We would like to look into a home-swapping holiday so we can enjoy the comforts of home while we're abroad. How can we go about this in the most risk-free way?
Richard Sutherland, Keswick
A.Home-exchange agencies, which help you swap your house with someone else's for a fortnight or so, have been going for decades. The arrival of the internet, and the resulting ease of search and contact, means this type of holiday is becoming increasingly popular. The main areas covered are Western Europe and North America, but there are also growing opportunities to swap with families further afield.
What these agencies provide in return for a small annual fee is, in effect, a directory service. You can list your own property and access information about properties in other countries. Once you have seen a property you like, you contact the owners yourself by letter, phone or e-mail to arrange the trade in detail.
The advantages of this type of deal for families are obvious, the main one being the financial saving. Not only is the property virtually free (bar any bills you agree to pay); you can eat in if you want to, do your washing at home, and arrange to exchange cars rather than rent one. Not only that, you get to stay in residential areas where you won't be surrounded by other tourists and where there is potentially plenty of space for the kids to play and sleep. Your own pets and plants can be cared for, and if your children are the same age as those in the family you swap with, you can even exchange playthings.
But you are right to be aware of the risks. The first danger is that, in the absence of a legally enforceable contract, the people with whom you intend to swap can simply change their minds leaving you without a holiday, and possibly with some expensive and non-refundable flights. Some agencies offer special insurance against this possibility.
Next, owners and properties are rarely vetted by the agencies, and the agency bears no legal responsibility for damage or other problems that may arise. There is no way of guaranteeing that things won't go wrong, and if you are the type to worry about having messy strangers in your home, then you may spend your own holiday in a state of anxiety.
To minimise the risks, most home-exchange companies and Which Online ( www.which.net) advise a series of precautions. Once you have located a property you like the look of, and found a family that is interested in yours, swap as much information as possible about the condition and location of your homes; ask for and provide references, particularly from prior exchanges; negotiate clearly over chores you agree to undertake; and don't enter into pet care, unless you are happy to accept this responsibility. Put a detailed agreement about your swap in writing, covering issues such as who will pay bills and whether you will exchange cars; keep a copy and give one to a third party, such as a relative.
You will need to tell your home contents insurance company that you will have non-paying guests; you may not be covered for theft if there is no sign of forced entry. Talk to your car insurer if you are swapping cars. Let your neighbours know what is happening. Finally, leave information about how appliances work (many Californians have never seen a Dyson vacuum cleaner), where the water mains, main gas valve and electrical fuse boxes are, and contact numbers for plumbers, electricians and the emergency services.
Typing "home exchange" in any internet search engine will bring up a broad selection of agencies. Assess them the same way as you would any similar organisation. How long has it been established? Does it warn you about, and tell you how to minimise, the risks involved in home exchanges? Is the website secure, so only members can get access to information about your home? What value is added in return for the fee charged? Established agencies you could consider include Intervac International ( www.intervac.com) based in Sweden; HomeLink International (01344 842642; www.homelink.org); and Vacation Homes Unlimited (www. vacation-homes.com), a British-owned company based in California. There are many others out there.
One final problem to consider; with foot-and-mouth disease the latest in a series of disincentives to prospective overseas visitors to Britain, the attractiveness of a semi in Swindon to a resident of Malibu Beach, California, may have dwindled.
Q.We would like to take our niece and nephew to the Tanglewood Music Festival in the Berkshires, Massachusetts, coupled if possible with a visit to the Glimmerglass Opera Festival. We can get to Boston without too much difficulty, but the problems are getting information on the festivals and transport to and from them. Any assistance would be very much appreciated.
Cecil & Millie Cherns, Pinner, Middlesex
A.The Tanglewood Music Festival, in the Berkshire Hills, features everything from the classics to jazz. It runs from 22 June to 2 September this year; its website is www.bso.org/tanglewood/. The site has contact and programme information as well as allowing you to book tickets online for concerts during the festival. The box office and general information telephone number for the festival is 00 1 617 266 1492.
The Glimmerglass Opera Festival in Cooperstown, New York state, started in 1975 and attracted near sell-out attendances of about 38,000 last year. Running from 5 July to 28 August, the festival has a website detailing the programme for this year along with contact details for online ticket ordering ( www.cooperstown.net). Tickets are available from the ticket office on 00 1 607 547 2255. The festival does not offer refunds or exchanges on tickets, so plan your trip carefully.
The website www.cooperstown.net has a directory of hotels and other lodgings near the festival. The festival's site advises that you should book accommodation before you book opera tickets for the days of 4 to 6 August as baseball fans will be converging on the town for the National Baseball Hall of Fame weekend.
Peregor Travel (01895 630871, www.peregor-travel.co.uk) offers fly-drive deals to Boston starting from £441 for a return flight per adult (£299 for children under 11) and £190 per week for car hire.Send your family travel questions to S F Robinson, The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS Or email@example.com