Today, we’ve got a post from journalist and mum of three Ally Oliver, who has been dipping her toe into the ‘exchange economy’ and finding out that the swapping of skills is a great way to travel…

A few weeks ago, we went to St Ives in Cornwall and hired someone’s driveway for a week. Anyone who’s tried to park their car in St Ives for any length of time will understand why this is necessary and why privately renting is a Really Great Thing. For the unititiated: a) it’s virtually impossible to find a space during school holiday season, b) it’s really expensive and c) if you dare to nip off to the Eden Project for a day trip your lovely day will have a dampener put on it when you have to trek from one side of town to the other, grumpy kids in tow, frantically looking for parking space.

I booked my patio through a website called and all went very smoothly. You pay upfront, print off a ‘permission sheet’ to leave in the window of your car and that’s all there is to it.


So this was my first real experience of the ‘exchange economy’ and once I’d taken the plunge (okay, admittedly, not exactly experimental but pretty out there for someone who’s a Generation X-er, not a Millennial) it whet my appetite.

Next on the list was AirBnb. Now, for anyone who’s been hiding under a rock for a couple of years, AirBnb also subscribes to the ‘exchange platform’ idea that anyone who has a room, a house or an apartment and wants to rent it out to random strangers (once they’ve been checked out, naturally), can do so and make some money out of their spare space.

And so… I’ve done it. I’ve booked an apartment in Pisa, a couple of minutes walk from the Leaning Tower, just for two nights at the beginning of our holiday to Italy. I’ve obviously made sure that the next place we stay in Italy is fully-vetted Tuscan farmhouse, just so I can redeem myself if this place is awful. But actually, it looks lovely. I’ve been in touch with the owner and checked references on the AirBnb site so I’m sure it’ll be fabulous. Although a friend of mine has just come back from a night in Brighton with her kids after renting a flat through the site and told me: “It was a little bit ‘unclean’ and I felt like I was a student. I’m not sure my middle-aged north London sensibilities will risk it again”. I know I’ll be anxious about it but honestly, the research all points to the apartment being perfect. It even has the families’ restaurant downstairs which will make breakfast very handy.

For someone like me, who used to consider herself a bit of a traveller and backpacked all over the place, having a family has turned me into an armchair tourist. I obsess over other people’s journeys. I have a file on my desktop called ‘Places to go with kids’ which contains everything from swanky Boutique hotels (like that’s ever going to happen) to farm-stays in New Zealand. It’s highly unlikely I’ll ever do any of them, mostly because they cost too much (I have three kids), but more because I’m terrified of my precious holidays not being perfect.

But still… the itch to have an authentic travel experience persists. And so, for my next step, I’m considering ‘Cambioing’ through a new website called The site came about when the founder, Deirdre Bounds, was researching ways help her son brush up on his oral Spanish on the run-up to GCSEs.

“My brother and I came up with the idea for Gocambio when we were on a long walk on holiday in Ireland last year” says Deirdre, who was also the founder of volunteer travel company – she knows her stuff. “We were both bemoaning the fact that most schools’ language exchange programs have disappeared and that in order to do an exchange now you have to pay an agency tons of money to set it all up.

“Not only that, you might end up with a slightly surly teenager in the house, who isn’t great at sitting about having a chat with your kids. All in all, it felt like the time was right to introduce a new kind of website. Something which facilitated people wanting to learn a language whilst giving them a free place to stay”.

It’s beyond a joke that I know so little French, and I am determined that my three girls should at least know how to pass the time of day with a local next time we visit their grandparents in Spain.

IMG_7917 Teach them Spanish young, they’ll pick it up more easily

“We want everyone to be Cambioing,” says Deirdre. “We’ve had our first guest sign up from South Korea and we also have a host in Mauritius!” So far, so good. I’m edging closer to signing up to be a host, for starters. Deirdre’s excitement is infectious: “It’s not just about language, either, there’s all sort of ‘Cambios’.

“You might find your guest is brilliant at cricket, Italian cookery – or street-dancing! They’ll list their interests and skills on the site and you can see what fits with your family.”

In my house, any kind of dancing is a good thing (every night is ‘show night’ in our back garden right now) so a guest with some kind of theatrical or dance background would go down a treat. This is the joy of the new exchange economy as I’m beginning to learn.

I’ve had a look on the site and there’s a nice Italian lad on there who speaks Mandarin (bonus! I’m sure a smattering of Mandarin will look great on my 17 year old’s Uni application) and a sporty Spanish girl who’s half Italian. Trilingual for heaven’s sake! I’m in heaven – if a teensy bit jealous.

It is also, of course, about what you can offer your guest too. I hope the fact that I’m a journalist, my husband is an art director and author and that I have three very lively, arty children will attract someone to share our busy household for a week or two. We are also on the tube line straight into London which will be handy for our guest.

Yes, it’s time for me to get out of my armchair and back in the travel saddle again. This time with three young ‘uns’ and a husband in tow.  Wish me luck!

Follow Ally on Twitter: @allyoliver100