Fewer words are more eye-catching than ''free," and that is why travel providers bandy it about. But few things are truly free.
A hotel stay with the ''fourth night free" could also be looked at as a 25 percent discount. A ''companion travels free" offer is 50 percent off at best, since discounted fares are often not allowed with such an offer. And a free flight to Hawaii or other exotic locales usually requires that you stay in a selected hotel for a week at the listed, or ''rack" rates, which are otherwise seldom charged; the result is that you may pay as much or more than if you bought the plane tickets and paid the real-world hotel prices.Maybe the closest you can come to actually getting something for free is by participating in a home exchange -- swapping houses with someone from another country, state, or region. Assuming the person who stays in your home doesn't trash it and make off with the silverware, you can save a bundle and also add depth to your vacation by living like a local. A new book tells you how to go about exchanging homes by using both traditional and electronic methods, including e-mail and the Internet.
''The Home Exchange Guide: How to Find Your Free Home Away From Home" (Poyeen Publishing, $19.95) is a detailed guide to the process, covering such topics as whether the people interested in your house are good exchange candidates, how and where to look for such people, what to look for in a house, pitfalls, and preparing your home for an exchange. The authors, M.T. Simon and T.T. Baker, say up front, ''Home exchange is not for everyone." If you're not the kind of person who will think of the home-exchanging family as new friends and who will consider surprises at your exchange home a minor adventure, then perhaps you'd be better off in a hotel.
''The planning phase involves some soul searching, data gathering, and goal setting" say Simon and Baker, with your search for the proper palace consuming possibly 20 hours or more of your time. Be prepared to ask such questions (usually by e-mail nowadays) as: Do you welcome children? Do you have a car to swap as well, and does it have a manual or automatic transmission? Do you allow pets? Is smoking allowed? What will be off-limits in the home? ''Aggressive reactions, evasive answers, nonresponsive or droll responses . . . can be a sign that the exchanger has something to hide."
The book lists several home-exchange organizations, both off- and online, and is well organized and clearly written. Some of the advice appears obvious (for example, avoid screaming arguments if a dispute arises), while other suggestions raise issues you may not have thought of (sometimes you may find a swapper who has a vacation home as well as his ''regular" home for you to use).
But all the advice and suggestions in the universe won't help if you arrive at the home, reach into your pocket, then ask, ''What did I do with those !@#$%&* house keys!?"
If you've snagged a low-priced air fare to Europe but still need a room, OctopusTravel.com says it has some bargains. A two-star hotel (out of a possible five) in Madrid, for example, costs $129 a person, double occupancy, for four nights, including hotel taxes, service charges, and continental breakfast daily.
Call 877-330-7765 or visit www.octopustravel-us.com.
Tea in China
The China World Hotel, at the China World Trade Center in Beijing, has undergone a $30 million facelift, and through Nov. 30 is offering 45 percent off regular rates, which begin at $300-$320 a night. One way to check out the scene is to visit the Lobby Lounge for the high-tea buffet for about $11 or the afternoon high tea with pastries for about $17.
Call 800-942-5050 or visit www.shangri-la.com.