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Do you like to settle into one town when you travel -- getting to know the country by knowing your neighbors, and using that starting point as a hub for your expeditions? If so, you might want to consider a home exchange for your next vacation. A number of companies on the market will help you facilitate a swap with screened individuals from foreign countries or other parts of the United States. Besides being fun, and giving you a homespun connection to the destination you're visiting, home swapping eliminates the expense of paying for vacation lodgings when you're already paying a mortgage or rent for your own place at home. So rather than tie you down, your property can help facilitate your travel.

The three biggest home exchange facilitators are Intervac, the first company of its kind, which specializes in European travel (tel. 80% of its properties are outside the U.S.); Homelink, with the most extensive listings; and HomeExchange, the least expensive of the three.

For a small annual fee of about $50 to $170 -- less than you might pay for a night's hotel stay -- the facilitator lists your property and affords you access to the other homes in its database. Typically, swaps involve no money exchange beyond payment of this fee. The accommodations themselves, in other words, are free.

Different programs allow for different options. The simplest involves a direct swap -- you stay in someone's home while they stay in yours. You can also offer your home, say, in spring, and wait until fall to take your own vacation. The range of accommodations is typically broad, from urban apartments to country estates or, in the case of Intervac, even houseboats.

Intervac (tel. 800/756-4663; www.intervacus.com), the oldest and most experienced facilitator, requires membership for access and boasts of having the toughest terms of use. The second largest company, they have 10,000 members in 52 countries. Intervac prints its property lists in catalogs, as well as on the Internet, including 1,000 to 2,500 properties in the U.S., France, and the U.K. alone. Hundreds more are available in other countries throughout the world, mostly in Europe, but as far afield as Bali and Nepal. Intervac members pay between $68.88 a year, for online listings, to $168.88 a year, for online and print listings combined. They also position English-speaking representatives in many countries.

As a spin-off of Intervac, Homelink (tel. 800/638-3841; www.homelink.org) has also been around for 50 years. They have the slickest looking website and the largest database, with more than 11,000 listings worldwide and English-speaking reps abroad. As with Intervac, you must be a member to view listings, either on the Web or in the printed catalogue. Memberships cost between $75 and $115. Homelink also runs separate websites in the native language of participating countries.

Home Exchange (tel. 800/877-8723; www.homeexchange.com), the least expensive and the newest of the three, costs only $49.99 a year, for access to 6,000 listings around the world. Unlike the other two companies, Home Exchange uses an "open system,", which means people can view listings -- and contact you -- without paying membership fees. Your listing gets more exposure this way, but you're subject to queries from people who may not be serious takers. Home Exchange guarantees you'll find a swapping partner, or your second year of membership is free. They feature properties in more than 90 locations, including destinations as obscure as Bhutan, Micronesia, and Sri Lanka.

Experts say the most important thing to remember if you're going to do a home exchange is to purchase homeowner's insurance. While most home swap facilitators claim to have witnessed very little theft, you can never be entirely sure that your tenants will be completely honest and or responsible. For this reason, it's crucial to find a company with experience and a proven track record -- so your free vacation doesn't end up costing you dearly.

Talk about home exchanges or even offer up your own residence for a swamp on our Hospitality Exchange Message Boards today.