Recession got you down? Use your home to land a cheap vacation (© Composite photo: Ben Fink Photo Inc./Getty Images; Richard Hamilton Smith/Corbis)

Even with the beaten-down travel industry spilling out deals on airfares like candy from a busted piñata, vacation planning nowadays often ends with, "It still costs too much." But suppose you could stay free in a vacation home? Those sweet deals might look a little more tempting.

Swapping houses with other would-be vacationers is one way to get a free stay. And the pool of homeowners looking to trade places is growing rapidly. At HomeExchange.com, the biggest Web site for home swappers, the number of listings jumped to 27,000 in May, up from 20,000 about a year earlier. "The word's getting out that exchanging homes is really a recession-beater," says HomeExchange President Ed Kushins.

The savings can be dramatic. Real-estate agent Lori Koppel-Heath made her first swap 10 years ago, when she was living in Coto de Caza, Calif. Koppel-Heath and her husband, Michael Heath, a stockbroker and financial planner, were looking for a stay in Great Britain. Instead of paying $400 a night at a London hotel for six weeks, they traded their four-bedroom home for a five-bedroom house in Amersham, a town north of London. Total savings: $16,800.

What's your home worth?

And the couple's temporary home turned out to be as breathtaking as their savings — an 80-year-old English Tudor surrounded by rolling hills and meandering footpaths. "It just looked like a fairy tale," Koppel-Heath says.

Trading down
Exchange clubs offer various kinds of lodging worldwide, whether you want to relax in simple digs or hold court in a castle. Just don't expect to trade a modest apartment in the hinterlands for a four-bedroom Parisian penthouse. The easiest swaps will be for homes similar to your own.

However, it's a common practice to trade down in house size if you're looking to visit popular destinations such as London, Paris, New York City and Hawaii. When the Koppel-Heaths visited Scotland for their second swap, in 2000, the St. Andrews house they stayed in wasn't as big as their own 4,500-square-foot home. But it was in a fine location for the British Open that year. "A fair swap is one that both parties are comfortable with," Koppel-Heath says.

Mary Lang also has happily downsized a bit in her exchanges. Swapping out her four-bedroom lakefront home in Cazenovia, N.Y., about a half-hour from Syracuse, Lang has settled in smaller, three-bedroom homes throughout Europe, including just outside London and Paris. The cozier quarters provided plenty of space for Lang and her husband, Vaughn, a real-estate lawyer, and their two sons. "A small house is still much more spacious than the alternative — a hotel room," she says.

And, again, the savings can be impressive. Lang, who recently retired as a professor at Syracuse University, estimates the family saved "easily $10,000" on each month-long vacation. Over the past four years, the Langs exchanged homes seven times.

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Curb appeal
You don't need to live in a palace of your own to arrange an attractive swap. Serial swappers Sam and Judy Robbins, of Washington, D.C., get all kinds of offers for a stay in their 1,300-square-foot condominium. Members of three swapping networks, the Robbinses consistently get about one inquiry per week. Trading for apartments and houses all over the world, they have swapped abodes about 40 times since 1995.

Throwing in extras can enhance the appeal of your home. The Robbinses, for instance, are able to offer a car and their second home, a restored 1840s log cabin on a 300-acre tree farm in Lexington, Va. The whole package makes for an exchange worthy of a larger home with a pool or garden.

Highlighting the best features of your home and neighborhood can sometimes secure surprising swaps. "Our friends ask us, 'Who the heck wants to come to Syracuse, especially from Paris or London?'" Lang says. "But if you have a family and you're looking for a wholesome vacation, this is a quiet and charming spot."

In addition to offering a spacious, architect-designed house on the shore of the 6-mile-long lake around which the peaceful country town was built, the Langs include use of the family's pontoon boat in their exchanges.

Be flexible
The more flexible you are, the easier it is to arrange swaps. Originally, the Langs exchanged their home only during summer breaks. But later they began taking winter jaunts as well. Mary found that just when she was ready to escape to warmer weather, other vacationers appreciated her area for its great skiing and picture-postcard Christmases.

The Robbinses are so flexible that they often let the inquiries they receive dictate their travel plans. For instance, they hadn't really considered a vacation down under until an Australian couple contacted them in 2003. They ended up making Australia part of a four-month-long trip around the world. "These ideas can come from nowhere and develop into quite a nice experience," Sam Robbins says.

But exchanging homes is also becoming a popular strategy for arranging quick getaways closer to home. "With the economy the way it is, there has been a real increase in weekend vacations," says HomeExchange’s Kushins.