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Friday, January 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Trading spaces for a cheap vacation

Seattle Times travel staff

Want to find really cheap vacation lodging?

You can stay for free by organizing a house exchange. Or the really adventurous can "couch surf" — stay for nothing on a stranger's living-room couch or in a spare room.

Trading homes

For decades, European vacationers have been trading homes, a practice that is growing in North America, thanks to the Internet.

By swapping homes with an individual — in the United States or abroad — you avoid all accommodation costs. Some home-exchangers even trade cars and take care of each other's pets.

Various companies facilitate vacation-home exchanges. You can sample the listings of homes and apartments for free online, but must pay an annual membership fee, usually $50 to $100, to list your home and to be able to contact other owners.

Home-exchange companies act like matchmakers, not managers. All arrangements, and any problems, must be handled by the home-swappers. However, companies do give tips on readying your home for a trade, and some will take note of any complaints/problems.

Among the home-exchange companies:

• Intervac, a 53-year-old home-exchange network, has more than 8,000 listings in more than 50 countries. See www.intervacusa.com for the U.S.-affiliated site or phone 800-756-4663.

• HomeLink International has almost 14,000 listings and offices in dozens of countries. It's also has been operating for more than 50 years. www.homelink.org or 800-638-3841 for its U.S. office.

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• The seven-year-old Digsville Home and Hospitality Exchange Club, based in New Jersey, includes useful tips for would-be home-exchangers plus anecdotes from members who've traded homes. www.digsville.com or 877-795-1019.

Couch-surfing

Budget-conscious and adventurous travelers can find free places to stay — from a couch to a spare room — through several online communities whose mission is to connect travelers. Two such organizations, which started in the past few years, rely on the goodwill of travelers, with guests expected in turn to act as hosts for other members. Each group has some privacy safeguards and lots of online testimonials and tips.

• Global Freeloaders was started by a 20-something Australian traveler who wanted to travel without paying to stay in hotels — and expanded his experience for other travelers. www.globalfreeloaders.com

• The similar CouchSurfing, www.couchsurfing.com, was started by a 20-something American who wanted to meet locals, make new friends and save money while traveling. The Web site connects travelers looking for a place to stay with those offering their couch or other sleeping place in their home — or a yard in which to pitch a tent — for a night or more.

Kristin Jackson: kjackson@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2271

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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