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When a hotel seems ho-hum, a few bold alternatives

When a hotel seems ho-hum, a few bold alternatives
A website links couchsurfers and couch owners. But this and other hotel alternatives aren't for everyone. (www.couchsurfing.com)
Travelers with a sense of adventure — as well as those with shallow pockets — are embracing hotel alternatives as varied as castles and couches.

Villa rentals abroad, home exchanges and "couchsurfing" all have their devotees, who are happy to forgo perks such as room service for the chance to make friends in foreign lands and sleep off the beaten tourist track.

I have yet to do a home exchange or flop on a stranger's couch but with longtime friends have rented villas in France (three times) and in Italy and Ireland. Only one place disappointed — a shabby French chateau booked directly with the owner rather than through a reputable agency.

Carl Stewart, president of Massachusetts-based Vacanze in Italia, cautions travelers that booking a villa online is not like booking a known quantity such as a flight or a hotel. "No one's going to put up unattractive pictures." (Photos of our "magnificent" chateau revealed neither the stained carpet nor the algae choking the moat.)

For a group, a villa offers camaraderie, comfort and the luxury of a large house, often with a pool. Each party pays the same or less than for a first-class hotel room. Factor in breakfasts and some dinners "at home" and savings multiply. Rentals may include a housekeeper and/or cook.

But villa rentals are not for everyone. Mara Solomon, owner of Massachusetts-based Homebase Abroad, which books Americans into high-end homes in Italy, has told some potential clients, "You really need to be at some lovely hotel being looked after by a fleet of people."

There is a culture gap, and Americans may have unrealistic expectations about such things as plumbing, air conditioning and distances. To an Italian, Solomon observes, every destination is just a "five-minute walk." The reality may be a 20-minute hike along a road with no sidewalk, dodging "a crazed driver in an Alfa Romeo, talking on a cellphone and smoking a cigarette."

The first question to ask yourself, Solomon advises: "What really matters to you? To some, what matters is a firm mattress." To others it might be proximity to museums.

Solomon's 45 listings range from $8,000 a week to $50,000 a week, which rents a property that sleeps 31. "We don't do shabbiness or too far on a dirt road or presence of owners. And we look for basically one bathroom per bedroom," Solomon says. Unfortunately, European villas commonly have six bedrooms and two baths.

Among Solomon's tips for finding the right villa:

•  Speak with someone who has seen the property. (Reliable agents inspect their listings.)

•  Decide which is more important — amenities or location.

Mike Thiel is founder of Hideaways International, a New Hampshire-based travel club for which members pay $185 a year for access to 16,000 rental listings — villas, condos, apartments — in 45 countries, as well as hotels offering member perks.

Members contact villa owners directly and negotiate price. Among his tips:

•  Book early, up to a year in advance for top properties in popular locations such as Italy or France.

•  Make sure you're compatible with your traveling companions. (Togetherness magnifies quirks.)

•  Ask for current property photos and brochures and — above all — references from a previous renter.

Hideaways, which Thiel started in 1979, lists properties in a range of prices. His clients, he says, tend to understand that villa renting may include compromises.

The bug-phobic, for example, should know that "almost no villa in Italy is going to come with screens." And, he says, "there may be a combined washer and dryer with all these funny little hieroglyphics. It becomes a bit of an adventure and one needs to be somewhat flexible.

"The person who expects to get Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton-type service all the time is not a candidate for a rental."

If it is a group rental, there are decisions to be made on arrival. For example, who gets the best bedroom? Our group has always solved this issue good-naturedly by drawing cards. Over the years, things have evened out. How to handle household expenses? We always appoint a treasurer to take charge of a group kitty that's replenished as needed.

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Swapping homes

Home exchange is another option, albeit one that requires a certain amount of trust. You turn your home over to strangers and move into theirs. Usually no money is involved.

"Everybody's first question is, 'How do I make sure my house isn't going to get trashed or ripped off?' " says Ed Kushins, president of Hermosa Beach-based HomeExchange. But, with 125,000 exchanges over 12 years, he says, his club has "never had a case of anybody stealing anything [or] a case of malicious damage. We have had cases where people arrived back home and thought it might have been cleaned up a bit more."

Getting your home ready for an exchange, he acknowledges, "is more work than taking off to stay in a hotel for two weeks. You do have to clean up. You don't have to clean out your closets" but should provide some closet space and a bureau drawer.

To take advantage of HomeExchange, http://www.homeexchange.com , members pay $50 a year and can post their homes and make unlimited exchanges. Annual dues of $25 entitle one to contact a homeowner but not to post. Kushins counts 6,500 full members and 3,000 non-listing members.

Devotees of exchange like avoiding steep hotel bills but are equally enthusiastic about exchange as a lifestyle. They enjoy the comfort of a home and the opportunity to live among locals. Exchanges are not necessarily like-for-like; Southern Californians might be glad to exchange a large beach house for a Manhattan loft.

Listings may be luxe or modest. Homeowners in desirable tourist destinations are, of course, most apt to make matches. "All of Los Angeles is pretty much desirable," Kushins says, "though a beach house might be a little more desirable." One European family, he says, was delighted with an exchange in Modesto.

Client Sandra Faleris, a small-business owner living in Del Mar, has done four successful exchanges. But she doesn't advise it for "people expecting everywhere they go to be like their own home."

Her first exchange was a Paris apartment with a great view of the Eiffel Tower. The owner, now a good friend, "waited for me to get there so she could introduce me to the area. She had cheese and bread and coffee and eggs."

Traveling as an exchanger, Faleris says, she feels "like a little ambassador for the United States." And because she's not paying for a hotel, she doesn't feel pressured to sightsee at breakneck speed.

Her worst experience with an exchange: "Someone broke a cup one time, then left a gift."

Matthew and Lisa Lindley, visiting from Queensland, Australia, recently with three children younger than 14, stayed in Dana Point and in Redondo Beach through HomeExchange.

Lisa says a side trip to Las Vegas — "two nights in a hotel with three children, having to buy three meals a day" — made them appreciate exchanges even more. The Redondo Beach homeowners have children, so the Lindley kids had access to PlayStations, bikes and scooters, while Mom and Dad had use of a car in the deal.

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Free digs

Couchsurfing is for the very flexible and the young (average age: 30). Casey Fenton, 26, hit upon the idea while accessing an online university directory to find free lodging in Iceland. He launched the nonprofit CouchSurfing Project, http://www.couchsurfing.com , last January as a network of adventurous people worldwide looking for or offering free accommodation in homes.

He says 6,500 people have signed up and, he estimates, "at least 1,000 matches have been made." There's no fee, but the project raises some money through a verification system that helps establish a member's trustworthiness. The member's credit card is billed a minimum of $25, and the cardholder is sent a letter verifying that he or she has valid credit and lives at a given address.

A couch may be just a couch or, Fenton says, "it could be a backyard to pitch your tent in, a room to yourself, a carriage house. Sometimes people say, 'You can sleep on the floor of my dorm room.' "

Fenton, who has couchsurfed in Montreal, Brazil and the Netherlands, says it is as much about "cultural interaction" as about free digs. His goal is to "create a network of people curious about the world around them, to help those people explore, maybe become a broker of adventure, so to speak."

To date, he's been told of only one bad experience, a surfer who spent hours on the host's Internet connection and cellphone.

Jim Stone, a couchsurfer from Texas, was hosted in Strasbourg, France, by a musician playing a concert that night. "Their sound guy didn't show up and there was no one to run the board," so Stone pitched in. A Toronto man who couchsurfed in Ann Arbor, Mich., reported: "I wondered how safe a single woman would feel, hosting a single male." He stopped wondering when he met "the two largest dogs I have ever seen outside of horror movies." At least one couple who met through couchsurfing has become engaged.

Fenton, whose day jobs have included political campaigning and computer programming, hasn't figured out how his idea can make money. For now, he says, "I want to remember my life as a string of really interesting experiences."

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Among available resources:

Villa rentals

Vacanze in Italia, (413) 528-6610, http://www.homeabroad.com .

Hideaways International, (800) 843-4433; http://www.hideaways.com .

Homebase Abroad, (781) 545-5112, http://www.homebaseabroad.com .

At Home in France and Spain, (541) 488-9467, http://www.athomeinfrance.com .

Home exchanges



HomeExchange,
(310) 798-3864, http://www.homeexchange.com .

Intervac, (800) 756-4663, http://www.intervacUS.com .



HomeLink International,
(800) 638-3841, http://www.HomeLink.org .

Couchsurfing



CouchSurfing Project,
(603) 986-0509, http://www.couch surfing.com.
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