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Is This Budget Travel Hack Worth the Risk?

House sitting can be an amazing travel hack, but will it work for your travel style?

It’s Sunday morning, and my fiancé and I are on the Amtrak train from Washington, D.C., to New York City. We’re heading up to Brooklyn for a week to housesit for a couple of friendly cats, our first trip of 2022 on a very limited budget. We’ll be staying in an apartment rented (and decorated) by two artists and currently occupied by their two gray tuxedo cats.

As I’m watching the scenery out the window, I get a text from our hosts: “So, change of plans…”

Cue my mild panic. There definitely isn’t room for all four of us in this one-bedroom apartment (six, if you count the cats). They’ve missed their flight and can’t rebook…

But not to worry, they have a family cabin to go to instead. They’ll just be taking the cats with them, so we have the apartment to ourselves.

Phew! I realize I can stop profusely sweating.

House and pet sitting are amazing ways to travel. Using apps like Trusted Housesitters, we trade pet and home care for free lodging all the time (both as sitters and as travelers who need sitters for our own cats). It’s a beautiful solution for the sharing economy, and a lot of different types of travelers use it.

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“I don’t live anywhere,” says Debbie Rose, a full-time nomadic house sitter. A retired teacher, she spends her time traveling around the U.S., staying with people’s cats. “It allows me a lot of flexibility in my life. As of now, I’m booked out to next July. It is a dream.”

“I had been on tour for three years and was looking for a 14-week Airbnb that was both quality and affordable in D.C. It was a nightmare,” recalls Jordan Scannella, a member of the orchestra for Hamilton, who has started house-sitting for work travel. “My cousin mentioned house-sitting for some of her friends as an option, and I thought there must be a site for that. That’s when I found Trusted Housesitters and a cornucopia of offerings.”

“I’m two-to-three years post-college, and I have dreams of traveling,” says Samantha Nelson, a young professional who works remotely in the U.S. “I’m on a young professional’s budget with student loans. House sitting has really cut down on travel costs, so I don’t have to wait to travel.”

How Travel House Sitting Works

There are multiple online sites and apps that help match sitters up with people who need them. Some sites are worldwide, and others are for specific countries. Almost all of them have membership fees to join that range from $50 to $300, while a few others are for paid sitting. Sites require background checks and are review-based. Here’s how it works:

1. A pet parent or homeowner is traveling and wants someone to come watch their fur babies and home.
You want to travel to the place where they live.
3. You take a look at the listing to see information about the pets, their care needs, and the home and location.
4. You like it, so you send an application through the site.
5. They’ll see your application and review your profile, previous sitter reviews, and character references.
6. They’ll schedule a video or phone call interview to talk more about the sit and get to know you better. Ask questions of them during the interview, too, so you’re fully prepared.
7. If it all goes well, they decide you’re the sitter for them! You both confirm the sit through the site, and you can book your travel plans.

Great! You have a free place to stay and some fluffy friends to hang out with. Book your travel and you’re good to go. Design your itinerary around the pet’s daily needs (food, cuddles, playtime, walks), unless the only creatures you’re caring for are yourself and some plants. Make sure you keep the host updated throughout the stay and ask for a review at the end so you can do it all again.

It can really be that simple. Free lodging, as long as you like cats and dogs (and maybe some chickens).

The Pros of House Sitting

Obviously, the biggest pro of house-sitting is free lodging. If you’re traveling on a budget, house-sitting will help your money go a lot farther. “My friends all look at me in wonder at how I’m able to do it,” says Samantha Nelson, “to travel and work right now.” House sitting is the answer.

Another pro? You have a whole house to yourself. You can grab groceries and cook, use the home office or the home gym, walk the neighborhood, and really experience life as a local in that place. “You really get a feel for the cities,” says Nelson, “in a homey environment, not a sterile hotel room. You can get to stay in some really nice places, fancy luxury apartments with all kinds of amenities.”

Hosts are also awesome authentic sources for recommendations in their city and are usually very eager to share them. Debbie Rose, the retired teacher, shares that she often makes friends with her hosts and loves going back to the same sits: “I get to go back and see friends, both human and pets.”  

If your travel plans don’t line up perfectly with the sit dates, you’re working with humans instead of a hotel company, and you may be surprised how accommodating they can be. “For my current sit, the dates were shorter than my travel timeframe,” says Jordan Scannella, the orchestra member, “and my hosts offered to let me stay in their guest room for a few days both before they left and after they get back to meet my travel needs. It’s really, really special.”

Plus, if you like cats and dogs (or even some farm animals!), you’ll have some great companions for your stay. “I’m never lonely when I have kitties to take care of,” says Rose.  

The Cons of House Sitting

When you’re planning on staying in someone’s home, life can interfere. Just like you or me, house-sitting hosts are humans who have things come up. You have to be prepared for the flexibility that is required: possibly adjusting travel dates by a few days, changing plans to take care of a sick pet, or canceling trips altogether.

My fiancé and I had another sit scheduled for this past spring: April in London with a Bengal cat who goes out for walks. Before that sit, the owners very suddenly and unexpectedly had to move a couple of hours outside of London. We, unfortunately, had to cancel that sit since we couldn’t afford a car rental for the two weeks. Thankfully we had travel insurance and were reimbursed for the flights we had already booked–but that could have been an expensive blunder without it.

On your trip, your main priority has to be your host’s home and pets. While they may have their plans changed and have to cancel or adjust on you, you have less liberty to change yours (because someone goes hungry without you!).

“My biggest fear on a sit is an animal getting sick,” says Rose. “I had to take a baby kitty to the vet a couple of times on one sit, and that gets expensive.” While most house-sitting sites have terms that guarantee your reimbursement from the owner for any vet expenses, you have to be able to cover the costs upfront.

Finally, you’re staying in someone’s home, some of which are “very lived in,” says Nelson. “I’ve had to do a lot of cleaning before. But I try to remember these are real people offering up their spaces, and I’m grateful for that.” 

Is House Sitting to Travel Worth It?

For me, housesitting is definitely worth the risk. It’s a great low-budget travel hack that allows people to travel often regardless of their financial situation. You have a place to live when you travel rather than a place to stay. It’s a much more authentic experience and very conducive to slow travel. And you get to spend your time with amazing animals.

Debbie Rose, Jordan Scannella, and Samantha Nelson all agree that in order to house-sit, you have to be adventurous and flexible. “And be an animal-lover, obviously,” Scannella adds. For the budget traveler, the “hostel” traveler, and the long-term or slow traveler, house-sitting is a perfect solution.

For others, the guarantee that comes with a hotel or short-term rental is the stability they need at a time when almost everything about travel is unstable. You might prefer not to have to design your schedule around pets or may want a more luxurious stay. These are all great reasons that house sitting may not be your accommodation style.

If it is, though, you will be in for a real treat. “There’s something beautiful about connecting with people through their pets and their places,” says Scannella. “Regardless of your beliefs or differences, you get to know people as they open their lives to you.”