Travel

Stretch the travel budget -- swap apartments

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Editor's note: In November, Times staff writer Susan Spano and Times website producer Jason La exchanged dwelling places. La, a twentysomething, got to nest in Spano's apartment overlooking the Forum in Rome, and Spano, who's not a twentysomething, took over La's bachelor quarters in Alhambra. Like thousands of others who swap homes each year, sometimes as part of an organized exchange program, sometimes informally, they found upsides and downsides. Here is their report:

Susan Spano: Though I live in Italy now, I sometimes need to return to Southern California. Paying for hotel accommodations and car rentals on previous trips had cost me dearly. So this time, I looked for -- and found -- a willing participant in Jason La, whom I knew only a little. But my colleagues vouched for his character.

Jason La: Most of what I know about Susan, I know from colleagues or from reading her stories. But this I do know: We both have a thrifty side to our travel character. In fact, when it comes to traveling, I'm cheap. I book flights with two stopovers to save money. Instead of taking cabs, I walk, even if I don't know where I'm going. I've stayed in a one-star hotel with shared bathrooms and towels that smelled like sweat. I skip meals so I don't have to eat as often.

Despite my penny-pinching ways, I wouldn't consider myself the apartment-swap type. On top of being cheap, I'm a little paranoid. But it wasn't hard to make the trade. I had two weeks of vacation time and had never been to Italy.

Who turns down a chance to stay in the Eternal City for free?

Spano: It really pains me to learn that Jason used to skip meals to economize on the road. He says it's because he's cheap, but it sounds to me like mortification of the flesh.

I used to be a big bargain traveler. Never mind sweaty socks. I've stayed in rooms with dead snakes. But as you get older, you find that the travel experience is enhanced by staying in a place with a few creature comforts.

La: In my excitement to solidify the swap, I threw in the use of my new car. Like many of the hasty decisions I've made, I regretted it as soon as co-workers announced that Susan has a reputation for -- how shall I say it? -- adventurous driving, including backing into a guardrail at a toll booth north of Milan, Italy, last summer. Fortunately, a colleague offered Susan the use of an old beater truck, saving my car.

With car worries behind me, I assembled a team of travel buddies. My college friend Jane planned to join me three days into the trip. Lily and Julie, friends from high school, arrived the next day, followed by Miranda, another friend working in Spain.

Spano: I was somewhat taken aback when Jason sent me an e-mail asking whether it was OK for his friends to stay in my place.

"How many of them are there?" I asked. He never replied.

And I am still a little miffed at my colleagues for perpetuating the idea that I'm a bad driver. OK, so I have had a few fender benders (in L.A., I often used to run into my apartment building, which was way too close to the driveway) and I got a few speeding tickets when I lived in France. (Why I was singled out I'll never know, given how fast the French drive.) On the other hand, I love that old truck, which cuts a striking figure at L.A.'s finest restaurants.

My biggest concern remained Alhambra. Precisely where was it? The only Alhambra I knew was in Spain.

La: After exchanging a few e-mails and keys, I was off to Rome. As I left the subway on the final leg of my journey, the first thing I saw was the Colosseum.

Susan's apartment was a 30-minute walk from the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, where my friends and I threw in coins to wish for romance. A 10-minute subway ride took me to the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica, truly awe-inspiring. Because the Colosseum was nearly on my doorstep, I would often wander over during the evenings to see it illuminated against the night sky. There is nothing more beautiful in Rome.

Spano: Once I finally found it, I found Alhambra to be a nice little town populated largely by Asian immigrants. It also has lots of car dealerships. I wouldn't call it scenic. Many stores along Main Street have gone out of business, which served as a good reality check for me. With socialistic safety nets embedded in the Italian system, the financial meltdown hadn't yet been fully felt by average Italians.

Still, the venerable Diner on Main in Alhambra serves terrific chicken Caesar salads, and the YMCA has an indoor pool so I could swim laps.

Jason's place is a one-bedroom on the second floor of a small apartment complex on a busy street, next to a construction site. It wasn't quiet, a feature I've come to crave with age. But the sheets were clean and the bathtub had been scrubbed.

The apartment also has wireless Internet access, which is more than I can say for my place in Rome, and two humongous flat-screen TVs. But I couldn't find a coffee pot, and his two potted plants were on death's door, which didn't bode well for the ones in my apartment.

La: Susan's place has two bathrooms, one bedroom, a loft, a kitchen with a dining area, and a small balcony. The couch in the living room folds out to form a bed, and one of the bathrooms contains a washing machine.

On at least three occasions, my friends and I made dinner here. We're not brilliant cooks, but almost everything we made was delicious. Most of the credit probably goes to Rome's markets, which, though small by American standards, carry fresh, high-quality ingredients.

Even though Susan has a cleaning woman, I worried about keeping her apartment tidy. When I stay at hotels, I don't fret over leaving stains or getting the bathroom floor wet. But at Susan's, each spatter mattered. I snapped at Lily when she forgot to use a coaster. When I spilled Diet Coke on the dining table, I felt as if I had burned a hole in it.

Spano: When it comes to our homes, most of us are understandably protective. I may be even more so than others. I spend great chunks of time on the road, which is psychologically and emotionally possible only because I have a place I love to come home to, where everything pleases my eye and is in order.

That's just a fancy way of saying that Jason picked up on something. He may be paranoid, but I'm an obsessive-compulsive, picture-straightening neat freak. So I can imagine his terror about putting a spot on my couch, even though I dribble balsamic vinegar on it all the time.

La: Then there were the worries about my apartment back home. Before I left for Rome, a friend and I spent the better part of a day cleaning. The moths were still there, though, and my drawers and cabinets were still a mess.

And what if Susan found something embarrassing (not that I own anything embarrassing) while looking for a pencil? Even in Rome, I couldn't suppress my paranoia.

Spano: While at Jason's, I found a few hair elastics that made me think there was a girlfriend in the picture. I pondered the framed photos on the walls, trying to figure out who the people were. I noted that Jason has a lot of shoes. But nothing unusual popped out at me.

La: Looking back, I consider my first apartment swap a success. I saved close to $1,000 on accommodations. I ate out frequently without feeling guilty. The 50-euro fine (about $70) I received for not validating my train ticket to Florence didn't matter as much as it might have. And with the money I saved on hotels, I brought back gifts for family and friends.

When I returned to my apartment, it was pretty much as I left it, though Susan had moved one of my plants to the window so it would get light.

In many ways, travel is about living someone else's life for a week or two. It is about walking on someone else's streets and seeing someone else's surroundings. What better way to do that than by staying in someone else's apartment?

Spano: Jason's right. Apartment swapping isn't just about exchanging living spaces. It's about exchanging details of your lives. In that sense, it makes no difference whether you swap with a close friend or a stranger, because there's bound to be something at the back of the drawer you wouldn't want anyone to see.

That won't keep me from doing it again. In fact, my accountant took my apartment in Rome after Christmas in exchange for preparing my taxes. During his stay, I stayed at a friend's place in the south of France while she was in Thailand, having promised her the use of my apartment in Rome whenever she wants.

And so on and so on.

These days, you need to be creative to afford the travel habit.

susan.spano@latimes.comjason.la@latimes.com

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