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by Janice Valverde -  Westbury, MA, USA (listing #305)

When I mention my home exchange vacation, people offer one of two responses. Some think I'm out of my mind: "What? You allowed strangers to stay in your home?" Others think I'm clever and resourceful. "Wow, what a great idea. How do I find out about it?" I tend to agree with the second group!
My home exchange in August was one of the best vacation experiences ever. My three teen-age daughters and I were able to spend almost three weeks in London without the expense of hotels or B&B's. But the savings on accommodations was only the most obvious benefit of exchanging our New England home for one in England.

I live in a little town north of Boston, well situated for exploring the city of Boston, the New England coast, or other destinations in the northeast corner of the U.S. I was delighted to know that my guests, the Smee family of London, did indeed use my house, not only as homebase for exploring Boston, coastal Massachusetts and Maine, but they also ventured as far as Niagara Falls, New York, using a 'triptik' I obtained for them from the AAA (American Automobile Assn).

Their home in London -- actually in West Wickham, a village in Bromley -- turned out to be a great location for us, too. It was suburban enough that we could enjoy a safe quiet neighborhood and a lovely garden. But it's also within a few minutes of a train station that was our departure point for London every day. No hotel room in London would have been as spacious, homey and comfortable. And besides, I couldn't have afforded a London hotel anyway!
Lian Choo Smee and I "discovered" each other through Digsville last December.  We continued to e-mail for seven months before we actually began our holidays. I have to credit all of our communication for the success of our exchange.
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Over those months, we discussed driving, insurance on the houses and cars, use of computers in our respective houses, weather, events coming up during our exchange, and so much more. I collected any bit of tourist information that I thought my guests might need. (Yes, I thought of them as guests since Lian and I shared so much information and friendship via our e-mails.) Another benefit: during those months of planning, I became so motivated to have repairs done on my house. I had the interior painted, rearranged the furniture, wallpapered the bathroom, got rid of lots of excess junk! Just in the nick of time, a carpenter finished a second bedroom that had been languishing unfinished for months.

A great benefit of our home exchange vacation is the "head start" we had in acclimating to London. With all the information, phone numbers of friends, and notes around the house, we felt welcome right away. Lian's best friend Jessie picked us up at Heathrow, took us to the house, showed us around, and then drove me to the local train station so I would know how to find it the next day. Lian's father-in-law very kindly drove an hour to the Smee's home late one evening to help us with a plumbing emergency! A retired policeman, who lives across the street, kept an eye out for us and helped me cope with a dead battery in Lian's Volvo. None of these personal encounters would have been part of our experience if we stayed at a hotel.

Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral, Stonehenge, the Tate Modern Art Museum, a ballet at the Royal Opera House, a ride on the London Eye, a great meal at The China House restaurant, a tour of Buckingham Palace, shopping at Harrods's, and lots more. But for me, people rather than places, tend to be the best memories. So living in a home in a neighborhood and meeting local people meant a lot.

My advice to anyone planning a home exchange vacation is to communicate as much as possible in advance. Get to know the people with whom you are exchanging. If you don't click, maybe you should consider someone else. Send photos online of your home, room by room, and photos of your family, too. If you do click, as Lian and I did, you will not only welcome a fellow Digsville member to your home (and have a very affordable vacation experience), you might also be able to welcome a new friend into your life!

Would I do another home exchange vacation? Oh, yes. Is anyone from Southern California interested in touring New England next summer?
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This article has been generously contributed by Janice Valverde, a member of Digsville since July 2000.
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