Home-swap apartment

Hannah, left, and Nancy MacDonald relax in the home-swap apartment, an exchange that made a stay in Paris affordable. (Brady MacDonald / Los Angeles Times)

Ah, Paris. The food. The art. The sights.

The hotel bill.

It was the little matter of finding a place to stay that kept an international vacation off our radar, especially in wake of a recession that had put a king-size crimp in our international travel plans. As we discussed a European getaway, we realized that a hotel stay for my wife, Nancy, our daughter, Hannah, and me would cost us as much as our airline tickets.

I had read about house exchanges, but Nancy was hesitant to let strangers into our home, despite my continuing campaign about the savings.

But the prospect of staying for free in a Paris apartment with a car at our disposal proved irresistible.

I began investigating the better-known house swap websites before settling on HomeExchange.com, thanks to the advice of Marla Fisher, a friend who had used the service to take her kids to such places as Escondido, Mexico and Italy.

But, why, I asked Marla, would anybody want to stay in our house? We're halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego in suburban Orange County and 20 minutes from the closest beach. The best thing going for us: We're near Disneyland.

"That's why," Marla said. "Listen to yourself."

Convinced, I signed up, paid the $119 annual membership and wrote a description of our Old Towne Orange home and neighborhood, playing up Southern California's attractions, celebrity connections and brand-name beaches. It sounded so good I wanted to visit.

Meanwhile, I trolled the HomeExchange website "favoriting" homes in places on our wish list: Venice, Italy; Paris; Athens; Tokyo; Prague, Czech Republic; Berlin; Amsterdam. A professional photographer friend offered to make our home look good for the photo gallery.

Fearing rejection and feeling smugly confident, I decided to let others make offers rather than send out inquiries about places that looked good.

Nothing happened.

I kept knocking on the computer screen, asking, "Is this thing working?" Not one of the 46,000 members wants to trade with us? This must be what online dating feels like.

Finally — it had been only two days — we got an inquiry from Hans in Denmark, which wasn't on our wish list. Before long, my why-would-anybody-go-to-Denmark? attitude transformed into a why-don't-we-go-to-Denmark sales pitch. Nancy was already worrying about the beast she'd unleashed.

She needn't have worried. Soon enough, Angelique offered a place near the wine region of Bordeaux, France. What do you think, honey? Peter in Germany had a red biplane in his driveway, mine to fly if I had a pilot's license. Come look at this. Jennifer dangled a seven-bedroom 1880s mansion just outside Manhattan. Let's go.

We consulted Marla, who told us that we might have to make 10 to 20 offers just to get one successful exchange. I was worried about getting rejected or leading people on. What if we started talking to one family and a better offer came along?

"That's how it works," Marla said. "Most people will be flattered you want to stay in their home."

After getting an automated — automated! — rejection on an inquiry to Venice, I iced my bruised ego and focused instead on our top three choices in Paris: an architect's duplex, an interior designer's loft and a young family's apartment.

The next day, I heard back from the young family: Iris, who was hoping to come to Southern California for three weeks with her husband, Julien, and two young daughters before heading up to San Francisco for another home exchange. After a few messages, we set up a Skype video meeting.

Julien, a professional musician who is more comfortable speaking English than Iris, did most of the talking. We hashed out the details, discussed a car swap and gave each other virtual tours of our homes. It began to feel as though our families were already friends.