mailbox with vacancy sign
Illustration: Tamara Shopsin
About a year ago, I was itching to go to Europe with my two teenage sons. A splendid idea, until I calculated the cost: Beyond the $2,100 for three airfares, figure $2,400 for seven nights in two unfancy rooms. Throw in three restaurant meals a day, and I'd be dropping a fat five grand for the week. Suddenly that cabin in the Poconos was looking pretty good.

Then a French friend told me about the home swap, the next best thing to visiting friends abroad. As it happens, there are people all over the world who want to spend their precious vacation in our house; in return we get to bunk in theirs. The commitment was minimal—$115 for a year's membership to the site, where I could browse opportunities to visit places like Greece, London, Iceland, or the Caribbean. Although most members offer their homes vacant, some are open to the adventure of personally hosting foreigners—what's known as a hospitality swap.

As soon as I posted photos and details about my place in New York City, invitations poured in. It was daunting at first. Sure, the lovely blonde couple had a gorgeous apartment in Copenhagen, but did I really want to go to Copenhagen? The idea of New Zealand excited me, but it's so bloody far.... And how could I know that the husband and wife in the photo weren't going to rob me blind and carry my tatty furniture back to the antipodes?

In August I received a promising e-mail from Mariano and Montse, an architect and a painter in Barcelona. They wanted to check out the art scene in New York. In exchange, I'd get their centrally located two-bedroom apartment in an elegant 19th-century building, with 15-foot ceilings and original ceramic tile floors. The catch: They needed to travel in November, and the best time for us was December. The only way to make it work was to take our chances on a hospitality swap. But was I prepared to host strangers? At one point during our e-mail courtship, Mariano sent funny videos of castellers, people who practice the Catalan tradition of erecting great human pyramids—scores of men clustered at the base while others form peaks by standing on one another's shoulders. Yes, I suppose he could have been an ax murderer, but I sensed humor and warmth, and that clinched the deal.