The pandemic has changed the way people travel and the longer Australians are confined to domestic destinations, the clearer these trends become.

According to travel booking websites, some sectors have recovered due to the pent-up demand that has been simmering since last year. Webjet claims domestic flight bookings in Australia have shot up to 95 per cent of the levels they were before COVID-19 triggered border shutdowns.

Skyscanner’s New World of Travel report describes 2021 as the year of flexible bookings with lenient change and cancellation policies, sustainable tourism in regional destinations, and health-conscious airlines, hotels and tour operators with enhanced hygiene regimes. The rise of the remote workforce has also sparked several trends, such as working from home in a house-swapping situation or in a hotel on an extended ‘workation’ – especially near the beach, where business hours are often adjusted around the surf or sunshine.

In a survey conducted by KPMG, 72 per cent of Australian respondents said they were planning to book a holiday between July and December 2021 as they had been saving hard throughout the pandemic and had accrued significant annual leave balances due to lockdown restrictions. The research uncovered three key trends in domestic tourism: ticking off the ‘backyard bucket list’; trying a working holiday; and romancing the great Aussie road trip, especially among families, young professionals and people who would otherwise have gone on a cruise this year.

According to TripAdvisor’s winter travel survey, 81 per cent of Australians feel confident that it is safer to travel now than it was three months ago. The domestic destinations which have seen the largest increase in searches on the site since January include Hahndorf in Adelaide, followed by Palm Beach in Queensland and Dubbo in New South Wales. Unsurprisingly, New Zealand dominates seven of the top 10 international searches, but we’re also still dreaming of escaping overseas because the number-one search was Bolifushi Island in the Maldives.

Under the radar, one of the biggest boom areas is home exchanging. As people feel more anxious about crowds and shared spaces, staying in private properties in nice neighbourhoods provides peace of mind. Financially, it’s also a winner because no money is traded between swappers. They might pay a small admin fee or subscription to the home exchange website, but it’s less than the cost of a night in a cheap motel for a stay that could last a week, a month or a year.

The most affordable and largest platform based in Australia is People Like Us, with more than 4000 listed properties across 100 countries. The listings include houses, apartments, cabins, campers, caravans, houseboats, yachts, yurts, castles and a private island.

People Like Us was founded in 2016 by Sydney couple Drew and Kathy Seitam, who wanted to create the world’s most trusted home-exchange program. Contrary to many travel-related businesses, the site’s membership has increased 50 per cent since March 2020.

“Running a home-exchange community in a global pandemic is challenging,” said Mr Seitam. “A funny thing happened for us, though. We couldn’t travel and so the website was quiet, but our Facebook community was buzzing. We spent most of the year talking to each other about baking or hobbies or where we’d like to be travelling. We had lots of people who contracted the virus and, tragically, a couple who died. 

“I often felt we had better information about the pandemic than others because we had real stories from people living through the worst of circumstances. The community was there to support each other. We had a community before COVID, but now we have a community who’s lived through COVID together and we’re stronger because of it.”

The Facebook group also allows experienced members to advise newcomers on how to get started and what to expect.

“Home exchanging is like having a friend stay in your home while you’re away. In some cases that friend is looking after your pets, using your car and making friends with your neighbours,” said Mr Seitam.

Maintaining this community spirit has always been vital for building the trust that people need to open their homes to strangers, but it is more important now than ever, according to Mr Seitam.

“This is a golden time for home exchanging. People need to feel safe and they do that by getting to know who they’re exchanging with. Because they get to know each other beforehand, they know what sort of people they are, their attitude to cleaning, their country’s COVID status and their individual vaccination status. This is not anonymous travel.”

The biggest demographic is young families because they can find a similar-sized house (which is already child-proof and equipped with toys and wi-fi) in a convenient location. Some people also use swapping to try a new state or region before fully committing to moving there. Retirees, professionals and digital nomads are also big users of the site.

The most popular exchanges for Australians used to be Europe and the UK, but this year’s huge increase in local activity has been focused on city-to-country swaps. Orange and the NSW Central Coast, rural Victoria, coastal towns south of Perth and Queensland’s Sunshine Coast have seen a spike in interest.

A lesser known aspect of exchanging is that it does not always need to happen at exactly the same time, especially when a home is not someone’s primary residence. As Mr Seitam explains: “A reciprocal swap means that you and I will stay in each other’s homes – that can either be at the same time (simultaneous) or at different times (non-simultaneous). Non-reciprocal means that only one of us travels. Non-reciprocal exchanges give you a lot of flexibility but 85 per cent of our exchanges are still reciprocal.”

Although use of the site has changed in the past year, particularly in the trend toward local travel, it hasn’t followed other trends such as last-minute bookings. Many swaps have already been finalised for 2022 and even 2023.

“Our members tend to plan ahead so they’re often booking six to 12 months in advance, but they’re staying flexible given the uncertain situation. That’s much easier when you don’t have an airfare and a hotel that you may have to cancel,” said Mr Seitam.

Cancellations of home exchanges are easier than other aspects of travel as members navigate the situation by simply talking to each other.

“People will have no concern about cancelling a hotel or an Airbnb but with People Like Us, you know the person you’re exchanging with. Cancellations can still happen if life gets in the way but people take their commitments seriously. If they happen, we do everything we can to substitute a new exchange,” he said.

As no cash or credit cards are involved, your money is not held indefinitely and there is no waiting for refunds.

“We don’t allow deposits or exchange fees. It’s extraordinarily cost-effective, indeed the only way that most of us could regularly spend a month in a New York apartment, on a yacht in Martinique or a private island in the UK,” said Mr Seitam.

“People often start exchanging because it’s cheap, but they keep doing it because it’s better.”

HomeExchange, a larger international site with 400,000 listings, has seen its popularity impacted in Australia due to our restrictions.

“Many of our Australia members rely on HomeExchange for international travel as home exchanging offers huge cost savings, especially when traveling internationally for extended periods of time,” said David Bucci, HomeExchange’s head of marketing for North America and Oceania.

“The lockdowns and travel bans have made it hard for Australian members to travel to other countries or accept members into their home. In Australia, for example, the number of exchanges held in June of this year was down 44 per cent compared to the same month in 2019.”

In 2021, booking trends have clearly skewed toward local stays, he said.

“This one is similar to other countries. We are noticing a huge shift to domestic travel. People continually stay closer to home and organise exchanges within their home country. For example, in Australia domestic exchanges represent 68 per cent of global trade, whereas in 2019 it represented only 24 per cent. Unfortunately, which makes things even worse in the country, the lockdowns between states make it even more difficult for domestic travel for our Australian HomeExchange members.”

Anyone can list their home for free. People Like Us has an annual subscription for US$95 for unlimited exchanges. HomeExchange costs US$150 a year.

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Tips for first-time swappers

1 Look for homes in destinations that interest you and send a personalised exchange request. A friendly introduction and explanation about your reason for choosing their home is better than a copy-and-paste email.

2 Don’t ever pay a bond, deposit or others fees to the home owner. No money is involved in home exchanging (except your annual subscription).

3 Organise the exchange through the site’s messaging system, not privately, to ensure safety.

4 If the home owner does not want to stay at your home in return, you can offer them “guest points” (on HomeExchange) or a “globe” (on People Like Us), which you receive as part of your subscription. The home owner can then use these points or globe to stay at another member’s home in a different destination.

5 Agree in advance if you are permitted to use their car, if a pet or plants require care, and if you will clean or pay for a cleaner when you check out.

6 Don’t treat home exchanging like a hotel or Airbnb. Embrace the community, get to know your exchange members and enjoy living like a local for free.

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