It's mid-June, and my partner, Bruce "Mac" McKenzie, and I will soon leave our San Francisco home to spend two weeks on the French island of Corsica, followed by two weeks in Spain. Our homes-away-from-home will be a charming stone house in a Corsican village overlooking turquoise Mediterranean waters, and a vast apartment in the pulsing heart of Madrid. How can a journalist and a retired telephone lineman afford a month of such swell vacation digs? Only thanks to home exchanging, which allows us to stay for free, car included.

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During our 15 years of exchanges, Mac and I have settled into 27 homes in six foreign countries and the United States. And while exchanging has saved us tens of thousands of dollars in lodging — not to mention what we'd have spent eating every meal out and renting cars — we love it for another reason: We can experience life like the locals.

Don't worry if you're initially unsettled by the idea of turning your home over to strangers; that's the gut reaction of many people who eventually become seasoned exchangers. Try starting, as Mac and I did, with a weekend exchange somewhat close to home, to build your comfort level before graduating to more far-flung and lengthy trips.

Ours have ranged from a two-nighter in an Ashland, Oregon, bungalow to a three-week stopover at a Santa Fe town house. One favorite was a 10-day idyll in a country house outside Bath, England, where we happily cared for six garrulous hens who rewarded us daily with fresh eggs.

How it works

House exchanging entails making a direct owner-to-owner agreement to temporarily trade homes and, sometimes, cars. There are no agents, legal contracts or damage deposits. That sounds scary, but we have yet to return home to a problem worse than a broken wineglass, nor have we found anything unexpected on the other end.

The length of a trip depends on the parties' schedules. Note that exchangers usually assume light household duties such as watering plants and taking out the trash.

See also: How to be a good houseguest

Getting started

Browse listings on membership websites such as intervac-homeexchange.com, homelink.org and homeexchange.com, where exchangers post descriptions of their homes (usually with photos) and their preferred destinations and dates. Fees to join a site are reasonable: We pay about $150 to list our home and have access to other listings for two years. If you rent, or live in a condo or co-op, make sure exchanging is allowed. And ask insurers if short-term loans of the home are covered.

Making an exchange

When creating your listing, highlight your home's key attributes — antique furnishings, nice views — and upload a few enticing photos. Homes don't need to be the same size for a successful swap; we once gladly traded our three-bedroom house for a cozy studio apartment in Barcelona. Email potential swappers; if they're interested, expect a few rounds of emails to close the deal. Before the swap, you might squirrel away valuables. We secure financial records and a few irreplaceable heirlooms.

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