Comfortable, economic options for the overseas traveler

Perhaps you love traveling but the economy's bad and you just can't afford to go abroad this year. Or maybe you would like to see another country in depth, but wherever you go, you only seem to meet fellow tourists.

During the last decade, organizations with goals ranging from promoting international friendship to helping second-home owners defray their expenses have come up with imaginative and often cheap options to hotels for the traveler , both within the US and abroad. An added benefit from most of the programs is that you get to meet and become friends with people from another country.

One such option is to swap houses with someone who lives in an area you'd like to visit. The Vacation Exchange Club (350 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10013, [212] 966-2576) is the granddaddy of the house-exchange listing services and also, at 6,000 listings in 40 countries, is the most extensive. David Ostroff, who started the service back in 1960, says he had the idea when he was a schoolteacher himself, to benefit other teachers during those great long summer vacations. He says that, oddly enough, teachers weren't as interested in his service as other people -- mostly professionals and retirees.

The first question, of course, is will these strangers who are in your home unattended forget to feed Percy the parakeet or leave rings on the antique sideboard? On this subject, Mr. Ostroff was reassuring. "Vandalism just doesn't happen," he says. "for one thing, most people figure that you have theirm home as a hostage. . . . The most common complaints arise from differences in housekeeping standards. You might come home to a dirty stove. But the person who stayed in your house might not consider that it's dirty, because his stove always looks like that." Most people bend over backward to be considerate, he emphasizes.

Offsetting such concerns are some major advantages. "It's a much more authentic travel experience," says Mr. Ostroff. Many people not only exchange houses and sometimes cars, but friends, playmates for the kids, boats, second homes, and country club privileges.

Your home does not have to be in a resort area to be of interest to someone else. When I asked Mr. Ostroff if anyone would be interested in may apartment in Boston, for instance, he pointed out that many parents with children attending college in the city would like to come for a visit.

Nor does the home have to be particularly elaborate. One retired American couple found that people from all over the world were interested in their motor home.

The person who will be happy with an exchange is one who is flexible. Don't expect to find a trade in one specific place at one specific time.

If you're looking for a traveling companion, or if you and your teen-ager wish to offer hospitality to a teen-ager from another country, the Vacation Exchange Club can be helpful with these arrangements too.

The club's services aren't very expensive: IF you just want to get the books, they cost $12; to get the books and be listed is $18, plus $6 extra for a photo. Write for the free brochure before you send any money.

Mr. Ostroff and others involved in house swaping to whom I spoke said that a small but worrisome problem is cancellations. "We try to get the subscribers to take responsibility for finding a substitute," he says.

The club simply provides a listing; it's up to the individuals to contact each other and make their own arrangements.

"Economy" and "comfort" are the watch-words for a similar program, the International Home Exchange Service ([415] 457-8474, PO BOX 3975, San Francisco, Calif. 94119). IHES has a nice-looking brochure with over 400 listings and good guidelines for preparing your home for your exchange guests, items to be agreed on in advance for both parties, ets. Fees are $25 to be listed and receive a year's subscription, $9 extra for a picture, $6 extra to list a second house. Some people want to receive the directory only, which costs $35. The listing comes out in the spring, with three up-dates in the summer, fall, and winter.

Again, according to assistant editor Jennifer Haines Morissette, there is a low incidence of complaints about the way homes were treated during the exchange. "People tend to consider the home as their own," she said.

This program seemed to have many very attractive US listings; it might be an especially good service for those interested in a US-US exchange. According to Ms. Morissette, 75 percent of the participants offer to exchange cars.

A truly unique service is offered by Servas, a nonprofit, largely volunteer organization that places travelers in the homes of people around the world. No money is exchanged. Servas emphasizes that the point of the program is notm the accommodations -- Freddie the Freeloader, this is not for you -- but the interaction between host and guest.

Some of the hosts do not put travelers up for the night, but they do invite visitors into their homes for the day. All that the hosts receive for their hospitality is the pleasure of meeting someone from another country. Many travelers go to more than one Servas host on a trip, but the organization does not recommend overdoing it as most people find the intense interaction a bit draining. (For the address and more information, see article, Page B6).

The specialty of At Home in England is matching you with someone who has similar interests, though the main concern of most guests is to be situated in an area they'd like to visit, says representative Sybil Bruel.

In any program of this kind, hosts vary considerably -- as do guests and their needs. If you wish to stay in an Elizabethan manor house with horseback riding and hosts that will show you around, then make these wishes clear. While the host isn't obligated to show you around, the visitor is treated as a guest rather than a client.

Prices: double occupancy, $33, $38, $42, per day; weekly, per person, double occupancy, $215, $250, $280. The lower rate is the general rate: The higher rate represents accommodations that are fancier, in London, or where the hosts go to extra trouble. A big English breakfast is included. You fill in a questionnaire describing yourself and your interests and where you wish to stay; in return you will receive a description of potential hosts. contact 10 West 86 th Street, New York, N.Y., 10024, [212] 595-2087 for free brochure and information.

A similar program is Chez des Amis (at the home of friends), which places travelers in French and some British homes ranging from chateaux to farms to apartments. The hosts are carefully chosen, and the relationship between host and traveler is usually close.

Chez spokesman Betsy Campbell explained that the traveler is really "a paying houseguest." Prices for next year aren't available yet, but 80 percent of the homes fall into the middle of Chez's three categories which this year were $34 per person single, $20.50 per person for two or more.

For a free brochure write Chez des Amis at 139 West 87th Street, New York, N.Y. 10024. The booklet that describes the individual homes costs $9.50 at the moment, but unless you're planning to travel before the end of the year wait for the new book in January.

A small organization (200 listings) which specializes in US and Great Britain (there are also some listings in Australia) -- is the international Spareroom. Again, you pay to stay in the charming home of someone who not only wishes to make a little money but also to extend hospitality. The minimum stay is three nights in the US; one can stay between one week and three in Great Britain. Mrs. Muriel Foster, who started the service three years ago, says she has quite a few listings in Hawaii. A typical comment: "We were treated as if we were visiting relatives." ([714] 755-3194, Box 518, Solana Beach, Calif. 92075)

The emphasis is cheap and picturesque at the Federation Nationale des Gites Ruraux de France. Organized by the French government to stimulate tourism in France's lush and lovely countryside, the gite (means refuge in French) must be in a town of less than 1,000 inhabitants but close to a larger town for supplies. Prices vary according to the level of accommodation and the season; in Normandy, for instance, prices range between $70 and $200 a week. It's not a bad idea to bring your own sheets. For brochures and information write the Federation at 34, rue Godot de Mauroy, 75009, Paris, France. Some of the gites are near skiing areas -- perfect for a French skiing vacation.

Perhaps you'd like to get away from hotels but you aren't particularly interested in sharing your space with strangers. Inquiline ([914] 834-7742; 2122 Boston Post Road, Larchmont, N.Y., 10538; send $5.95 for the catalog) rents houses and apartments in a wide variety of styles and prices -- mostly in England and France but also in Italy, Spain, Greece, Protugal, Ireland, and Scotland.

Several homes listed won my heart, but the most favulous is a building called the Orangeries in Frampton-on-Severn; a miniature castle on its own canal, complete with black swans, antique furniture, and a dishwasher. This property cost $985 to rent for a week high season (about half that off-season); and could accommodate seven people -- not too expensive if you could get seven peole together to rent it. This was one of the more expensive and unusual places; there were little cottages in the $300 to $400 range that could accommodate four people. This company also offers homes in the major cities, but they specialize in vacation areas, though they have a number of listings in London.

There are a number of extra costs: In France, gas and electricity are extra; there are also damage and telephone deposits, which of course you get back. Linens will also be supplied at a fee; you might consider bringing your own.

At Home Abroad (405 East 56th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022, [212] HA1-9165) offers vacation rentals in the Caribbean and Europe. Most of their homes in the Caribbean are second homes and are thus available most of the time; the European homes are often first homes and are only available in the summer when the owners are vacationing. Price range: a small Caribbean cottage off-season might be $ 400 a week; a large place in season might be $3,000. At Home Abroad mostly offers homes in resort areas. There is a $25 registration fee; you describe what you want, and the service sends color photos and description.

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