With pandemic restrictions easing, the UK has seen a rush on domestic holiday accommodation. But forget high prices and limited choice, a house swap could be the answer to your hopes for a summer holiday booking this year

We’ve all made a lot of sacrifices over the last year, and the traditional summer holiday has been no exception. A series of lockdowns, confusing tier systems and seemingly ever-changing restrictions have meant it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to get away, even for a few days.

Far-flung tropical travel is definitely off the table for the time being, but according to current government guidance it’s looking likely that staycations – or holidays within the UK – will get the green light for summer.

However, since Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a tentative lockdown exit strategy, bookings for domestic holidays have soared by 300%, meaning options are limited and prices are sky high for those that haven’t yet been snapped up. A potential solution? A house swap holiday.

What is a house swap holiday?

It’s exactly what it sounds like. You and another homeowner anywhere around the world (although in this case, within the UK) swap houses for an agreed period of time. It’s a decades-old practice that enables people to explore new places and live like a local with all the creature comforts you miss out on in a hotel room or sterile self-catering property – all while keeping accommodation costs super low.

How does a house swap work?

This depends on the company you use to organise your home swap (more on that below). A traditional home swap is simultaneous: you go to their home, they come to yours. But if you can’t agree on dates that suit both parties, you can arrange a non-simultaneous swap. On some sites, such as HomeExchange.com, if the person doesn’t want to stay at your home but is willing to let you holiday in theirs, you can give your host 'guest points' which they can use to stay somewhere else. During a non-simultaneous swap, the host will typically stay with friends or family.

Is a house swap safe?

The idea of a house swap is understandably a little off-putting for some people – after all, you’re allowing complete strangers into your home. However, the growing popularity of house swapping sites and the testimonials of customers that have already enjoyed the benefits of this type of holiday suggest a house swap is essentially no different to staying in an Airbnb. Plus, many of the companies that help organise house swaps offer comprehensive customer support, peace of mind guarantees and property damage coverage in the unlikely event that things don’t go to plan.

Can I take a house swap holiday during the pandemic?

To date, the guidance around exactly what we can and can’t do during the COVID-19 outbreak has been confusing at best, and different rules apply to different parts of the UK. House swapping is a unique type of holiday, so the rules that relate to hotels and traditional self-catering accommodation don’t apply here. You will need to check the official guidance for your local area, as well as the area you intend to travel to, and be mindful of two main factors:

  • Whether your local area or the area you’re travelling to has a ‘stay at home’ rule in place.
  • How many people are in your party and whether they come from separate households.

If there is a ‘stay at home’ rule in place in your local area then you are not able to travel outside this region. If there isn’t, but there is a rule in place in the area you intend to travel to, then you will not be able to visit.

If there are no ‘stay at home’ rules in place in either area, you’ll next have to consider the people you’re travelling with in regards to the ‘meeting inside’ rule. In most cases, it’s fine to travel with those already in your household. You will need to check the local guidance for rules on meeting other people and/or household indoors before you make plans to visit and stay in another house together.

Check the current guidance in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

How much does a house swap cost?

A house swap is essentially free – you won’t pay anything for the accommodation itself. However, most house swap sites charge an annual membership fee, which still represents incredibly good value compared to the usual costs of hotels or self-catering accommodation. More on fees and incidental costs below but swapping homes could be the cheapest holiday this summer.

What kind of house could I swap with?

You have to be realistic about your own property when you’re considering a house swap. If you live in a tiny flat next to an industrial park, it’s unlikely that the owners of a majestic countryside mansion will be up for swapping with you. That being said, one man’s sleepy suburb is another’s dream holiday, so it’s impossible to gauge exactly what someone else is looking for in a getaway. Most sites will give you the option to indicate interest in another person’s property so if you find somewhere you like the look of it’s always worth enquiring – the worst that can happen is they say no. And be flexible! There are countless testimonials from house swappers out there explaining how they joined a house swap site with a specific destination in mind, but actually ended up somewhere else and were delighted by the opportunity to explore somewhere new.

Top tips for preparing for a house swap holiday

  • Obviously you should exchange phone numbers with your swapping counterpart, but for added peace of mind give them the contact details of a trusted neighbour or nearby family member, too.
  • Since no money is technically changing hands, your home insurance should remain unaffected, but it’s always best to check with your provider.
  • Draw up a contract with the other party covering incidental expenses: food from the fridge, phone calls, internet usage and so on. Get everything in writing so there are no unexpected surprises at the end of your trip.
  • Agree in advance whether basic household chores such as watering plants and putting the bins out will be taken care of by your visitors (and vice versa).
  • Think about the quirks of your house. Is your shower complicated, or does the front door stick? Create a comprehensive document explaining these things for your guests, and bundle it with plenty of information on the area and nearby attractions – give them all the info they need to live like a local.
  • Create a welcoming environment. You don’t need to remove all trace of your existence from your house, but freeing up some wardrobe space, making sure there’s plenty of loo roll and maybe leaving a bottle of wine out for your guests are the special touches that help create a memorable holiday.
  • Do you have toys or bikes that a family could use if they want to stay? Make sure you mention those in your listing!

COVID and cleanliness

It goes without saying that you should make sure your house is spick and span before your guests arrive, but the pandemic has created a heightened sense of anxiety around cleanliness. As such, you might consider getting a professional cleaner in before the trip to make sure everything is cleaned to a high standard, and leaving a plentiful supply of antibacterial spray, wipes and hand sanitiser for your guests to use throughout their stay.

What are the best house swapping websites?

The below are all reputable house swapping sites that offer thousands of properties in countries across the world, including the UK.

HomeBase Holidays

Membership with HomeBase Holidays costs £29 for six months, or £49 for a year. For this fee you’ll get access to the customer care team, the option to add unlimited homes to your profile and a guarantee that if you don’t arrange an exchange in the first year of membership, you’ll get a second year for free.

HomeExchange

HomeExchange has a yearly membership fee of $150, which includes unlimited exchanges, 24/7 membership support and damage protection. The site uses ‘guest points’ so trips need not be taken simultaneously.

HomeLink

UK-based HomeLink costs £115 per year, £185 for two years or £250 for three years. This includes unlimited exchanges, membership support and the option to list an additional home at no extra charge. If you don't arrange an exchange during your first year with HomeLink the company will give you a second year for free.

Love Home Swap

Love Home Swap offers three tiers of membership: Lite, Standard and Platinum, costing £8, £15 and £24 per month respectively (although keep an eye out for regular special offers). The Standard package include everything you need to get started with home swapping, including free airport lounge passes, exclusive member benefits and the option to list an additional home. Try a trial two-week membership for free.

The bottom line

The restrictions of the pandemic bring with them a chance to change habits: the opportunity to explore closer to home and discover great places you might not have considered before. Given the rush on domestic accommodation this year, a house swap could be the way to do it, and who knows, it might even encourage fewer holidays abroad in the future, which is great news for the climate and your bank balance.

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