Remember January and February, the blues, blahs and restlessness of the post-holiday letdown? It's not too early to start planning an escape.
Imagine yourself in a seaside bungalow surrounded by jade and palms, bamboo and citrus trees. Or picture yourself presiding over a Swiss chalet taking in the pristine grandeur of an Alpine winter scene.
Daydreams like those can become realities -- even in these recessionary times -- with a little advance preparation and a taste for adventure. And you won't have to trade your first-born son on "Let's Make a Deal" or reveal intimate secrets on the "Newlywed Game."
The secret: home exchanges, which are becoming increasingly popular and opening up intriguing travel possibilities for thousands of Americans who otherwise could not afford them. David Ostroff, director of Vacation Exchange, New York, says his organization has been growing by "about 15-20 percent" a year since its beginning in 1960. Last year's entries were about 6,000.
My husband and I recently joined the ranks. It was The Year We Were Going To Stay at Home. Our two-person income suddenly had been halved. Seven years of teaching junior high school had left me with the growing certainty that some fresh inspiration would not be amiss. We convinced ourselves that the budget cuts necessitated by the temporary loss of one salary could be survived, so I enrolled in an M.A. program.
The new austerity of life style was palatable when viewed as a semi-romantic aspect of student life. One dark afternoon, however, as the winds howled and the mid-terms loomed, I needed a break from my studies. The next thing I knew I was rummaging through our Vacation File: a motley collection of brochures sent away for, filed and forgotten.
There were old maps of Newfoundland, suggested hiking trails on Mount Rainier, a description of a Moravian Pottery Factory tour. Then my eyes lighted on several pamphlets advertising home exchanges, both domestic and international. Captivated by alluring phrases such as "rent-free," "savings," and "affordable travel," I read these with mounting interest and presented the highlights to my husband after dinner.
We selected one of the organizations, the Vacation Exchange Club in New York City, and filled out a subscription form. The form instructed subscribers to describe their homes, nearby points of interest, vacation periods, desired destinations, and restrictions (no children, pets, smokers, etc.). With the addition of a check for $18, we were now entitled to receive the Exchange Book and its supplement published two months later and listing hundreds of other interested parties at home and abroad. From that point on, it would be up to us to initiate contacts or acknowledge invitations.
No guarantees of any kind were provided. However, the club has surveyed past participants with impressive results. Of the approximately 1,000 people responding each year, 12-15 have minor complaints involving housekeeping standards, according to Ostroff. Only one or two have encountered serious disappointments, such as cancellations by one party after plans were under way. No cases of theft or vandalism, he says, have been reported.
When the books arrived, we pounced on them eagerly, only to be somewhat daunted by the abbreviated entries. For example, a banker in Anchorage, Alaska, was interested in exchanging his home, cryptically described in the club's code as: ro ae hs fo mt cf wz fi wa te bi ae pc ns mk hf fp bc bb
Translation: He had a large town house in a quiet neighborhood and would make a car available. In addition, the guests would have access to a second, resort home in a wooded, mountain area. There they could enjoy fishing, hiking, tennis, and the use of his bicycles. They could not, however, smoke and would have to care for his pets. The home had a modern kitchen, stereo, dryer, fireplace, deck and barbecue.
There were 217 untranslated pages in the first book alone with entries from every state and 42 countries.
As it turned out, our first exchange was a summer escape, but we're working on a winter one. We were contacted by a family from Santa Barbara, Calif., long before we ever got around to composing any letters of invitation. The man of the house planned to attend a professional convention in Washington and decided that it would be a good opportunity to introduce his family to the nation's capital. His tactic was to blitz the entire area by sending mimeographed letters to every entry from metropolitan D.C. Then he was free to choose the best offer.
The arrival of the California letter coincided with two things: a Northwest Airlines newspaper ad promoting night flights to California for $135 and a visit with California-born friends who couldn't tell us enough nice things about the Santa Barbara area. The offer was tempting.
After exchanging letters and phone calls with the family (I will call them the Beckers), worries about our distinctly unchildproofed home were put aside. The Beckers began to seem like old friends and the visit was arranged between us. It wasn't to be a simultaneous exchange because of timing problems. We decided that they would have the use of our house for a week in June during the convention while we stayed with nearby relatives. We would visit California in August after my comprehensive exams, when the Beckers would be spending some time in the Midwest.
One unforeseen advantage of the exchange: motivation for a belated spring cleaning. About a week before the arrival of our guests, I realized that this family would be actually living in our house. Windows were washed, floors scrubbed and papers filed.
We agreed with the Beckers to prepare tour packets for each other. Quick phone calls to the Washington, D.C. Convention and Visitors' Association and the Maryland Office of Tourist Development resulted in a wide assortment of free but excellent maps, dining guides, transit information and lists of attractions. A trip to the attic yielded some favorite books from pre-teen days, which we left beside beds in the children's rooms.
Finally, a few groceries (milk, bread, cereal, eggs and orange juice) bought ahead of time meant that the Beckers could sleep in and enjoy a leisurely first morning after their late flight the night before.
Everything went smoothly during the Beckers' visit, with the exception of some unforeseen problems with our car. Fortunately, another car was available to lend. Such complications, however, could present one of the real drawbacks to exchanges of this kind.
I will admit to some misgivings at the end of the week when Mr. Becker began to apologize profusely for a set of initials his young son had carved while trying out a new pocket knife. Visions of a mutilated Queen Anne secretary, a favorite piece of furniture from our first year of marriage, flashed into my mind. To my relief, the initials turned out to be engraved almost imperceptibly on the bark of a tree in the back yard.
When we moved back into our town house, linens had been washed and beds remade. The dishwasher was empty, and the house looked just as it does on any other day.
Finally it was our turn. After a pleasant flight, we easily found the Becker car by following the airport parking map they had sent us. Arriving at their comfortable house was like coming home after a trip. The neighborhood was dark and quiet. Two cups of cocoa later, we were ready to call it a night.
Morning brought delightful surprises of all kinds. The Santa Ynez mountains rose dramatically on one side of the town, the blue Pacific sparkled on the other. We picked oranges from the back yard to squeeze for breakfast and reveled in the clear, dry air.
We were so pleased with our location that we spent most of the week in the immediate vicinity, instead of taking a typical wide-ranging tour. We lay on the beach, hiked in the chaparral, toured the lovely old mission and drove over the San Marcos Pass to the nearby Danish town of Solvang with its Old World architecture and shops. After a long day of sightseeing, one of us would take charge of the grill while the other enjoyed a soak in the (you guessed it) hot tub.
Throughout the week, the streets of Santa Barbara were filled with music and dancing as a popular local fiesta went into full swing. Small children in colorful Spanish and Indian dress threaded their way through the genial throngs at the historical parade.
When this carefree week was over, we left reluctantly but refreshed and renewed. And we were enthusiastic about our chance to enjoy a low-cost change of scene on the other side of the continent.