House swapping holidays for families: Fives reasons it's the ultimate family holiday

It's the ultimate family hipster holiday.

And it doesn't cost a cent. Travellers with children, tired of price gouging during school holidays, are turning to friends or family for informal house swaps. The concept of the "home exchange" began in the 1950s in the education industry, to provide free accommodation for teachers. In the early days, an annual catalogue of houses was mailed to each member.

The idea was revived in the '80s through the internet. Since then, it's grown by about 20 per cent each year, with thousands of member-based websites. Increasingly, families are removing the "middle man".

This Christmas and New Year, we stayed in a friend's house in Brisbane while they were in Tasmania. Another family from Melbourne house-sat for us in Sydney.

Here are the top five reasons why you should consider a casual house swap for your next family holiday:

1. You can run around your friends' house wearing their underwear on your head. Just kidding*. We've known Jim and Helen for most of our adult lives, but spending a week in their shoes (no, not literally) gave us a deeper understanding of their likes, dislikes and interests. And we watched their entire series of The West Wing, which was a bonus.

2. If you choose a family with kids of a similar age, your daughter or son can read their books, play their video games, and use their sporting equipment. After collapsing into a hammock with a book, I urged Taj and Grace to explore the house. (Did I mention this stuff doesn't cost a cent...?)

3. Often, animal entertainment is part of the package. We looked after Alfie, their Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, while our friends in Sydney cared for Arabella, our border collie. "Mum, whenever I miss Arabella, I just cuddle Alfie instead," Grace said. "But I won't tell Arabella, because she might be angry."

4. It's fun to explore a different area, which isn't set up for tourists. We ate at the Avachat Vietnamese restaurant one night and the Amazing Thai the next. (Gotta love Aussie suburban superlatives.) A nearby Swiss restaurant served coffee with a pretzel on the side: I am not making this up. All in all, it's a refreshing break from homogenised holiday resorts.

5. Shopping at the local grocery store, and preparing meals in a full kitchen, mean you'll save a mint. Speaking of mint, there are bonus points for a house with a herb garden. I made several salads from produce grown in the garden. Extra bonus points are earned if your friends have a wine cellar.

A holiday like this will make you feel fabulously smug. So-called "conscious travel", based on the sharing economy, is a world away from the mass market consumption model of tourism. It reduces your environmental footprint, keeps the kids grounded, and is the definition of cheap and cheerful. And that's gotta be good for everyone.

*Or am I...?