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Why stay in a cramped tourist hotel in Italy’s Cinque Terre region for $250 a night when you could wake up to country quiet in a plush Italian villa with your own kitchen, a private pool, and the use of a shiny red Fiat… for free?

If you like to have a “home base” when you travel, and you don’t mind letting someone else do the same in your home, then a home swap might be an exciting, low-budget hotel alternative.

It’s pretty simple to do, and can serve as a unique travel experience (and maybe material for a good article too).

Here’s how it works:

STEP #1: Sign up at one of the many home exchange websites and pay the yearly membership fee. (Website links below)

STEP #2: Create a profile of your home and post photos. Along with listing your homes amenities, you’ll need to include other necessary information, such as pet care requirements, whether you allow kids, whether you’re up for swapping cars, etc.

STEP #3: Search the site for homes in places you’d like to visit, and contact the owners about dates and arrangements.
Keep in mind that many members of these sites prefer to vacation in a home of similar luxury to their own. And, of course, not every home owner will want to visit your town or stay in your home in exchange for theirs.

Here are three popular home exchange sites:

** HomeExchange.com – This is the site that was featured in the romantic comedy, “The Holiday”, with Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet. Membership is $99.95 per year with a second year free if you don’t find an exchange in your first year.

** Digsville.com – Here, the yearly memberships are fairly reasonable, at $44.95/1 yr, $79.95/2 yrs, or $99.95/3 yrs. If you don’t find an exchange in your first year, the second year is free (as long as you let them know three months before your membership expires).

** HomeLink-USA.com – Established in 1953, Home Link USA claims to be “the original” home exchange service. Online membership is $110 for one year, and $176 for two, with the option to receive a printed directory for $60 more.

If you don’t want to pay for membership, you can try Craigslist.org. Choose the destination you’d like to visit, then, under “housing,” choose “housing swap.”
Or, if you want to stay in someone else’s house, but you can’t offer yours, you can try house sitting for free stays around the world. Sometimes you’ll even get paid for your trouble. Try these sites: HouseSittersAmerica.com, HouseCarers.com, SabbaticalHomes.com.

Another place to look for swaps, home stays, and house sitting is Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum, in the House Sitting and Swapping area, which lists home swaps, meet-ups, and other travel adventures for free.

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]

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