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The world is my oyster - again!

By Lisa Mann- Petaluma, CA, USA - View Listing

My wanderlust was well known to my friends in what my husband and I call our BC (Before Children) era. A friend bought me a gorgeous "Adventure Travel" calendar the year my first child was born, but I tossed it out before the year was over-monthly reminders of the world I hadn't yet seen was too much to take when getting to the bank seemed like a major expedition. For the first few years, we stayed home and had kids. As the kids got a little older we branched out to occasional visits to family, and finally car camping trips nearby. My wanderlust hadn't died, it was just beaten into submission by both the cost of travel for a family of five and the logistics of caring for kids on the road.

During that time, my parents began doing home exchanges. I listened avidly to the details of their trips, and enjoyed meeting their exchange partners (eager to take in all of the details of their trips, too. Vicarious travel looked like the only outlet for my wanderlust.) . My parents were retired, and preferred to travel in Spring and Fall, so most of their exchange partners were retired as well. But one spring my parents exchanged with a family from Germany. The husband was doing some medical research at a hospital near my parent's home. "Be sure you come down and show Karen around", my mother told me. "The poor woman will be alone in a foreign country with 3 kids under 5."

Well, we underestimated Karen. Despite 3 kids under the age of 5, Karen was having a ball. I was swept up in her adventures (between us, we had 6 kids under the age of 5). It was their first home exchange, but they raved about the joys of having a home base-complete with kids videos, washer and dryer, and a full kitchen. By the time Karen and Peter and their kids returned to Germany, I was surfing home exchange sites, plotting out our first exchange.
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As it turned out, we had reason to be in London in June, and had no intention of paying for RT airfare to Europe twice in one year, so we set about finding a home exchange that could correspond with the dates we would be in Europe. We had very few requirements; our home exchange partners had to be in Europe, and able to travel on the dates we were able to travel. We avoided anyone who used the words "impeccable" or "antiques" in their description (after all, we have three kids), but other than that, all of Europe was open to us.

Looking for an exchange was almost as fun as the trip itself-should we try the south of France, or how about a flat in Paris? We have friends in the Netherlands, so the place in Utrecht was appealing. There were several offers from Britain, and the home on the coast in Ireland sounded lovely, but my husband and I had spent a fair amount of time in the UK, and wanted to go somewhere new for what we imagined might be our last trip for some time. It seemed as though every day there was a new place to daydream of; interesting people to correspond with.

In the end, we decided on an exchange in Denmark. Everyone-especially in Denmark-- asked "why Denmark?" The truth was we chose Denmark because we liked the Danish family, and they were willing to travel when we needed to. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Our families were well-matched, the Danish family also had three kids, about our kids ages. Like us, they had traveled quite a bit BC, but recently had mostly done family visits and local camping trips. This was their first exchange too, and the first trip abroad for their kids. Their home was about the same size as ours, and in a village about as far from Arhus as ours was from San Francisco. We never met in person, but we still felt like they were old friends by the end of the exchange.

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It all worked out beautifully-Denmark turned out to be a gloriously easy first trip. English was spoken everywhere, driving was probably easier than driving in California-the Danes are polite drivers and the roads are remarkably well marked. The house was lovely, their village charming, and their neighbors gracious.

We saved a great deal of money of course-three weeks worth of hotel rooms in Europe for 6 (my brother came with us) alone could have come to several thousand dollars or more. We also arranged to exchange cars, so we had no car rental costs. We ate breakfast at home every morning, packed a picnic lunch on most days (the Danes have picnic facilities everywhere!), and several times cooked dinners at home, laden with fresh produce from our exchange partners' bountiful garden.

We discovered that Karen and Peter were right - in addition to the money saved, the convenience of staying in a home with kids was terrific. We weren't stuck in a 12 x12 hotel room with whiney kids-there were toys to play with, chickens to feed, a swing set outside. We carried less luggage-we tossed all our laundry in the washer in the evening when we returned to have clean clothes the next day. We could fix snacks to stave off cranky kids, and exchange email with our exchange partners during the trip-offering each other suggestions on where to go and how to get there, answering questions like "there are very large birds that glide over your house, what are they?", and reassuring each other that the house and pets were fine in our absence.

But what really hooked me on home exchanges is the sense that you really get to know a place well. Staying in a hotel, much of your time is spent in tourist neighborhoods and at tourist sites. We saw many of the tourist attractions, of course, but we also shopped at the local market, chatted with the neighbors, and saw a side of Denmark we probably wouldn't have known about had we been there in a hotel. A concierge, or a guidebook, can tell you a good restaurant to eat at or offer directions to the sightseeing bus, but neighbors can tell you about the great bike path along the river, or the roadside stand that sells the best strawberries.

The kids loved every minute of it, and now eagerly peruse the home exchange listings with me. We've since started exchanging for long weekends, as well, and have another longer exchange planned for summer. A couple years ago I thought it would be years before we were able to take interesting trips again; with home exchanging our only problem is narrowing down the options.
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