Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Story In Which Mandy Becomes A Home Exchange Heroine and Saves Her Family From Yet Another Vacation That Almost Wasn't

Without a doubt the two largest costs when traveling are airfare and lodging.

As a budget traveler, you can always chose to bypass restaurants and opt for deli sandwiches. You can be selective of tourist attractions and opt for picnics in local parks, a cappuccino at a sidewalk café, or a plethora of free fun events found in any location across the globe.

When Griff informed me that we had enough frequent flyer miles to cover the airfare to the destination of our choosing, I was absolutely determined to

get a vacation out of it. WE hadn’t been out of the country in over three years, which was by far the longest Griff and I have ever been soley on American soil. My feet w

ere itching to MOVE- so much, in fact that it had become a literally physical sensation of longing whenever I thought about foreign travel. Obviously we’d been plenty busy in those three years with an entirely different journey, but now that my baby had been born and raised just a little, I wanted nothing more than to share the adventure of worldly traveling with her. Every year since my pregnancy we had begun planning an international trip but those of you who know the events of the past couple years in our family, can easily reason why such plans had been thwarted. More than ever, this year, we needed a vacation!

Before Griff and I had anyone but ourselves to think a

bout (i.e. no children) we conquered the cost of lodging by camping and staying in hostels. At a hostel we usually paid by the bed meaning that we shared a large dormitory-style room filled with between 4 and 14 bunk beds and used shared facilities. While most hostels we stayed in, and we have stayed in many, were simple and clean there was always the occasional dud. One of our favorite being “Blue House” in Chile which presented us with bloody BandAids on the windowsills and waxy, yellowed Q-Tips between mattress and box springs. The harder we looked, the more treasures we discovered and fortunately found humor in the disgustingness of it all and ended up laughing until we cried in a competition to out-gross the other with our Blue House finds.

Then there was also the hostel in, well…I guess it was Chile again, though a very different part of it, that we got stuck staying at after our boat had well…hit a rock that rendered it no longer sea worthy. Camping in the rain wasn’t an option, as we had attempted it the night before and woke up to well…earwigs covering out tent floor. So, we joined up with a group of young, athletic, Argentinian college boys who were biking Chile for Spring Break (yes, torture on the eyes, and it was just awful being the only girl in the group, but I endured) and collectively knocked on the door of a hostel, long after decent hours, the proprietress sleepily lead us to our dim, dank room. We were grateful for a roof over our heads and as we pulled down the sheets there was literally a waft of rancid odor that jumped from the sheets and into our overly-exhausted sniffers. We made the bed back up, covered it with our travel sheet and slept, fully clothed on top of the beds with the extra cushioning of stench below us, zip-locked tightly between the blanket s and the mattress. As soon as the sun was up, so were we. Do not pass the bathroom, do not collect yourself. Just get the H outta there and pray your body doesn’t start itching in the next couple of hours.

It’s fair to say that dodgy hostel stays have provided Mr. and Mrs. Schutt with some of our most hilarious traveling memories. There have also been hostel highlight like: the all-night courtyard drum circle (our room had a “Courtyard View”), the all-night gab session between three very stoned persons on the other side of a paper-thin wall (yes, they got sooooo deep), and the general, seemingly cross-cultural misunderstanding that “shared bathroom facilities” does not mean, “share your hair in the drain and please do leave empty shampoo bottles, sticky soap, and the Band-Aid that wore off of your blistered heal, in the shower”.

But adventures in budget traveling really do, in hind sight, make the trip far more memorable and significantly more hilarious. Which is why when I started fanaticizing about taking a somewhat spur-of-the-moment family vacation this year, my first internet stop was to various hostel sites. I was not willing to even consider sharing a bed with my almost-two-year-old in a shared dorm. First of all, she occasionally gets fussy when tired- I know it’s this weird thing she does, highly unusual for a toddler but we are working through it- and I wasn’t going to bear the frustration of handling this with an audience of mostly twenty-somethings looking on. Secondly there was the nap factor- where would I put her during them? Many hostels offer private rooms that accommodate 2-4 people, a great option for four individual travelers who want to split the cost into quarters, but for a family with one pool of money, there was really no advantage financially.

So, what is a previous-world-traveler now stay-at-home-mother to do? I knew that if we were going to travel abroad on a budget, I had a relatively small window of time to figure it all out. Fauna was turning two in October, so traveling in September was a financial must. Until two years of age a baby is considered a “lap child” (please do not confuse with a “lap dog”), which means that for domestic flights, they fly for free and international flights, they cost about $100 each way. Once Fauna was two, she would need a full-fare ticket.

Griff and I had enough Frequent Flyer Miles to pay for two adult tickets-awesome! But most FF tickets are booked early, and I was worried that there wouldn't be any left for our trip- not awesome.

Hereabouts is where I found, what I believe to be every traveling-family’s budget solution: a home exchange. Remember that movie, The Holiday? That’s a home exchange. And that was what I was determined to make happen for my little family.

First, I signed up at I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is actually the same site Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz use in the movie. (Though Kate and Cameron were not quite coupon-savvy enough to find the membership discount code that I did: dealshe72010. I acquired the code on and it saved me 30% on the membership of my choice. I got the Silver account as seen here.) I threw together my home’s page on the site, boasting it's "features". To me, home is home, but to someone else it’s an American home, which is often quite different from what they know- and different is good.

People in lots of places across the globe live in high-rises, I have a detached home with a yard. I featured this. I also featured the fact that my home is very central to loads of L.A. sights, just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Hollywood, beaches galore, and very easy freeway access (very easy freeway access!), regardless it’s a feature. We can offer a family a plethora of helpful items such as a crib, co-sleeper, toys, a sand box, etc. all this is most definitely a feature for a young traveling family! Finding your home’s features is key to selling the idea to potential exchangers. You don’t want to lie or deceive anyone and feature something that just doesn’t exist but every home has it’s selling points. Here's what my original home exchange page looked like.

It’s also important to remember, that you do not need a fancy shmancy house like the website likes to highlight on their front page. Sure, some of the homes are like this, but most are just typical living spaces. I’ve seen people offering a bedroom in their shared apartment, 350sq. ft. studios, lofts, mansions, tree houses, grass bungalows, track homes, flats, one bedroom apartments and everything in between.

If you think about where most people stay when they vacation (hotel rooms) there is very little space or convenience as compared to even a small privately-owned living area. Most travelers want to experience the geographical location not the ins and outs of their hotel building. Sure, we want to come home to a clean bed but most of the time we spend soaking up the local deliciousness of a destination, that is our primary concern. For those traveling with children, all the better if we have: a kitchen to prepare food, more space and separate rooms so baby can sleep soundly while mom and dad watch T.V. or have a glass of wine, Wi-Fi, and laundry facilities. The problem for this little family is that all of those conveniences typically cost bucks. Like, a lot of bucks. Totally out of the question for us.

So, obviously a home exchange is appealing because you get ALL of those things and more for, um, free. Yes, there are some disadvantages as opposed to a typical hotel-stay. Doing a home-stays mean you won’t be coming back in the evenings to a fluffy maid-made bed (Though, no joke, some homes do come with maids and a staff! Others offer the option of paying for maid service on a daily or weekly basis.)so you have to actually do it yourself- or not. You don’t get to pay $10 for a bottle of water from the mini-fridge. You don’t get to argue at the desk when they insist you bought, “Knee Deep In Cum and Rose Petals” on pay-per-view last night (when in reality you were “knee-deep” in the bathtub water, scrubbing the sand out of your kid’s beach-crack and then watched yet another rerun of, “Desperate Housewives” until you fell asleep after drinking only half a glass of red, which of course you bought from the Trader Joe’s a few blocks away from the hotel). You may or may not have access to a pool or hot tub. Room service is not offered and most of the time you will have to do your own laundry in your own facilities instead of sending it out for expensive dry cleaning at the hotel.

Indeed, you do need to be sure that YOUR home is in tip-top shape before you leave because, it is after all, an exchange and at least in my case, the normal state of affairs at my house is not exactly where I want to spend my vacation, so I can’t rightly expect others to want to either! This takes time and possibly money, but you also get to come back to a tidied home, which is something I like to have waiting for me after returning from vacation anyhow.

It’s also become quite standard for home-swappers to compile helpful information and contacts for their local area. I did this by writing up a few “Helpful Hints” pages for our home, neighborhood, and USA; stuff that is normal to me, but is not so normal for those unfamiliar with the ways of L.A. or the USA. My hints included things like how to work the washing machine, names and numbers of neighbors and where they live, names and numbers of locals who speak the language my guests do (I will change this section for every exchange I do. For my first trip, to Paris, I’ve contacted several friends who speak French and asked if I can use them as a contact for my guest.), warnings about carpool lanes, red-light cameras ,how to connect to the internet, addresses and phone numbers of local hospitals and urgent care facilities, and even something as simple as dialing, 9-1-1 in the case of an emergency.

In addition to the information I had written, I went to Google Maps and printed out a bunch of maps with directions from my home to local shopping locations, restaurants, drug stores, and parks that are likely not mentioned in guidebooks. I put these in plastic sleeves so that they can be easily taken out of the three-ring-binder I organized them in and they won’t get ratty after just one use. I put my Helpful Hints pages in the binder as well as a welcome letter with my home address right on the front.

Finally, because I live in Los Angeles, and such things are super easy to come by, I left a fat stack of brochures for everything from museums, to day trips, to of course, Disneyland.

I set up and prepared for my home stay…and despite my limited time allowance, did end up finding someone who wanted to exchange with me in September! Her name is Armelle and she lives in Paris, a block from a bus station, in a three bedroom flat. It aint Versailles but it absolutely fit our needs! (An update of how the exchange actually goes will follow in another post.)

The main issue that I believe keeps people from seriously considering a home exchange is that most of us simply lack good faith. We immediately assume that we are going to come home after vacation to a ransacked house with beer bottles everywhere and the words, “Toga Party”

spray-painted across the living room wall. It just doesn’t happen….or should I say, it just doesn’t happen when you use reliable, well-recognized home exchange forums. In fact, the membership fees, profile set-up, sample contracts provided by the homes exchange organization, and encouragement of communication between home swappers all guard against anything even remotely toga-related. I have lost track of how many email exchanges I’ve had with Armelle (We don’t speak the same language but translation sites like the free, Google Translate, are priceless- plus they add to the humor factor because the translations are never quite exact; often silly but certainly good enough!) I’ve spoken with one of her English-speaking friends and she has spoken with one of my French-speaking friends. There is just something authentic and organic that happens with a genuine get-to-know-you encounter, and that was certainly true with Armelle and me. We had become friends before staying in each others' homes. The Home Exchange website shares that, “In 19 years and tens of thousands of exchanges, we’ve never had a report of a theft, malicious vandalism, or a case of someone getting to their exchange home and finding a vacant lot.”

Thems some pretty great statistics in my book! Let the home exchange begin!