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From Tuscan villas to beach houses in Florida, the concept of swapping houses with another traveller to save money has been around for decades. But the concept got the Hollywood treatment in 2006 with the light-hearted film The Holiday, in which Cameron Diaz traded her California mansion for Kate Winslet’s quaint cottage in Surrey, England over Christmas.

In November 2012, home swapping hit the headlines again with the news that the new British website Love Home Swap had raised £1.3 million in funding, joining several other home exchange clubs already in the market.

Today, an estimated 100,000 people worldwide belong to one of the more than 20 house-trading clubs online, including HomeLinkHome Exchange and Intervac, which publish listings that users can browse for an annual fee that ranges from $65 to $127. About half of home traders are families with children, a third are retirees and the rest are younger couples and singles like the characters in The Holiday.

Switching properties for a week can be significantly cheaper than staying in a hotel, but home swaps bring other cost savings, too. Access to a kitchen means fewer meals at restaurants, and some members even include their car in the trade.

There are also intangible benefits. Houses usually have more space than hotel rooms, and it may be easier to get immersed in the local scene, given that most exchanges are located in residential neighbourhoods.

Not everything is perfect, of course. The first rule of “swap club” is you have to trust the other members of swap club. In other words, there is a risk that the person you’re trading with might have misrepresented the quality of their property or may not maintain high housecleaning standards when staying at your home. Exchangers rarely involve lawyers in contracts, but the clubs do provide forms for each party to sign to make clear what the rights and responsibilities should be on both sides.

The second rule of swap club is that patience is required, as it can sometimes take weeks to line up an exchange. You will have the best chance of nabbing your ideal swap if you initiate contact with potential traders about six months in advance of your trip, though last-minute arrangements do happen.

Complaints are rare. Home exchange clubs say that they only receive a handful of serious complaints out of the tens of thousands of swaps facilitated each year. The sites typically allow users to post character references and ratings of each other’s properties, though the sites don’t formally vet users.

This is also probably why only a handful of members-only clubs stand out for their reputation, breadth of users and online features that simplify and instill trust in arranging trades.

Here are a few of the hottest house bartering sites.

Best for geographical breadth
With 41,000 members in more than 140 countries, the 20-year-old US site Home Exchange leads in inventory size and geographical spread. The site charges a fee of $120 a year, which grants users access to the largest directory of online exchanges.

Best for luxury properties
Love Home Swap has 8,000 members in 105 countries and charges about $127 a year for membership. In a unique function, the site integrates with Facebook, allowing you to see if you have any friends in common with a potential trading partner. While the site features all types of properties worldwide, the year-old site skews toward upscale lodging in Britain.

Best for veteran exchangers
The longest running exchange club, which this month turns 60 years old, Intervac has the most variety in property types globally. Its 30,000 members include the most experienced exchangers, some of whom have swapped as many as 90 properties. While available globally, its listings are concentrated in 45 countries, mostly in the US, Germany, France, the UK, Canada and Australia. Additionally, its fees are just $99 a year.

Best for European properties
HomeLink International charges an annual fee of $119 and has about 13,000 members. It covers 27 countries, with the majority of them in Europe. Swaps here range from beach houses in the Mediterranean to mountain cottages in the Alps.

Best for properties down under
HouseSwapHolidays.com.au
has 2,900 properties in Australia and New Zealand, providing more listings for this corner of the world than any other club. It charges $80 a year for membership.

 

Sean O’Neill is the travel tech columnist for BBC Travel

Correction: This article originally said Aussie House Swap was the largest house-swapping site for Australia and New Zealand. This has now been fixed.

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