Home-exchanging first came into my life back in 1990, when we traded our house in San Diego for a spacious ground-floor apartment in Paris’ tony 16th arrondissement. Our exchange partners had three young boys; we had a five-year-old and a toddler. We loved saving money by paying nothing for the lodging, and we loved pretty much everything else about the experience. In the years that followed, exchanges all over Europe and North America made our travel much more affordable, and we felt it gave us deeper insight into where we were.
Over time, we got more adventurous. In the summer of 2000, I found accommodations for us in the Shibuya neighborhood in Tokyo. Ten years later, when our sons finally stopped accompanying us, a white South African couple let Steve and me stay in their big house in a Cape Town suburb in exchange for the mere possibility they might get to San Diego sometime. (They never did.)
We only stopped trading when we started traveling in countries where exchanges didn’t make sense; either because they weren’t available (e.g. East Africa) or where we wanted to move around rather than basing in one place (Peru, Southeast Asia, Ethiopia). But during those years the home-exchanging model was growing in complexity. Whereas in the beginning all the trades were direct (you were in my home at the same time I was in yours), trading platforms like HomeExchange.com added a twist in which you could let someone stay in your home for “guest points” that you could later use to stay somewhere else. Because of the flexibility this enables, I’ve started dabbling in house-trading again — never more successfully than for this current trip.
Using our Guest Points, I secured a three-night stay in Vilnius, four nights in Tallinn, and four in Helsinki. Only in Riga did we stay in a hotel (3 nights). We saved a bunch of money, and as in the past, the trades made our visits more interesting.
Mind you, this mode of travel is not for everyone. It’s like having a friend or relative let you use their place when they’re off somewhere else. The spaces usually are more cluttered than any hotel would be. But home-exchange makes us feel less like tourists. It’s more of an adventure — starting with the challenge of getting in the door.
Our hostess in Vilnius, Eva V, had told me in advance she would leave the keys to her place at a hair salon just down the street from her building — not the one immediately next store, she cautioned. Her hairdresser, Daiva, was scheduled to be working when we arrived.
From the Vilnius airport, our Bolt driver quickly got us to Eva’s address. While Steve stood in front of the gate with our suitcases, I darted down the street to the salon that obviously matched Eva’s description. The inside was empty except for two stylists, neither of whom spoke English. “Daiva?” I inquired. They both looked baffled. I think one of them asked me Lithuanian if I wanted a beauty treatment. (After the trans-Atlantic flight, I certainly needed one.) All I could do was bray, “Daiva? Keys?” They women seemed to shoo me toward the salon down the street — the one Eva had clearly said wasn’t the right one. But I apologized and exited. I was halfway down the block when one of the two women ran after me, embarrassed and laughing. She clearly had forgotten she was supposed to hand Eva’s keys over to a foreign visitor. Why she didn’t instantly acknowledge her name indeed was Daiva I’ll never know.
Keys in hand, Steve and I got through the gate, even though the electronic code that opened it wasn’t working. (Eva had texted me that it was acting up and instructed me in how to open it by pushing a hidden button.)In an inner courtyard, we used the key from Daiva to get into the correct building, and up on the third floor, the key functioned perfectly to admit us.
There was no elevator and inside Eva’s place, we had to lug our suitcases up yet another flight of stairs to reach the master bedroom. But that was really the only drawback of the place. The colors and design choices were extraordinary; making it perhaps the most elegant trading house we’ve ever stayed in.
In the days that followed, we also appreciated how central the location was; we could easily walk to almost everywhere from there.
For our stays in Tallinn and Helsinki, I found something unusual: a woman (I’ll call her Lina) who had apartments to trade in both cities. In fact, she also appeared to own two additional places, one on an Estonian island (where she and her husband would be staying) and a flat on the French Riviera. I arranged to stay in both her Tallinn and Helsinki digs. Since then I haven’t learned much more about her (like her nationality), except I can tell you she is not a native English speaker, a fact that complicated our interaction from time to time.
To enter the Tallinn home, Lina gave me the street address and the code to get through a gate into an inner courtyard. There we should look for some bricks under a balcony, she instructed. We’d find the key under one of the bricks. Miraculously, all this worked fine.
The key gained us entrance into the doorway with the number that matched her address. Only then did we realize Lina had not mentioned which of the five apartments inside the building was hers.
I tried frantically calling her phone number but got no answer. I messaged her. Nothing. I was pretty sure it was one of the three units on the second floor, but none of them were marked with any names. Finally Steve just tried the key on one of them. A startled young man opened that door. (He said he’d just moved in an had no idea which of the other units was Lina’s.)
Happily, it was the next door on which we tried the key (something Lina confirmed when she finally messaged me back a minute later.)
We did encounter a few more glitches. The switch that clearly should have turned on overhead lights in the kitchen only resulted in crackling noises with an occasional flash. The overhead lights in the bedroom also appeared to be broken. “I haven’t had a possibility to be there still to make those well,” Lina messaged.
Her written house instructions (a universal fixture in trading homes) were pretty bare bones, and Steve struggled to operate the insanely complicated Bosch washer/dryer. When we asked for Eva’s help, she wrote, “Only thing what I know is that the door is not correctly closed 🙂 then there is a small door light.” Steve somehow managed to get a load washed and more or less dried. (After first freaking us out by saying the drying cycle would take 12 hours, the dryer finally sobered up and actually took only about three hours.)
Another complication arose a day later, when Lina sent us a photo of an envelope with my name and her Tallinn address on it. Her message stated, “Hope all is good in Tallinn! My cleaner made a mistake and took the keys with her so I need to send you my key here from Saaremaa!” From this I deduced she was talking about our tool for gaining entrance to the Helsinki apartment, our next stop. Lina said she would mail us a key, and the followed exchange between us ensued:
As things turned out, it was FAR from easy to figure out what a postautomat is and where it was lurking at the market. The envelope also didn’t arrive for two full days. But we didn’t mind because it was so interesting to learn about this cool Estonian mailing option. Tucked inside a lonely nook outside and in back of the stylish market, the “omnimat” looked like this:When Lina finally texted me the six-digit code, I keyed it into the screen and one of the little doors popped open. Voila! There was the envelope containing the house key.
We felt mild irritation over some of these things, but it dissipated quickly because the good aspects of staying in Lina’s home were so good. We could walk from the flat to the heart of Tallinn’s Old Town in less than 15 minutes; the immediate surroundings were a hipster hotbed. If some of the lights didn’t work, the heating in the bathroom floor tiles did, and we loved that. Even more wondrous was the built-in sauna!Lina’s scanty home instructions said it could be warmed up in 45 minutes. I had every intention of using it until Miina (our private guide on Tuesday) said the newspapers were reporting that heating up a home sauna just once would cost 50 euros (due to the sky-high cost of electricity.) I felt so kindly toward Lina by then that I resisted cranking up her sauna.
Now that we’re installed in her Helsinki flat I feel even more grateful. It’s much bigger than the one in Tallinn and in an even more beautiful and central location.
Armed with the key that I received in the omnimat, we had no trouble getting into the building or the apartment, which to our amazement, has a double set of doors (for protection against noise? Cold? We have no idea.)
I’m writing this post sitting at the big round wooden table in the well-lighted kitchen. It’s not home, but it feels like what a Finnish version of that would be.