The best guidebook is the one you write yourself

The best guidebook is the one you write yourself

“For every traveller who has any taste of his own, the only useful guidebook will be the one which he himself has written.” 

                                                 -Aldous Huxley

No kidding. During our home exchange to Paris last summer, our best tips didn’t come from Fodor’s or Rough Guide or Lonely Planet but from the pile of hand-picked and well-worn books, magazines, newspaper clippings and hand-written notes left for us by our exchange family. 

I vowed we’d do a similar favour for our Berlin exchange visitors this coming summer, and was delighted to run across a new offering from the good folks at Moleskine, creators of the sleek little Italian notebooks favoured for centuries by artists and other creative types.

Moleskine City Notebooks –the “guidebooks you write yourself”–are currently available for dozens of international destinations, including Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver in Canada. Each blank 3.5 x 5.5″ 228-page leather-bound notebook features the Moleskine hallmarks: an elastic wrap-around closure, an accordion pocket for receipts and such, and ribbon placemarkers. But you also get detailed city and transit maps, a street index, blank pages for notes and diary entries, indexed pages with space for shopping, dining and entertainment recommendations, and tear-out loose notes.

Includes a detailed city map

Includes a detailed city map

At just over $17 CDN (from, this is the best guidebook investment a committed home exchanger will ever make.

Buy one for your home city and fill it in during the year, then leave it behind for your guests with a request that they add their favourite finds to it. And then buy another one for your destination city, fill it in during your exchange holiday, and leave it behind as a gift–to be added to by other guests over the years.

Related post: 10 tips for a successful home exchange.


Judging by the huge number of hits on my January post about how to do a home swap, I gather the live-like-a-local trend is real and growing. So for those who aren’t keen on sleeping in cookie-cutter hotel rooms, who think variety is the spice of travel, or who simply need to travel on a shoestring, here are four more suggestions for how to score cheap sleeps in Canada and beyond. (Note: I haven’t used any of these services yet myself, but I’ve heard good buzz from other travellers…so far, no axe murderers it seems…)

Airbed & Breakfast

How it works: This is like bunking at a friend’s house: in return for a small fee, you get a bed for the night–and it might be nothing more than an air mattress–and breakfast in the morning. It can be unbelievably cheap: someone in Calgary was recently offering to host an overnight guest for a mere $10. According to the site, you can currently find a bed in 718 cities in 71 cities.

Good to know: Hosts post photos of their digs at the site, and both hosts and guests can post feedback after a stay. 

Help Exchange

How it works: This free service lets you swap labour for room and board at farms, ranches, lodges, hostels and even sailing boats. You might, for example, give a hand with the planting at an organic farm in Quebec, or help with the housekeeping at a B&B on one of BC’s Gulf Islands.

Good to know: Make no mistake, you’re signing up for a working holiday. But you probably won’t be expected to muck in for more than a few hours each day and you can stay for several months.


How it works: This is so called peer-to-peer rentals: locals in nine North American cities, including Toronto and Vancouver, offer more than 1,000 places to put your head. Rates vary from a few bucks to a couple hundred, depending on whether you’re buying the use of a room, an apartment or an entire house. 

Good to know: You’ll pay a small service charge (around $10 CDN) to the site, but you do get something for that: Roomorama won’t release the rental fee to the host after you’ve checked in. And you can “shout out” your wish-list on the site to request a room in a certain destination on certain days.

Update 2/16/09: Global Freeloaders

How it works: This one came on to my radar while I was clicking through various links on my pal Laura Byrne Paquet’s excellent live-like-a-local blog. It’s a completely free service that’s as easy as: 

1. Sign up.

2. Introduce yourself to, and request accommodation from, the other people registered on the site. (The site collects and forwards your e-mail–sort of like it works with Craigslist.) It’s an international site, so you can search by country and city for listings.


3. Sit back and wait for a reply. 

Good to know: This service relies on “a balance of give and take” according to the site–so if you’re not prepared to return the hospitality within six months of signing up, you’re strongly urged to reconsider. When posting, be as specific as possible about what you’re prepared to offer a guest: just a bed for a couple of nights? the grand neighbourhood tour? an open-fridge policy?The goal here is hospitality, not hurt feelings…

And hey, if you’ve had experiences with any of these sites, I’d sure appreciate it if you’d share your comments here…


The view from our Paris flat, July 2008

The view from our Paris flat, July 2008



It was about this time last year that Brad and I resolved to spend a month in Paris–in someone else’s home. There are plenty of exchange agencies out there, but we’d heard good word-of-mouth about North Vancouver-based Homelink International, so we paid the $130 annual fee (don’t bristle: it’s less than one night’s accommodation in a hotel!) and spent an evening at the computer giving over our particulars and scoping out possible exchange locations. We sent out a handful of queries and then sat back and waited…and within five days had landed an elegant family-sized flat right in the trendy Marais district, two blocks from the Seine and 10 minutes by foot from Notre Dame.   We spent a blissful July in France and this year we’ve already arranged a home exchange in Berlin. 


Our enthusiasm for home exchange verges on the evangelical–we definitely want all our friends to see the light and join us on the path to budget-friendly travel that doesn’t involve the words “hostel” or  “shared bath”–charming though those things might be when you’re 20. We’re starting to get a lot of calls from friends (or friends of friends) wanting to know more about our experience and looking for advice. So here they are, my top 10 tips for a successful home exchange: 


Adjust your trust:  The first question everyone always asks is, “Weren’t you worried about having a stranger in your house?” Yes, I was: for about five seconds. But think about it: is someone going to spend $130 bucks plus the cost of international airline tickets so they can rip you off? Not bloody likely. The people who go through the minor hassle of signing up with an exchange agency want what you want: an affordable vacation in an interesting part of the world. They’re not after your jewellery. Mutual trust is the bedrock of successful home exchange, so if you’re someone who doubts the essential goodness of humanity, you might want to book into a hotel instead.


Open the door to possibility: The French family that accepted our exchange offer last year had never even heard of Bowen Island when we approached them. It was never on their radar–but they were intrigued once we put it there. While it’s perfectly acceptable to zero in on a certain location for your exchange, I recommend that you leave your destination open when possible and let the world surprise you. Of course, it means you need to craft the description of your home and community with some care: you need to sell (but never over-sell) what your ‘hood has to offer. And don’t despair if you live in a little-known backwater: it could be someone’s idea of holiday heaven.


Remember your manners: Once you sign up with a home exchange agency, you are obliged to observe a few basic points of etiquette, the first and most important being: RSVP. It is exceedingly impolite to ignore an exchange request. I don’t know about the other agencies, but Homelink sends an alert advising that you have new mail, and also makes it easy to say no with a one-click “Thanks, but no thanks” button. And once you’ve committed to an exchange, it’s beyond rude to change your mind for a better offer. Sure, things can happen that necessitate a change of plans, but refer to point 1 and ask yourself how you’d feel if someone left you on the hook with $5,000 worth of airline tickets and nowhere to stay once you arrived. And just like your mom taught you, leave a note of thanks and even a small gesture like a bottle of wine at the end of your exchange.


Communicate, communicate, communicate: Talking helps build trust. Once you’ve started to dance with a potential home exchange partner, you will likely enjoy a steady stream of back-and-forth correspondence while you figure out whether your plans mesh. It’s during this uncommitted period that you really get a sense of the personalities involved. (We had one very strange correspondence with a person who we quickly determined we didn’t want to let anywhere near our lives, let alone our home.) Once you’ve committed to an exchange, you will likely share all sorts of contact info, including your personal e-dresses and cell phone numbers. Expect a flurry of communication–all those last-minute details–in the week or two leading up to the exchange.


Sign a contract: I don’t know about other agencies, but Homelink offers a handy on-line template for documenting your expectations and agreements about your home exchange. For example, since we have an excellent and inexpensive international long-distance plan, we agreed to let our French guests make long-distance calls on our home line to a maximum of $10, after which they would be required to reimburse us. Who knows if it would stand up in court, but it does help to clarify those messy details.


Write a book: This one is important. It’s time-consuming, but you only have to do it once: write the book about your home and community. Don’t take it for granted that your guests will know how to clean the lint trap on your ancient dryer or when to take the garbage can to the curb-side. We told our French guests where to find the trailhead to a favourite secret beach, where to buy organic vegetables, and who to call on for local advice; they told us how to save on transit costs by forgoing the tourist passes and buying a weekly Metro pass used by Parisian commuters. We both included local guidebooks, maps and tourism brochures in our “house books”. Keep the book on your computer so you can update it quickly for every exchange. 


Clean to a higher standard: One man’s clean is another man’s clutter. Even if you’re not a natural neat-nik, you should become one for the few weeks before and during your home exchange. You don’t have to repaint your house or buy new furniture, but you do have to clean it to within an inch of its life: dust shelves and tables, wash floors, vacuum carpets, scrub sinks, toilets and tubs. (It’s also helpful to empty a drawer or two and make a little space in your bedroom closet for your guest’s clothes.) Make your house sparkle–and then make it clear to your guests that you’d like to find it exactly as you left it. Be specific about your expectations: we were asked to strip and remake the beds with fresh sheets before we left the Paris flat. We also swapped housekeeping services with our French family. If you have a housekeeper, consider asking them to continue during your time away; that way you’ll guarantee you’ll come home to a spic-and-span house. 


Put your house in order: You know that funny burnt-rubber smell coming from the dryer these days? Or those rotten boards on the deck that threaten to collapse every time you use the barbecue? Now would be a good time to fix that stuff. You know you need to do it, and there’s nothing like a deadline–or the spectre of liability–to focus the mind.


Get insurance assurance: Talk to your insurance broker about your exchange plans. It shouldn’t be an issue given that most companies are happy to know that a house won’t be standing empty. If you’ve agreed to swap cars, your existing insurance should cover the guest driver, but check with your insurer. In our contract with our French family, we agreed that they would compensate us for the deductible and for any increase in our premiums if they had an accident. (They didn’t.) We also opted to pay a few extra dollars to Homelink for insurance that would cover us for expenses if our exchange fell through at the last minute and we had to pay for hotels and car rentals.


Park your expectations & pack your sense of humour: Essayist Pico Iyer says that when he travels he likes to read everything he can about his destination before he gets on the plane–and then to forget it all the minute he steps off. In my experience, the less you expect of your holiday the more satisfying it will be. Home exchange is particularly suited to the serendipitous traveller. Live like a local as much as you’re able, and you’re sure to stumble across surprises unknown to any guidebook.


Good luck and let me know your exchange experiences!