One quick conversation with Nicole Frank could probably convince you to hand over the keys to your house and even the keys to your car, even to a complete stranger. Nicole Frank is not a con artist though; she's a home swapping expert who knows what her priorities are when it comes to traveling.
Home swapping is exactly what it sounds like: two parties agree to swap homes for however long they decide: a weekend, a month or even a year. No strings attached, no payments due. It’s a "what’s-mine-is-yours" concept for those who believe in the honor system and in true-to-life traveling.
"When people first hear about home swapping, some get excited and some freak out," Frank said. "It’s really a love it or hate it idea. You should only do it if you take pride in your home and if you are generous, responsible and hospitable."
Even though home swapping has technically been around since the 1950’s, the invention of the Internet has only recently brought the concept out into the public.
Now, a company called Roof Swap has created a database with hundreds of people from all over the world who are interested in this new travel phenomenon, giving them the ability to safely and successfully organize their own home swaps.
Having swapped homes more than 40 times already, Frank has earned her position as the advice columnist for Roof Swap.
"I do it because I love it," she said. "I love being able to stay in the same environment that others live in -- to see what it is really like to live there. You just don’t get that by staying in a cookie-cutter hotel."
Out of all the home swaps that Frank has completed, her favorite was while she was on her honeymoon, when she stayed in a Parisian artist's garret apartment. "It was wonderful to be there, with the painter’s easel still set up inside and the sounds of loud, drunken soccer players singing on the street below," she said.
Frank added that while staying in that apartment she learned that in France, they have very small refrigerators. "Because every day the people would walk to the open air market on the corner and buy fresh fruit and vegetables," she said. "It was all very charming. We got to be part of a neighborhood, we got to shop where the locals shopped and we really got to experience the culture."
"When my kids go on a swap they just think of it as new toys and a yard to play in, which they don’t have at our home in Manhattan," Frank said. "They don’t mind others staying in their space either, they see it all as just material," she continued. "And just like an exchange with adults anything you don’t want to share can be locked up in that one closet which is off limits."
Little kids may have no problem leaving their toys to strangers but letting someone you don’t know drive your car around and handle all of your belongings can certainly be a nerve-wrecking thought for many people.
Frank says that one of the biggest concerns home swapping skeptics have involves the matter of theft, but being a member of "essentially every home swapping club there is," she knows that there have hardly been any reported instances.
This is because home swapping involves an honor system that actually works. Or at least it works when you use a legitimate company like Roof Swap, which sticks to the traditional concept of a one-time fee to join a community as opposed to posting on an online marketplace, such as CraigsList. There are many horror stories about the latter, but fortunately, none so far about Roof Swap.
While she does not believe it is necessary to worry about ill-intentioneded home swappers, Roof Swap does offer an inexpensive insurance policy, which, Frank says is for peace of mind and to cover any unexpected cancellations.
"You have to remember that you are swapping homes with real people who have real lives, and sometimes things come up."
If, for example, you had already bought a plane ticket and suddenly the other home swappers were not able to participate in the exchange, Roof Swap would reimburse you. But such instances are fairly uncommon, Frank said.
Even if you don’t mind letting a stranger sleep in your bed in exchange for a free stay in your dream destination, who is to say that anyone will want to? This is another concern for people have who have never done a swap, but according to Frank this is also a gratuitous thought. Whether you live in the country or in the suburbs, she recommends visiting your town’s Chamber of Commerce to find a list of attractions, because you never know who might be interested.
"A little annual pumpkin festival might be exactly the small-town kind of attraction that a European might want to see," Frank said. "Pretty much everyone can find someone out there who wants to swap. There is something special about everyone’s home."
If you’re still not sure whether you want to travel around the world, leaving almost everything you own to a couple of people you don’t even know, Frank suggests starting off small.
A weekend trip to a destination only a few hours' drive away can help a first-timer ease into the idea of home swapping. Frank’s advice column recommends strong communication by email and phone to help to alleviate any concerns by getting to know the people you will be swapping with.
"It’s a beautiful concept, sharing your home with someone else while having them allow you into theirs," Frank said. While she is a huge advocate and very dedicated to helping others experience the wonders of a home swap, she does not think that this type of travel is for everyone.
"If someone were to tell me that they were only doing a home swap to save money, I would say they would be better off finding a bargain hotel," Frank said. "It’s all about experiencing other cultures and having a little more room to spread out."
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