Q. Seeing the film The Holiday recently has made us consider the possibility of a house swap. Is this practical for a family of five (children aged 18 months, five and 10) with a limited budget, a dog, a cat and a leopard gecko? We don't live in a particularly swanky house, so aren't sure if we'll find any takers.
Liz Strauch, Devon
A. House swapping, where two homeowners agree to stay free-of-charge in each other's property, isn't just for sleek singles like the lonely hearts in The Holiday - it can be ideal for families. If you swap with other parents, your accommodation is likely to come ready supplied with computer games, highchairs, bicycles, cots and all sorts of other bits of useful kit. Staying in someone's home and meeting their neighbours also gives your children an unmediated taste of local life that's quite different from being boxed up in a hotel.
Home-exchanging has spread globally since its American beginnings 50 years ago. Each year, around 250,000 householders swap homes worldwide. The majority are in the US and Canada, Australia, New Zealand and northern Europe, but some are as far afield as Brazil and Russia.
As the West Country is popular with visitors to the UK, you shouldn't have too much trouble finding takers with houses, holiday homes, caravans and even the odd boat on offer. But, as house-swappers are often organised types who arrange their holidays up to a year in advance, start looking now if you're hoping to get away this summer.
The good news is this is a relatively low-cost way of visiting long-haul destinations. In fact, the only expense, other than your flight, food and utility bills, is the cost of joining a home-exchange agency (around £30-£115 per year). There are about 30 of these worldwide, which vary in the number of members they have and the areas they cover, but all work in basically the same way: you pay an annual fee to have a description of your house, and what sort of swap you're looking for, included in a regularly updated listing. Other members will then get in touch with you direct; it's up to you to decide whether to proceed with any offers.
When you have chosen an agency to join, you'll need to write your own listing. Keep it simple - a brief description of the location, number and type of rooms, facilities, garden and so on - and keep it accurate. Visitors won't mind staying in your less-than-swanky, bashed-around-the-edges family home if they know what to expect, but they may well be upset if you've sold it to them as a pristine, luxury retreat.
Once you get a bite, you'll need to find out as much information as you can about your swappees - including their ages, interests, expectations and needs, as well as practicalities such as timings, car swaps and whether or not they'll be content to feed the gecko. Draw up an agreement that both sides are happy with, including details of who is responsible for paying for bills or minor breakages (both sides should provide a full, signed inventory of the house's contents), the length of the stay and how many people are visiting. As the most common difficulty with house-swaps is differing ideas of what's meant by "clean and tidy", make sure you and your swappers know what each expects of the other. Finally, don't book travel arrangements until you have signed each other's agreements.
The only downside of house swapping for families is the amount of preparation before you go. It's good practice to create a welcome pack for your visitors, with manuals for appliances, useful telephone numbers, and information about local places of interest. You'll also need to leave plenty of drawer, wardrobe, fridge and cupboard space free for your visitors, which, for all but the most organised, will mean a lot of last-minute shifting about of bags of clothes and toys. (And that's on top of the generally daunting task of getting the place clean.) If children are coming into your home, it's probably a good idea to move any particularly valued objects - computers, a favourite teddy, your prized pot of Crème de la Mer - into one locked room or cupboard.
Agencies with UK offices include HomeLink International (01962 886 882; www.homelink.org.uk), Intervac (0845 260 5776; www.intervac.co.uk), Holswap (07771 866584; www.holswap.com), and Home Base Holidays (020-8886 8752; www.homebase-hols.com). Matching Houses ( www.matchinghouses.com) concentrates on swaps suitable for children and adults with special needs, while the National Childbirth Trust (0870 421 4872; www.nct.org.uk) has a UK-only list for members with younger children.
Send your family travel queries to The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, 'The Independent', 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org