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Brian Lindblom and Nancy Dobson stand in front of their house in Ottawa. They recently swapped their home with a couple in Quebec City. They’ve found home swapping is a great way to travel the world affordably.James Park/The Globe and Mail

When I reach Brian Lindblom and Nancy Dobson on the phone, they are relaxing in the living room, speaking over one another in the familiar way of a long-time couple. They’ve had a full day in Quebec City: walking around downtown, before coming home to cook dinner. But they’re not at their home – they’re at Jean-Christian Auclair and Lyne Des Groseilliers’s house, while Auclair and Des Groseilliers stayed at their place in Ottawa.

They’re all members of HomeLink, a global organization where members can swap homes, allowing for an intimate travel experience. More personal than a hotel, but without the cost of an Airbnb, Lindblom says exchanging homes makes for a more relaxing vacation experience. “We don’t feel rushed, like we’ve got to get to a museum or do [something] simply because we’ve got to make the best of the time. It doesn’t cost anything.”

Over the past decade, Lindblom and Dobson have visited New Zealand, Amsterdam, Sweden, Norway, Mexico, and different parts of Canada, all through home swaps. They originally got involved when they were looking for ways to cut costs while travelling. Swapping homes means no hotel fees, and there’s no money exchanged between participants, so it lets them go further afield, and often stay for longer periods.

However, you do have to be flexible. Home swaps often start with a request. Lindblom and Dobson might reach out to several members in areas they might want to travel, to see if they are open to a swap. Or they might get requests themselves, asking to open up their Ottawa home. From there, they see where they might go.

“We’ve been to locations that we wouldn’t even think of,” says Lindblom. “At one point, we went to south central Mexico. Not to a tourist resort or anything, but we never would have thought to go to that city, until somebody asked us to exchange with them there.”

There are also the little touches that make exchanging homes more personal. When Lindblom and Dobson arrived at Auclair’s home, there was a bottle of wine waiting, with some cheeses and snacks in the refrigerator. It’s a welcome touch, but Auclair says it’s also an important aspect of home swaps; it’s a sign that you truly are letting people make themselves at home in your space.

That’s the flip side of the experience. While you are travelling and staying in someone’s house, you have to be comfortable having people in your space as well. “Your mindset has to be free of material possessions, they’re no longer very important,” says Auclair. “[Some people] don’t want anybody in their bed, but it doesn’t take long to get over that.”

Auclair and Des Groseilliers get about 25 requests a year for their home in Quebec City, especially in the summer months. That’s not surprising; according to HomeExchange, another house swapping site, Quebec City is one of the most popular destinations for travellers in Canada, along with Whistler, Toronto, Vancouver, and Mont-Tremblant. When they travel, Canadians tend to search out swaps in Paris and New York.

HomeExchange’s data shows that members are making up for lost travel time over the pandemic. Exchanges in September, 2022, were up 126 per cent over the same period in 2019. However, they’re not all done at the same time.

“About 70 per cent of the exchanges are nonreciprocal,” says Emmanuel Arnaud, chief executive officer of HomeExchange.

There are multiple ways of swapping homes. The most straightforward is when both parties travel at the same time, and simultaneously stay at the other’s home. There are nonsimultaneous swaps, where each party stays at the other’s house, but not during the same period. (Dobson and Lindblom actually decamped to a summer cottage while Auclair and Des Groseilliers stayed at their home, and then made their way to Quebec City months later.)

But with 100,000 paying members, Arnaud says the possibilities for vacations are nearly endless. More importantly, there are few surprises when it comes to swapping homes. With no money changing hands, there’s no reason to gloss over the quirks of a house.

“It’s going to be a lot more low key, down to earth,” explains Arnaud. “If you’re coming to my home, I want you to have a good stay.” When members list their homes on the site, they are upfront about every detail: the sticky lock on the upstairs bathroom door, or the leak in the kitchen faucet. Arnaud says that also cuts down on issues with scammers or safety problems. Because no one is marketing a property, like they might for a short-term rental, few people fudge the details. Arnaud says HomeExchange facilitates 250,000 exchanges a year, and they have an incident rate of less than one per cent.

For many home exchangers, this way of travelling is akin to a lifestyle. The first swap that Auclair and Des Groseilliers participated in was with a couple in California who had been part of the HomeLink network for decades, back when it was a printed directory with mailing addresses listed. For Dobson and Lindblom, the appeal is obvious.

“To go away for a month and be in a hotel the whole time, eating three meals a day out in restaurants, it’s just so unappealing,” Dobson says. “I can’t even fathom living like that.”