How We Saved Over $10,000 in Hotels/Airbnbs By Using Home Exchange

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

That title may seem like click bait -- but it's absolutely true.

When we signed up for Home Exchange, it was just a way to continue to "rent" our house while we traveled without really renting it. A few years prior, we started to Airbnb our house when we were out of town, as a way to make a little extra income. However, Nashville really cracked down and started taxing everything, and it no longer became worth it for us.

Enter: Home Exchange.

While we didn't actually gain any income, we gain a lot in free travel perks! I wrote about Home Exchange before, and how it only costs $150 for the year and you have access to as many swaps as you want. And we made our money back 100x over. Not to mention, we were not taxed on any of these says, since no money changed hands. We get new requests almost daily from all over the world. We say no to 95% of the requests that come in - it just depends on timing, location, etc.

A little back story: In the last 18 months, there was a huge shift in Matt's line of work. With many North American oil fields closing, and many of his customers being connected with NA oil, he was losing customers & shipments left and right. While we are smart with our budget and knew we'd be fine, we thought of ways to cut down on costs for 2016 (after seeing the slow down in 2015). The biggest luxury in our budget is travel (something we budget for! and I should note our shopping/eating out budgets are much smaller so travel can be bigger), so I knew we could cut back on trips and still put the amount into savings we were hoping to do last year. 

What's amazing is that between home exchange & our Southwest companion pass, we spent almost NOTHING on travel. We paid for food and any activities of course, but these are the small potatoes on most of our trips. Airbnb/Hotel costs + flights are always the most expensive part of going anywhere. 

How exactly did we get over $10,000 in free lodging? Here's the breakdown.

March - Cabin in Virginia - $750 (3 nights, based on $250/night they rent out for cabin)
They requested a stay and Matt ended up using these three nights in a cabin for an awesome guys weekend. They only paid for food & gas and it was a cheap trip for everyone!

July - Crown Heights, Brooklyn - $6,200 (31 nights, based on $200/night they actually rent their house out for)
This was the money maker, so to speak. Now - you could definitely play devil's advocate here and say "would you ever really spend $6k to live in NYC for the month?" - and the answer would be no. However -- we got to do it. For free. Even if you weren't going to buy an ice cream, and someone gave you a coupon for it and you redeemed it, you still enjoyed the experience FOR FREE! It's kind of the best thing ever.

August - High Park, Toronto - $1,750 (7 nights, based on $250/night average in that area)
We had never been to Toronto before, and it was so much fun! The area we were in is considered High Park, but it was also close to cute spots called Bloor West and the Junction. We had so much fun hanging out in Toronto and absolutely loved this location.

November - Tamarindo, Costa Rica - $1,400 (7 nights, based on $200/night they rent out during November)
If you can get yourself to Tamarindo, GET THERE! We loved it here so much. The condo we stayed in had a killer pool, two balconies, and was just a few minutes walk to the beach (you can't build condos directly on the beach in this area, but we were as close as you could get). Not to mention with 5th floor views, we enjoyed every sunrise and sunset with a nice glass of vino.

Technically, we've also "earned" the following two locations during non-simultaneous swaps. They've already stayed at our house, and we are able to cash in on their houses when we can make the trip!

Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia - $1,500 (1 week at $150/night, average for the area)
We hosted these two Aussies in October 2016 and it was so much fun! Hosting is another option in home exchange, but not if you don't want to. We did FaceTime and emails in the 6 weeks before and got to know them a little more. We absolutely loved "hosting" and would do it again. They originally wanted to swap in October, but we knew it wasn't an option for us with only 6 weeks notice, so they suggested hosting. So we get to visit them next time.. hopefully soon!

March 2017 - TriBeCa, Manhattan, NYC - $1,400 (4 nights, based on the $350/night she rents it for)
We are cashing in on this in March for my birthday, but they already stayed at our house last April. We did a non-simultaneous and it worked out great for us!

Grand Total: $13,000

This is of course an estimate, but I estimated it mostly based on the price that these people rent their homes out for, or a median of similar homes in that area. 

What's most amazing about this is we thought we'd travel LESS in 2016 because of self imposed "budget cuts". However, we traveled MORE and spent less using Home Exchange! We got to stay in some really gorgeous places, and I can't wait to see where Home Exchange takes us this year! 

So... have you signed up for Home Exchange yet?

This Week in Travel: Vol. 43

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

inside a cute cafe in Copenhagen

Hello hello! I'm back in action after the stomach flu took me down with intense force. I haven't had a bug like that in a long time and I forgot how little energy you have. 

In more exciting news, Matt and I have applied for Global Entry and have our interviews in a couple of weeks! We're really excited to get this line-skipping party started. We have an international trip at the end of March, so I'm hoping 8 weeks is a quick enough time to get approved. That would be amazing! Do you have Global Entry? How quickly did you get approval? 

Is everyone else having a weird winter? It's been in the teens one day and nearly 70* the next. No wonder everyone I know is getting sick! But this warmer weather makes me want to put my sweaters away and wear dresses again (because I'm not even a little cold). What's your winter been like? Any pretty snow days?


This Week in Travel: Vol. 42

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Is everyone settling back into the routine of the new year? Starting those resolutions? Dragging yourself to your desk? It's a little bit of both over here after all the holiday craziness!

In breaking news: we are starting the year off with nearly 3 months of no travel. Yes, you read that right. 

We are not going anywhere until the last weekend in March and I couldn't be more excited about it. I know that doesn't sound like me, but I was missing my house and my kitty and not having to say no to plans because we were out of town. So I made it a point to stay PUT for a few months and really enjoy Nashville and our home. We are going to do some remodeling projects which should be fun. The only exception will be a quick trip to Ikea - we are thinking of checking out the Memphis location, has anyone been yet? Other than a little furniture trip, I'm keeping my suitcase unpacked and waking up in my own bed. Sounds nice, doesn't it? (Does to me, anyway :)

I'll be back later this week to recap 2016 and talk about 2017 travels. It's gonna be a great year! What are your travel plans?

The Best Free or Cheap Things to do in NYC

Friday, December 16, 2016

New York can be an expensive city -- but it's also jam packed with free or very cheap activities! There are a lot of obvious "sight seeing" opportunities, like Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and Times Square, but there are a lot of things you can actually DO! Here are some of my favorites.

Visit the Cloisters
The Cloisters are run by the MET and therefore are by donation only. Our friend who lives in NYC says the MET has enough money, so we paid $5 per couple :) There are beautiful gardens, free tours every half hour, and lots of gorgeous art! Almost the entire thing has been pieced together by the Rockefeller family from monasteries or castles in Europe. It has such interesting history and is a great reprieve from the city if you feel like you need to "escape". More info here.

Be Part of a Live Studio Audience
There are SO many opportunities to be a part of a studio audience in NYC -- we were able to be on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah which was so fun! Many of these are based on a raffle, so you don't have a ton of choice in your date, but it could be a fun thing to plan your New York trip around.

Check Out the Local Events
The NYC Parks website has SO much great information on free/cheap events going on in the city. I'd check it out. I found so many different things to do when we were in New York in July, although it would be quite different in the winter. I did Broadway in the Park, attended workout classes, movies on rooftops, and live music all over the city! The city does a great job of hosting these events, you just have to see what's happening. 

Roosevelt Island Tram
The Roosevelt Island Tram is so fun! Roosevelt Island is in between Manhattan & Queens that just has some housing and parks. It's really cute and feels removed from the city somehow. You can take a subway train there (only one line stops there) OR you could take this fun tram! It's like a gondola you'd take up to go snowboarding. It gives you a great view of the river and 3 boros. You pay with your MTA ticket, so it costs no more than a subway ride (or is free if you have a week/month pass).

Find Some Elevation
There are so many gorgeous rooftop bars. We loved finding rooftop spots at sunset to catch views like this one! Find a list of rooftop bars here. The photo below was taken at Roof at Park South in Kip's Bay/Gramercy Park. 

Pizza by the Slice
As if you needed an excuse? Pick up some pizza by the slice for a cheap dinner on the go. It was something we liked to do if we wanted to eat in the park or on the water. Joe's Pizza is one of the best and is easily located in the East Village at 14th St E & 3rd Avenue, or Greenwich Village on Carmine St. & 6th Avenue. PS - I absolutely love the East Village AND Greenwich/West Village. Two of my favorite areas in Manhattan!

Governor's Island
If you want to visit Governor's Island I hope you've been saving up.... it's $2 round trip and you have to pay up front :) The ferry ride is short and leave every 30 minutes. It provides great views of the city and is a great place to spend the day outside! You can take long walks, enjoy the fun slides and hammocks, or rent bikes. There's also some fun art and cute food trucks. We brought a picnic and some wine and made an afternoon of it. I loved it and would highly suggest it if you're visiting with good weather.

Coney Island
Talk about cheap thrills - Coney Island is #1 on this list! You can take the subway out there, and then you don't have to spend any money if you don't want to. Matt wanted to try a Nathan's Hot Dog (this is where they do the hot dog eating contest every year) so we spent a few bucks. :) It's got an old carnival feel but is a lot of fun.

Rush Tickets
There are several ways to see broadway shows on the cheap or even for free. You can sign up each day to win a number of raffles (almost every show does it, but each show has different rules, so check with them directly) and I've had a lot of friends win these free tickets! The thing is they are for that day only, so make sure you're free. Or you can often find severely discounted tickets day of but in limited quantity. Another great way to get tickets around $25-50 is downloading the TODAY TIX app. We saw Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime AND Les Miserables for $29pp. Yes, we sat in the back row but it was awesome and saved us a TON! Sign up using my link and take $10 off your first show!

Brooklyn Brewery Tour
They only offer tours on the weekends as far as I know, but it's a lot of fun and it's free. I'd suggest going early as they fill up quickly! They also have a tasting room with pretty cheap beers and some of these brews are harder to find so it can be a bit of a treat! 

These were some of my favorite activities and I will repeat a lot of them! This is a great list to keep on hand when you're trying to have a cheap weekend but still enjoy some local color and have a great time.

What are your favorite freebies in NYC?

Home Exchange: One Month in Brooklyn

Thursday, December 15, 2016

This recap is WAY overdue, but we had the best time doing a one month home exchange in New York City. 

We ate SO much delicious food (I kept track of every restaurant we ate at -- one day it will all be detailed in a looonnnng post) and drank some amazing coffee. Luckily you walk a LOT in New York so it didn't seem as detrimental :) 

We checked a LOT off the NYC Bucket List. Went to a taping of Trevor Noah, went to a Yankees game, saw 4 plays, visited 5 different islands, explored new neighborhoods and saw so many cool places. I had a lot of help from friends Special shout out to Emily, Casey, Rich and everyone else to added to our extended stay!

For those who are wondering how we pulled off a full month in another city: we both work from home on a regular basis, so we just worked from their home. I even went on a 2 day work trip to Wisconsin in the middle of the month (same idea - they would have flown me out from Nashville, so instead they flew me out from NYC). "Do you guys not work or something?" was a question I got asked on the regular, but rest assured there's no independently wealthy people here :) We are very lucky to both have this flexibility, and thought we should use it to our advantage! 

We started our days with a walk to somewhere in the neighborhood to get coffee. We tried a ton of new places and repeated a few of our favorites. Then we would work from 9-5 or 6 (we are on central time so it was keeping with our normal 8-5 CST). Matt used the small desk upstairs (he has a lot more paperwork and needs a printer several times a day), and I worked from the kitchen table. We at breakfast and lunch at home and then went out for dinner most nights. Out of the whole month, I think we stayed in 2 nights. One out of sheer exhaustion and one out of terrible terrible rain, and we didn't feel like venturing out to walk in the rain or fight everyone else for an Uber into Manhattan. 

We also maximized our weekends. We saw Coldplay, the Statue of Liberty, went to the beach on Long Island, picnicked on Governor's Island, saw plays, and walked for MILES. Most weekend days we ended up walking 8-10 miles by the time we got home. 

New York is seriously so much fun. I always wanted to spend extended time there, and now I've been able to! We would totally go back for another month (or two!) because we had such a good time. 

If you have any questions about Home Exchange, feel free to shoot me an email -- avecamourblog (AT) gmail (DOT) com.


PS - 

This Week in Travel: Vol. 41

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Is everyone ready for Christmas? After a really warm fall it finally feels winter-y around here. The Christmas decorations definitely help, but the 35* weather adds to the festivity. Although, as soon as I have to take down my pretty tree I'll be ready for the warmth again :)

What are your holiday traditions? I always do a Secret Santa with my girlfriends from college, and Matt and I make a gingerbread house. I'm also a big fan of my favorite Christmas movies on heavy rotation. Love, Actually, Home Alone 1&2, The Santa Clause, Just Friends, the Family Stone, the Holiday. I've realized that I'm not a fan of overly sappy classics like Miracle on 34th St, It's a Wonderful Life, or anything else like that. I like my Christmas movies to be generally comedic :)

We're staying put for the holidays and I'm so excited to be home. Our house feels extra cozy with the tree and a fire going... It's my favorite! Are you going anywhere for the holidays or do the festivities happen at your house?

Hope everyone has an awesome week!

A Beginner's Guide to New York's Subway System

Friday, December 9, 2016

I'm not going to pretend like I'm some sort of expert. But I make it a point of understanding cities when I visit (part of the reason I love to travel), and learning how to use the transportation efficiently is part of the deal.

My favorite transportation system in the entire world is London's system. It's extensive, has so many points where lines cross (lots of transfers!) user friendly, and has lots of information posted everywhere! I think as long as you know the stop you're currently at (signs everywhere) and the stop you need to get to, you can easily connect the dots and follow the colors. End of story.

New York's subway system is not so straight forward in my opinion. While I've been to New York dozens of times at this point and ridden the subway tons, I still always feel the need to triple check where I'm going before I go underground. I've finally figured out a few things that make this system work, and give me peace of mind while using the MTA.

1. Before You Go Underground - Uptown or Downtown?
There are three types of subway entrances, even if it's for the same exact line. No matter what, there will be a large black sign with the name of the station (i.e., 14th St - Union Square) and the trains it serves (L, N, Q, R, 4, 5, 6) -- but there may be more information .

A - Uptown. The uptown train will usually say something like "Uptown and the Bronx" or "Uptown and Queens". Sometimes it will say something confusing like "to Jamaica Ave" - if you don't know if that's uptown or downtown, make sure you ask someone before you swipe your card! 

B - Downtown. The downtown train will usually say something like "Downtown and Brooklyn" - the A/C sometimes says "To Elucid Ave" which is in Brooklyn - but how would you know that? Once again, just check with someone.

C - Two for One. The all inclusive will just say "14th Street Station" and list all of the train lines you can access. If there's no specific information, you're safe to enter (usually :)

The reason this is important is if you go underground, swipe your card, and then realize you are on the Uptown platform trying to go downtown, you'll have to leave, re-swipe (there's usually a 20 min wait time if you're unlimited or you'll have to pay another fee if you just have money on the card) and then catch your train. 

2. Colors/Numbers/Letters
NYC, unlike London or Chicago, has blocks of colored lines that are the same but also different. 
We'll use the A/C/E lines for example. They are all BLUE. They all are considered "8th Avenue trains" because they primarily run down 8th avenue in midtown Manhattan - but they start at different places and end at different places, and don't all stop at the same places... even along the same line. For example, my subway stop includes the A & C but not the E, because the E doesn't run to Brooklyn - it ends near the World Trade Center. 

How can you be sure which stops use which trains? 

There are tiny tiny letters beneath each stop on the maps inside each subway station and in most of the subway cars (underlined in LIME GREEN). These letters let you know that you can't take the A train if you'd like to get off at 23rd St or 50th St.

3. Local vs. Express
If we are sticking to A/C/E, the A runs EXPRESS and the C/E both run LOCAL. Local means they stop at every stop from the beginning to the end of its line (in theory - still always best to check). The A skips stops, as seen above. The A will get you there faster -- but only works in your favor if it goes to the stop you're looking for. 

What's important to remember is SOMETIMES the A runs local - such as "late nights" (which is quite ambiguous in itself). And it's also worth noting that many times, a Local & Express train might pick up on the same platform! Try to look for any small signage, and listen to any announcements.... even though most of the time you just hear "alsejf oiniubn fdvnwoef.... please stand clear of the doors".... which is super helpful ;) 

4. White Dot vs. Black Dot
A black dot means it's a stop. A white dot means you can change trains. This means if you're on the C/E, there might be a white dot meaning you can switch to the A. But it can also mean you're switching to an entirely different line. 

5. Follow Their Lead
If a bunch of people waiting at one track suddenly walk to another track, ask one of them why - sometimes there is an announcement "The A train is running on the Local track until 34th St/Penn Station, then will resume on the Express track". Things are constantly changing and often make no sense. 

Just Go With The Flow
The MTA is not a perfect system - when in doubt, just ask someone. Or two someones. Things change all the time, often don't make sense, or just aren't running the way they are supposed to be. Don't sweat it. If you end up somewhere different, see it as an opportunity to explore New York ;)

Enjoy your trip! NYC is the best :)