Insider’s Guide to Luxe Stays for Less

airy room

Don’t let the misguided reputation of house swaps—budget friendly but you never-know-what-you’ll get!—deter you from exploring the luxurious side of this amazing travel opportunity.

My family and I have been swapping for years now, and we’ve done a ski chalet in the Swiss Alps, a sun-drenched condo with private pool on the Catalan coast, and not long ago gained entree into the exclusive enclave of Seattle houseboats.

Even my Seattle-born husband hadn’t been in one, until recently, when we swapped our NYC digs for five days in a lawyer’s light-filled, exquisitely appointed Lake Union home. It was like staying in a tiny, floating European village. Sheer heaven.

How do you exchange your home for a luxe locale?

Be open. Don’t assume you need to be living in a penthouse to swap for one. “The U.S.A. is generally highly sought-after,” says Katie Costabel, co-owner of HomeLink. “Many experienced exchangers have done the beaten trail—they want to see all sides of American life.”Besides, the U.S. offers a wealth of cultural experiences that you might take for granted, adds Joe Murray, cofounder of KnowYourTrade, a leading home exchange directory. “Remember, Americans have it pretty good with space and appliances. Tell potential swappers, ‘We live on an acre of land, with a stream.’ Or, ‘We’ve got a 60-inch flat screen TV in the man cave’.”

Join the crowd. Next, sign up for a variety of standard and high-end sites. I belong to two home swap websites, both excellent: HomeForExchange and HomeLink (paying respective yearly fees of $64.50 and $119).

If you’ve got a swank urban duplex or an airy beachside second-home, you’ll want to consider higher-end sites like HomeExchangeGold, ExclusiveExchanges or HomeChicHome that will match you with other well-appointed swappers. These sites may also offer extras like concierge service (if you need someone to book the airport limo). 

Aim high. While it’s fine to swap wherever you find a great opportunity, it’s also possible to set your terms. KnowyYourTrade has an amazing network of swap info, plus lists that you can cross reference to narrow down options.

Let’s say you wanted to join a smallish swap site with a sterling reputation, to hunt for a beach house in Crete. This page will help.

Find your perfect swap-mate. To connect with people who want what you have, join sites that allow reverse searches, and that offer multiple search options. For instance, using “advanced search” on HomeForExchange, I see listings for 60 villas worldwide, with pools, wifi, fireplaces–and that also take kids—all owned by people who want to visit the U.S.        

A final word, from my own experience: avoid luxury let-downs by vetting with an eagle eye. Our only swap gone wrong was in French Basque country, where what seemed like a sweet, cozy cottage—a second home—was actually overheated, under-cleaned, fly-ridden and located beside a church bell that bonged irregularly at earsplitting volume. Looking back, I should have requested more interior home photos and seen the fact that I wasn’t getting prompt, informative answers from the person we exchanged with as a red flag.

Has it dampened my enthusiasm for exchanging? Not a whit. For this summer, I’ve already got my eye on a beautifully renovated 11th century castle in the Dordogne, with its own private tennis courts and pool…