Exchanging homes for an (almost) free vacation

WRITTEN BY Bernardo Mendonça | Originally published in the “Expresso” newspaper, Portugal on August 12, 2023 | TRANSLATION Ana Neto

More and more Portuguese are lending their homes in exchange for a free stay in other homes in their favorite vacation destinations. Despite fears, the crisis is making this trend grow in Portugal.



There are many houses around the world that have made Anabela Garcia’s vacations memorable. These houses have made it possible for her to go to long-desired or previously unknown destinations. 

One of her favorites was a spacious two-story villa in the middle of the Black Forest, overlooking lush vegetation, in the mountainous region of southwest Germany. Or the two weeks spent in a lakeside house on the outskirts of Gdansk in northern Poland, where she stayed with her husband and three children. “The house even had a movie theater, a gym, and kayaks in the garden for us to use on the lake. But at night, it was a never-ending mosquito barrage, and the owner of the house who gave us the keys was a stuck-up university professor who, on the first occasion, gave me a book in which he was mentioned. There is always a catch!” says the now-retired Visual Education teacher, laughing.


For 35 years, Anabela has used the two-bedroom apartment where she lives in Lisbon as a bargaining chip to gain access to free stays in the homes of other families in her travel destinations. 

She is registered on the Intervac website and pays the current annual fee of 70 euros. Her list of exchanges includes almost three dozen cities in the most varied countries. In her case, she usually exchanges house keys with the families she swaps with on the same day she goes on vacation. This is “to get to know the people better,” as she gives her home to them for a few weeks. 

She’s never had any complaints about the people in her house, apart from one family’s dog who tore up the sofa cushions – “which were replaced” – but she has plenty of stories to tell from her exchanges.”I’ll never forget the kitchen of the house I stayed in Cork, Ireland, which had a big picture above the stove of a suffering Christ with a heart that was always bleeding. It made such an impression on me that I had to flip it to the other side. But I like this discovery, adapting to new environments, and I feel that in this way I’ve been able to teach my children respect for others and for their homes.” Last year, this former teacher exchanged with “a German soap actor” for a small apartment in Berlin so that she could go to a local tango festival. And she’s already got her eye on a houseboat, moored in a harbor in Ishøj, on the Danish coast.

“I swapped the small apartment for a huge penthouse in New York,” says Ana Neto

Ana Neto, spokesperson for Intervac, the oldest online exchange platform in the world,

created in 1953, says that there are currently around 30,000 active users trading between 40 countries. In Portugal, there are 500 registered users, with one or more houses, but the number of Portuguese actually making exchanges is much lower. 

This software engineer believes that this is due to a certain Portuguese fear. “I notice that in Portugal we are a little more suspicious than in other countries about letting other people stay in our homes. In Northern European countries, nobody worries about that, I think for cultural reasons. This is reflected very significantly in the number of members. For example, Iceland usually has 70 times more members per capita than Portugal!”.

Ana Neto, who currently lives in Madeira Island with her husband and two daughters, came to this platform in 2005 with the aim of going to New York with her husband at a low cost. “I exchanged my small apartment in the historic area of Funchal for a huge penthouse next to Central Park, and I was won over.” 

Since then, she has made 31 exchanges. She recalls some of the experiences she’s had in the places she’s stayed, which have been a source of excitement for her family and which she wouldn’t have had in a hotel. “The house in Barcelona had table football, the one in Sweden had a huge trampoline in the garden, the one in Orléans had a slide, the one in Belgium had a garden full of raspberries, which we had to pick every day, and the one in Switzerland had swings for my children…” And apart from the huge savings, she sums up another advantage of this different way of traveling: “Exchanging houses makes for a more authentic vacation, where you feel less like a tourist in the midst of so many others. It’s true that the host isn’t there when we arrive, but they leave us a lot of tips about the neighborhood, and the experience of being in a ‘real’ home is worth it.”


Cheap Luxury

Carla Moura, 48, remembers the feeling of luxury and privilege she felt in the summer of last year when she stayed with her family for a week in a loft in New York, four minutes from Central Park. In return, she lent the American family her vacation home in Armação de Pêra, in the Algarve. “It’s really nice to feel like you’re living on vacation like the people who live there. It’s more authentic, and you can cook and have access to the amenities that a house has and a hotel or local accommodation doesn’t.” 

The exchange was made through the Home Exchange platform, currently the most famous in Portugal and the world, with around three thousand homes registered in our country alone and which, for 160 euros a year, gives access to thousands of homes in 133 countries, particularly in France, the USA, Spain, Canada, and Italy. 

Exchanges don’t have to be simultaneous (…). There is also a concept of sustainability behind this cheaper way of traveling. And this is something the platform makes clear on its website. “We believe that travel should not be at the expense of local communities. We believe that impulsive travel is a thing of the past. We believe that travel should bring people together, not drive them apart. We believe that sharing is the most responsible way to use resources. We believe that trust and respect are the basis for defining the relationship between citizens, for promoting inclusion, not discrimination.” (…)

It was 30 years ago that Alfredo Magalhães, 76, was attracted to this travel concept in a magazine. “As I consider myself more of a traveler and less of a tourist, I thought it was the best way to get to know the cities of other countries from the inside. And, of course, I’d save a lot of money.” The first time he exchanged his two-bedroom apartment in the Porto district was with a house in a village near Grenoble, France. And since then, he’s been around the globe and exchanged houses two or three times a year. One of the houses this former university professor remembers most was in Iceland, in a region nine kilometers from the city of Reykjavik, where he stayed in June 2017. “We were welcomed into a house with a fridge full of fresh cod and other fish, and the stay was cheap in a destination that is breathtakingly beautiful but extremely expensive.” On his way to 80 years old, Alfredo wants to keep on traveling the world as long as he’s healthy and has a photo album where he records images from each of these stays. His next stop could be Scotland or Goa in India.

Sara Matos, 45, a member of Intervac, has also been a fan of this concept for about seven years and often travels with her friends or her mother. “I especially remember the houses we stayed in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Vienna, Austria, which were very spacious, clean, and tidy, with gardens.” This math teacher, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Linda-a-Velha (Greater Lisbon) with her daughter, sums up this gateway to the four corners of the planet in one sentence: “It’s the best way to get to know the world at almost zero cost, in a logic of exchanging goods.”


Home Exchanging Tips


These exchanges should ideally be prepared in advance. It’s common for reservations to be made months or years in advance, in order to find the best solutions and to have time to get to know the people you’ll be exchanging addresses with, to properly prepare the house for the exchange, and to find out more about the vacation destination.


As a rule, the community on these platforms is honest, trustworthy and will respect your things and the recommendations you leave on how to use the house and what you can and can’t use. However, it is always advisable to communicate with the people you will be exchanging with so that everything goes smoothly. We recommend leaving the house clean and tidy and explaining how to use the appliances and the necessary safety precautions, such as whether it is safe to leave the windows open.


In the case of houses with plants and pets, it is also customary to ask guests in advance to water the plants and take care of the animals (cats, dogs, or others), if so agreed.


It is customary for the community that makes these exchanges to leave a welcome gift for those who arrive, a bottle of wine and local delicacies, and, at the end of the stay, people also leave something as a thank you to the owners of the house. Some people lend their car, and some write a little “guide” for the tourists they receive.

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