universe to bring to me an exchange partner and place that will most benefit me in the present, and then I let it go. I simply wait for the inquiries to roll in, and they do. I reply to every inquiry. Because it’s respectful, courteous, and I know how it feels to send an earnest inquiry and not receive a response. In my book, everyone deserves a response! Sure, you could scan properties and send out inquiries, I just don’t do that too often. The Universe brings lots of wonderful people, places, and opportunities my way simply by request. When I receive an inquiry that I’m interested in, I jump all over it, first establishing length of time for the exchange and possible dates before moving to the next step, the details.
The key to home exchange is trust.
I build trust with my exchange partners by responding quickly, following through in a timely manner, answering questions in detail (and with pics, if it’s helpful), offering assistance for resources and recommendations. I always, without exception, schedule a Skype meeting or some form of video call, with my potential partner for a meet & greet and Q & A. If a potential partner doesn’t respond quickly or schedule a video chat within a week, they are, in my experience, still shopping around and not serious yet. I let them go and move on to the next opportunity.
After I establish a verbal agreement for the exchange, I draw up a Letter of Agreement that outlines the parameters for the exchange. This Letter of Agreement provides an opportunity for clear understanding between the parties of the exchange, and handles potential misunderstandings before they occur. It’s also a necessary document, so when the alarm goes off accidentally, and the police arrive, you don’t end up arrested for squatting in dude’s house in some foreign country! If you are also exchanging cars, you’ll need a separate agreement for that detail so their insurance covers you as a third party, and you have a legal right to operate their vehicle. I always stop in at the local police station before I leave a foreign country to pay my traffic tickets. Because it’s the right thing to do. Or, I reimburse my exchange partner immediately for any traffic tickets they receive that I earned. Trust. Gotta have it; gotta earn it. What should be in a Letter of Agreement? That’s a big topic that I’m not going to cover in this blog. I may have a webinar on the topic sometime, and if you feel that’s of interest, sign up for The List, my e-list for news.
Frequent Flier Miles
Once my dates are set-up and Letter of Agreements signed by both parties, I acquire my airline ticket. Tickets are expensive, so I usually don’t buy a ticket. Instead, I use my frequent flier miles (ffm). Airfare is the second biggest expense in the travel budget! I rarely buy a plane ticket anymore for long distance travel. I purchase tickets for short hops on domestic flights but all international travel is with my ffm.
I rack-up ffm by sticking with one airline for most of my travel, and using a credit card associated with the airline’s ffm program to earn miles as I pay my bills.
Sidebar. If you can’t control your credit card spending, this is not the option for you! Because the best way to do this is to charge everything possible to that credit card and, of course, pay it off at the end of the month. I recently tried to charge the purchase of a car to my card, and learned the cap for cars is $2,500 on my credit card, so some purchases won’t apply in full, but most do! Most airlines also sell miles to give you the extra you may need for a ticket, in case you come up short. The downside to ffm tickets is that there are only so many ffm seats released and it’s difficult to get choice flights for high-season travel to top locations. Best to plan a year in advance. Also, there’s a bunch of rules that make changing your ticket difficult once it’s issued. My tip here is to create a plan and stick to it. That way, airfare doesn’t blow-out your budget, and it’s a lot less stressful with a solid plan.
Salt. Fat. Sugar. Bloat. If I didn’t cook for myself while traveling, I’d be 50 pounds plumper, and broke. I quickly learned not to go out for every meal and instead buy provisions for breakfast, picnics and home-cooking. This is where home exchange works beautifully because the kitchens are stocked with everything you need to make a meal, except groceries, of course. Do I have to say it? Yes, I buy my own food! I don’t dip into their pantries except for condiments and spices and only when that’s been agreed to in advance. And, I replace what I use or add something to the pantry before I leave It’s wonderful to fine dine out; and I do, but not daily. I can, however, fine dine in, and I do, almost daily! A great way to learn about the local culture is with a trip to the grocery store! Here’s a pic of a typical picnic for 2 that I purchased at a grocery store in Switzerland for far less than I’d have to pay at a cafe.
Cooking and grilling at home in your “stranger’s house” requires more care than you might use at your own place because things work differently. The dials on the stove and oven may be in another language and in celsius instead of fahrenheit, for example. As may be the instruction manuals! This is why it’s important to accept exchanges that provide a contact to help you in case of need in English if you don’t speak the local language. You don’t want to speed-dial your contact for every little thing, but you do want someone who can help when you really need some help on understanding how the kitchen works.
Cooking with new ingredients and with utensils you might not have used before can be an exciting part of the trip. Here’s a grill that I’ve never seen before, and I was thrilled to have a chance to cook on one at one of my home exchanges in Europe.
Just for fun, I started recording myself cooking in my home-away-from-home kitchens, and turned the adventures into a playlist on YouTube called, Ciocia’s Kitchen. Do you know how to make French press coffee? I show you how from “my” kitchen in Paris! It’s fun to share and that’s one way that I share my adventures in travel.
Home Exchange, Frequent Flier Miles, Home-Cooking. That’s it. That’s my secret, and My Top 3 Tips For Low Cost Travel.
I leave you with a pic from beautiful, Big Island, Hawaii, where my home exchange partners come for their version of low cost travel in much the same way that I do it. Thanks for being here on this blog post with me. I hope you’re inspired to travel or travel more!
I’d love to hear from you! What are your low cost travel tips?