With two children, limited funds and little enthusiasm for musty-smelling holiday cottages with that unloved feeling, house-swapping with a family appealed. We found a house through a register run by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT). Members pay pounds 10, non-members pounds 20, for a yearly list of around 200 families throughout the UK who want to swap homes for a holiday. The list seemed full of potential - particularly since we didn't have to worry about rental costs. I rather fancied the medieval hall with an acre of garden in east Suffolk, while Mick liked the Edinburgh apartment in the heart of the city. The children wanted anywhere with gerbils. When I eventually telephoned our chosen destination (somewhere without rodents) we were disappointed to find they had already arranged an exchange for the summer.
Interesting-sounding entries are often snapped up as soon as the list appears, so it pays to start planning your swap early. Once we had registered, we found that our London address drew many enquiries but few really tempting swaps. Did we, for instance, really want a holiday in Dudley? We finally agreed to exchange our four-storey Victorian semi the following Easter with a family who lived in a 17th-century Cornish farmhouse, and had children the same age as ours (four and two) and a cat to feed.
Correspondence over the next months focused on the various idiosyncrasies of our homes and lives: our beautiful chrome cooker was decorative rather than functional; their cat had a life-threatening allergy to milk. Swapping is based on mutual trust and respect for each other's home. The people we swapped with had done it before, so they spoke from experience, suggesting what we should clean before and after the swap, and what food and bed linen each could use.
Exchanging homes is perfect for those with children, as the only things you need take with you are clothes, and things for the journey. We agreed that both parties could use wellingtons and coats. But while discussing final details we became aware of the many things that could go wrong with a swap. The Cornish family sounded normal, but what if they liked things really clean? What if they were minimalists, and hated clutter?
In the end, nothing did go wrong. We spent a perfect week exploring the many beaches our hosts had left details of, and when it rained our children played with toys that were infinitely more interesting than the ones they'd left at home. Inevitably, we and our houses were very different. Our clutter was of the everyday type: toys, books and shoes. Theirs overflowed with antique doll collections and other Victoriana. We quickly adjusted to our different surroundings, and have agreed to swap again some time.
Other house-swappers are equally enthusiastic. Sue Eardley exchanged her five-bedroom detached house in Croydon for a week in a bungalow in Tavistock, Devon. "My children were so impressed with the bunk beds that we bought some when we got home. We went to child-friendly pubs and restaurants that we wouldn't have found without our hosts' instructions. Unfortunately our car was broken into while we were there, so we rang home and asked the swappers to look in a box in the study and find our insurance details. They recommended a local garage, so we sorted things out immediately. Had we been in a holiday cottage it could have been disastrous."
Some swappers are really organised. They buy nappies for the incoming children, having checked weight and sex, and use each other's buggy. This type of holiday must be worth it for boot space alone.
Rachel Goddard is in her 10th year of swapping. "We couldn't go away two or three times a year without exchanging. Living in the country, we feel it's important to take the children to London a couple of times a year, and we've had fabulous locations." Rachel has had only one bad experience: "The house was filthy. Our feet stuck to the carpet and the high chair was so dirty I couldn't put my baby in there. We arrived home to find mouldy strawberries in our bedrooms and a bottle of wine spilled over the kitchen units." Happily, the culprit is no longer on the register.
House-swaps are not, of course, solely the preserve of those with small children. Intervac is now one of the largest agencies to arrange home exchanges, both in the UK and abroad. Rhona Nayer runs the UK office. Her mother-in-law set up the first swaps in 1953 and the organisation now has 10,000 homes in its brochure, 1,300 of them in Britain. Intervac costs pounds 80 to join and sends out a brochure every couple of months, which is useful if you can't plan ahead. Most entries are from professional people, families and retired folk. You can even arrange to swap your teenager, if you're willing to take someone else's for a cultural exchange. Rhona is proud of the diversity: "Some of our homes are like B&Bs, others are more like five-star hotels, but whatever you choose you can expect it to be clean. People who choose this type of holiday have that spirit of enthusiasm."
The choice is certainly immense. Looking through Intervac's thick brochure, with photos and tempting descriptions, my idea of half-term in the lakes was quickly overshadowed by the thought of a month in Madagascar. I'll even feed their lemurs, if they feed our children.
NCT House-Swap Register: Penny White, 56 Cornwall Crescent, North Yate, South Gloucestershire BS17 5RX (01454 311426); Intervac: Rhona Nayer, 3 Orchard Court, North Wraxall, Wilts SN14 7AD (01225 892208). Other UK home-exchange agencies include Green Theme International Home Exchange 01208 873123; Home Base Holidays 01332 291102; Latitudes Home Exchange 01273 581793; Worldwide Home Exchange Club 0171-823 9937.