How would you like to spend your vacation, free of charge, in an apartment in Paris, London, or Rome, a villa in Martinique, a beach house in the Carolinas, or a condo in San Francisco? It's easy: All you have to do is find somebody there who wants to swap homes, and perhaps cars, with you. Thousands of people do this every year; some make several exchanges, for long weekends as well as full vacations. They find each other in one of several home exchange directories (see listing at right). People who have done it report that their homes are returned to them clean, with the laundry done and the plants watered; that they were much more comfortable than they would have been in a hotel; that they saved a good deal of money on meals (even if they had only breakfast at home); and that they saw much more of local life then they could have as conventional tourists.
Vandalism and petty thievery, often a problem when one rents a home, are almost nonexistent in exchanges; it seems that attitudes are different, when it's not a commercial transaction. People who know that you are in their house while they are in yours will treat it with more respect.
If you list your home, and if you live in an area that's in demand, like Manhattan, people will write to you from all over the world, with tempting offers. But if, for instance, you are interested only in an exchange on the Italian Riviera for August, a look in the directory will tell you if one is available and you need not list your own home; you just buy the catalog and get in touch with the people who interest you.
Most of the listings are for comfortable family homes with several bedrooms and baths. I live in a studio apartment in Greenwich Village, with a tiny kitchen, no dishwasher, and a sofa bed that takes uphalf the living room when it is open for the night. Would anyone in Europe, California, or the Eastern Shore want to swap a home for this? Would they ever!
One idle moment last fall I decided to list my tiny but lovely home in the bulletin of the Vacation Exchange Club. It had sent me a form on which I listed my name and address, the number of bedrooms and baths in my home (I said one of each, without explaining that the living room becomes the bedroom when the sofa is opened), the number of adults, children, and teen-agers in the traveling party. For destination and traveling dates, I indicated that I was open to suggestions.
Other features can be selected from a list of 74 coded choices, which includes such things as extensive grounds, country club privileges, and horseback riding. I have none of these to offer, but I mentioned that there was air conditioning and a doorman, and that restaurants and public transportation were conveniently nearby. I could have listed a lot more features, but these coded entries are difficult to read and I assumed that people who want to come to Manhattan are aware of museums and theaters. I enclosed a check for $24.70, sent it off to Youngtown, Ariz., and promptly forgot all about it.
The directory comes out in February, with a supplement in April. Even before I received mine, the letters started coming in.
The mother of a young dancer who will study at the American Ballet Theatre this summer offered a two-bedroom penthouse at the foot of Montmartre in Paris. A doctor and an artist in London each offered apartments at good addresses. Two teachers with a condo in San Francisco wanted to vacation in New York.
A French investment banker will spend three months at his firm's offices in Rockefeller Center and wanted my apartment for any part of the time. In exchange, he offered either a house in Normandy or an apartment in Monaco.
An architect in Rome sent photographs of a charming little apartment with a garden.
Others offered an apartment in Amsterdam, a studio in Paris, a lakeside home outside Seattle, a seaside cottage in New England, a beach house in Spain, an apartment in the Austrian alps, one in Cologne, another in Florence.
And the offers are still coming in. In addition, I have hundreds of listings to choose from, if I want to make some offers of my own.
Most of the letters were photocopies; duplicates had evidently been sent to many other people, but some were hand written and one even enclosed a stamped post card for my reply.
Nobody objected to the size of my apartment - people want to be in Manhattan, even if the quarters are tight. One young man wrote: ``I'll sleep on the floor, if I can see New York,'' and offered a roomy apartment near the Cologne cathedral in exchange.
There are many more offers than I can possibly consider, and narrowing them down wasn't easy.
Now I have agreed to a week in San Francisco in September and to another week in London later in the fall. I am trying to persuade the architect in Rome to come next spring instead of this summer (too hot in Rome), and I'll get the seaside cottage in New England for two weeks in July.
If you want to try a vacation swap this year, you can still list your home in a directory that appears in April or May. You can also send offers to people with whom you may want to swap.
Although big cities and resort areas are the most popular destinations, people often want to stay near friends and relatives in other areas. No matter where you live, it's worth trying. To increase your opportunities, send as many letters as you can, tell as much about you, your home, and your area as possible, and be flexible about your own plans.
Directories of swaps
Vacation exchange directories for those wanting to swap homes are published by the following organizations:
Vacation Exchange Club, 12006 111 Ave., Youngtown, AZ 85363. Telephone: (602) 972-2186. Affiliated with 21 local exchange clubs in Europe, the Caribbean, Iceland, Canada, Africa, and Australia. There are also listings in Israel, Mexico, Venezuela, and Taiwan.
Deadline for inclusion in the April directory is Feb. 15.
Deadline for inclusion in the February directory is Dec. 15.
Cost of two directories without listing is $16.
Cost of two directories with listing is $24.70.
International Home Exchange Service-Intervac, PO Box 3975, San Francisco, CA 94119. Telephone: (415) 382-0300. Affiliated with 16 exchange groups in Europe, Israel, Australia, and Brazil. Also listings in Canada, Mexico, and South America. Japan may be included soon.
Deadline for the March directory is Feb. 15.
Deadline for the May directory is April 15.
Deadline for inclusion in the January directory is Nov. 15.
Annual subscription to three directories is $39.50. Seniors are given a 20 percent discount.
Directories without a listing are not available.