I recently discovered an exciting travel option – home exchange, instead of booking a hotel room or an apartment. GuestToGuest is the name of the platform and it is a hybrid between Airbnb and Couchsurfing. It’s definitely worth taking a look!

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Getting a vacation apartment for free might sound like some ridiculous ad from the shopping channel. We all know too well that there is no such thing as a free lunch, let alone free real estate.

As it turns out, though, you absolutely can spend your vacation in a cool private apartment, without a charge. I am not talking about Couchsurfing, where you slum it on somebody’s couch, while the owner lounges around in their underpants. My favorite new discovery is a website called GuestToGuest, which allows you to swap homes with other travelers.

Why an Exchange?

I wanted to rent an apartment in Paris for few days and was absolutely dumbfounded. Imagine a tiny little space, of about 10m2, where the stove is a right by the bed and between the two – a toilet! I was worried that my romantic Parisian getaway would be slaughtered by such closeness.

That’s when I remembered watching a movie called “The Holiday”. I only vaguely remember that romantic comedy plot, but what firmly captured my attention was the fact that the protagonists swapped homes, for a short vacation.

Once I faced the option of having a toilet by my bed, the idea of swapping homes no longer seemed as terrifying and I let it invade my adventurous consciousness.

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Why GuestToGuest?

If you search for “home exchange” on Google, you’ll get 18,500,000 in less than a second. There are plenty of websites that offer a similar service and that confused me. I had no idea which one to choose.

That’s why I used a simple principle. Most websites require a membership fee, as a guarantee that you are serious enough, and as a way to make a profit. It’s around $100-$300 per year, which you’ll make up for with a single exchange.

Still, since I knew nothing about this method, I wanted to make sure that it worked first, and so I decided to choose a free platform. That’s how I selected GuestToGuest.

How Does It Work?

The idea is simple – people from all corners of the world swap homes.

That’s how you can find a comfortable, even posh vacation home, while simultaneously becoming a part of the local landscape and saving a pile of money.

The exchange can be reciprocal – I come to your home and you – to mine. However, you could also exchange guest points. This way, if my host in Paris is not interested in coming to Sofia at the moment, I can “pay” them in guest points, which they can use to go someplace else.

Every apartment “costs” a different amount of points, which is generated by the website’s algorithm, depending on how big your home is, its location, how many people it can fit, as well as its amenities. You can also manually increase or decrease the points, by 30%, any time you want.

You look for exchange partners by selecting а location and your preferences, then you send a message to the potential exchange partner.

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Is It Safe?

When I mention GuestToGuest people’s initial reaction is to give me a puzzled look and ask if it’s safe. Naturally, the answer is neither one-sided nor definitive.

The website offers insurance, which you can use for a hotel room if you host backs out at the last moment. Besides, most users require a deposit for their homes. It is entirely up to you how much your guests should pay, as a deposit. Unless there is any damage to the property, the deposit is returned to you after the exchange is over.

But what happens is the guest spills red wine on your white couch or smashes your great-grandmother’s crystal vase? In those cases, GuestToGuest holds the deposit, until both parties can arrive at an agreement. The website does not act as mediator, so if the situation gets very touch, you might have to resolve the conflict in court.

How to Stay Safe

This question has a simpler answer – use your common sense. Don’t get discouraged from using GuestToGuest, instead, make sure you actively participate in the process. Here’s how to do it:

  • Exchange messages with your potential host/guest, have a conversation on Skype and just communicate actively, in order to see if the other person can be trusted.
  • Ask for more photos or videos of the home.
  • Many GuestToGuest users have ratings from previous exchanges. Make sure you read the comments and consider contacting the people who left them.
  • Don’t be shy and ask whatever you need to know.

Is It Really Free?

Although basic use is completely free, you might end up paying a small amount:

  • If the host requires a deposit for their home, the money is transferred to GuestToGuest and they keep 3,5% of it.
  • If you want insurance for the exchange, it costs between €4 – €35 per day.
  • A service called “verification” costs €25 and is used to make sure that you and your home actually exist. Although it is not mandatory, my first host asked me to get it.
  • If you are short on guest points, when you’d like to finalize an exchange, as a guest, you can purchase more.

For my first GuestToGuest experience, in Paris, a paid a total of €70 for deposit and insurance. In exchange, I got 5 days in a beautiful private apartment, with a central location, and a romantic garden. The same would have cost hundreds, had I rented an apartment, let alone booked a hotel.

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How Easy Is It to Find an Exchange?

In my opinion, it depends on several factors, such as your home’s location, design, and whether or not you have ratings from previous exchanges.

To find my first vacation home, I contacted 187 users, in just a few days. Every time I got a reply I shook with excitement, and whenever I read the generic “Thank you very much for your inquiry. Unfortunately, it doesn’t suit our plans at this time”, I was disappointed. 127 of the people I had contacted replied to my request, and most of them denied it.

Although I am not viciously patriotic, I love and respect my country. So I gave my laptop an icy stare, whenever I’d get a reply like, “I don’t want to go to Bulgaria” or “What exactly is Sofia? I mean, what part of the planet is it?”.

At the end though it was worth the effort because I found the perfect location.

My Experience with GuestToGuest

The first time, I used guest points, to stay in a great apartment in the Parisian neighborhood Le Marais.

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The apartment we stayed in, when we were in Paris

Then, I exchanged my home in Sofia, Bulgaria, with a couple who lives in Bali. Not only did we swap homes, but we also visited for a few days, while the hosts were still there, and had an amazing experience. I now feel like a part of their family and am sure that we’ll stay close for the rest of our lives.

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A stunning view from our hosts in Bali.

The last exchange I’ve had was when a cheerful Italian lady and her two daughters stayed in my apartment, with guest points, and were delighted by Sofia.

So far, my experience has been extremely positive and I would love to travel this way more often.

No matter where you are in the world, hotels are so generic. It feels much more authentic to stay in the apartment of a Parisian bohemian, find a French press in the kitchen and have the scent of freshly-made coffee blend with the jasmine in the garden. Or to have breakfast in Bali, with a view of the jungle, while you learn the secrets of the local culture, which would have otherwise been completely out of reach.

If you’re not yet convinced that swapping your home is a safe and fun adventure, you might enjoy the next article on the topic, which features interviews with GuestToGuest users, as well as the platform’s management and volunteers.

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