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Try A Home Exchange on Your Next Vacation

Home exchanging isn’t a new idea, but Americans are less familiar with this concept that is popular in Europe. The basic premise is simple; you swap homes with another person during your vacation. It’s a win-win situation all around; both parties pocket the money they would have otherwise spent on lodging. But is home exchanging a viable option for wheelchair users?

Says Adolf Ratzka, “It’s a very attractive alternative because it makes vacations affordable,” which explains why he’s a big proponent of the Vacation Home Exchange Bulletin Board (VHEBB), a free online listing service. Hosted by the Stockholm Independent Living Institute, this electronic bulletin board currently boasts over 100 listings, most of which contain detailed accessibility information.

Irene Chapman, creator of Accessible House Hosting Australia, agrees that affordability is a benefit, but points out that home exchanging also allows people to get the inside scoop on local access. “Communicating with a local wheelie gives you straight away the knowledge about wheelchair-accessible transport, tourist attractions, and shops,” stresses Irene.

Theo Blackmore, creator of Matching Houses, cites several more advantages of home exchanging. “You can prepare meals at home and come and go as you please whilst enjoying greater privacy,” explains Theo. “You also get a much better feel for the places you visit.”

After swapping his Napa Valley home for one in the English countryside, Anthony Tusler became a big home exchange fan. As a manual wheelchair user for 49 years, Anthony readily admits his own home is filled with a lot of access work-arounds, so he was concerned if it would work for a his exchange partner who uses a power wheelchair.

Negotiating the logistics of the exchange was complex, but in the end Anthony met his exchange partner’s needs with the purchase of a used shower chair, a portable ramp, hiring a carpenter to make modifications to his standard stall shower, and the addition of a hand-held shower head. As for his English exchange home, says Anthony, “The wheelchair access was unsurpassed. Communication is the key,” he emphasizes. “It’s important to know exactly what you’re getting into.”

Frequent traveler and Universal Design proponent Scott Rains agrees. “You just need to set aside taboos about diet, adaptive equipment, and bodily functions and have a frank conversation about your needs. Digital photos and floorplans are great tools but don’t forget to ask those all important path-of-travel questions too.”

Language can also be a barrier. In fact, Anthony turned down one potential exchange mate because of language difficulties. “Our lack of ability to speak French made communication difficult,” recalls Anthony. It should also be noted that “accessible” has a different meaning in Europe. An accessible home or bathroom is one with adequate wheelchair pathway access. If you need a roll-in shower or a raised toilet, in most cases you are looking for an “adapted” bathroom.

It can be difficult to match the various parameters of a vacation plan — time, location, and accessibility. Some people, like Kathi Pugh, don’t succeed. “I had several inquiries but none of them were places I wanted to go,” says Kathi. Indeed, some of the ads on the VHEBB don’t exactly extol the virtues of their location. Although access is important, it’s hard to build a vacation around a roll-in shower. Anthony Tusler admits he may have had an advantage in this respect, as his wife works in the tourism industry and she wrote a great ad.

One way to increase your chances of finding a home exchange partner is to also search some of the mainstream home exchange websites. Most charge a fee for access, but only a few list accessible homes. The majority do not have adapted bathrooms, so it’s not an option for everyone. If you go this route, be careful because some websites use the same database. For example, homebase-hols.com and invented-city.com both contain the same listings, however they charge separate access fees.

Finally, if you are thinking about a home exchange, educate yourself about the process. Veteran home exchangers recommend an excellent primer on the subject, The Home Exchange Guide: How to Find Your Free Home Away from Home, by M.T. Simon and T.T. Baker.

Although the logistics of arranging a home exchange may seem daunting, in the end you exchange much more than just your home. “We also traded friends, relatives, and neighbors,” recalls Tusler. “When I traveled before, I felt anonymous. Nobody knew me. By trading our houses - and to a certain extent our lives - I was known. I liked that comfort. And at each step there was a friendly face or helpful friend to ease the transition.”

Home Exchange Resources

Vacation Home Exchange Bulletin Board
www.independentliving.org/vacex
Free listing service for accessible homes.

Accessible House Hosting Australia
mc2.vicnet.net.au/home/ahha
Currently in a transitional phase, but one to keep an eye on in the future.

Matching Houses
www.matchinghouses.com
Fee-based listing service of accessible homes. No charge until database fills up.

Wunago
www.wunago.com
Accessible travel site with a small section of home exchange listings. No charge for access.

Green Theme International
www.gti-home-exchange.com
Fee-based listing service with some accessible homes.

Candy Harrington is the editor of Emerging Horizons and the author of Barrier Free Travel: A Nuts and Bolts Guide For Wheelers and Slow Walkers. Visit her blog at www.BarrierFreeTravels.com.