- Madolline Gourley is a 29-year-old traveller and writer from Brisbane, Australia.
- Since graduating from college in 2012, she has visited and lived in 12 different states in the US by offering house and cat sitting services in exchange for free accommodation.
- As a house and pet sitter, Gourley has stayed in amazing locations and connected with generous homeowners, for no more than the cost of caring for their fluffy friends.
- If you’re a pet lover interested in low-cost travel, Gourley recommends joining a house sitting services site that can pair you with local and international sits, and cost as little as $US20 for a yearlong membership.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
My house and cat sitting journey started as a sudden, one-time thing where I viewed it as a free place to stay over the 2017-2018 holiday season, with just a few extra responsibilities and a cat thrown in. It was also an opportunity to explore San Francisco. But what started out as a 10 day “home away from home” holiday has led to me travelling back and forth from Australia to the United States four more times. I’ve gone from Seattle to Boston, to Cincinnati and Santa Fe with several other cities in between. During my last trip, I cared for homes and cats in Nashville, TN; Austin, TX; Lake Forest Park, WA; and Birmingham, AL. It felt like an low-cost, extended summer vacation, complete with a perfect animal companion.
How I got started
I’ve joined several house sitting websites over the years. Membership fees vary, but if you consider how much you save on lodging costs, you’ll make your money back in no time.
- TrustedHousesitters: $US119/year as a sitter, or $US148 to sign up as a homeowner and sitter. This is my favourite site to use. It has the most sits on offer, which also means it can be more competitive.
- housecarers.com: $US50/year. One of my most memorable house and cat sits was found through housecarers.com. Since mentioning TrustedHousesitters to this couple, they’re now TrustedHousesitters converts.
- MindMyHouse: $US20/year. MindMyHouse has the cheapest membership of all the sites I’ve used, but I’ve only secured one of the several sits that I’ve applied for through them.
- House Sitters America: $US30/year. House Sitters America, as the name suggests, only has listings for properties in the United States. They do, however, have sister sites for Australia, Canada, and the UK. Each site charges a separate fee.
House sitting is also a way to enjoy and care for a beautiful home. The house in Boulder that I cared for over Christmas in 2018 for about 10 days was very large and in a great location (a similar house on Airbnb would have cost close to $US8,000 to stay in for a similar length of time, which I never would have been able to afford, even if I split the cost with friends). In this way, my housecarers.com annual membership paid for itself a hundred times over.
Most of these websites also have referral programs where you get an extra few months free for each person you refer, or a certain amount of money to go towards the cost of renewing your membership the following year.
You may be able to find house and pet sits advertised on Facebook groups, but there’s an added sense of security in using a legitimate house sitting website. When I first signed up to TrustedHousesitters, I had to submit a scanned copy of my passport before I could be considered “verified,” and I then used character references to support my first house sitting application.
The money-saving benefits
Travelling as a house and cat sitter also has other less obvious money-saving benefits. The people who I’ve sat for have often offered to pick me up from the airport, and if they return home before I head off, they have been more than happy to give me a ride back to catch my flight. This saves me between $US20 and $US40 for each ride to or from the airport, and probably close to $US800 total over the two years that I’ve been house sitting.
You can explore a new city
Some homeowners have also generously loaned me their public transport pass. In Boston, a younger couple said I was welcome to use their MBTA monthly pass while caring for their two Persian cats. MBTA subway fares cost $US2.90 each way, so I saved between $US10 and $US20 on any given day, and approximately $US280 in train fares over the two weeks I cat sat. Thanks to them, I was able to explore more parts of the city without worrying about a costly commute.
Connecting with homeowners around the world
The young Boston couple also encouraged me to eat anything and everything in the house without having to replace it. I’ve found it quite commonplace for homeowners to say ‘help yourself to the pantry,’ others have had very impressive vegetable gardens that I’ve been welcome to harvest and use.
I had a house and cat sit in Austin in July of 2019, and it came with an unexpected $US100 Whole Foods gift card. I thought the gift card would have been for $US10 or $US20 at most. I was happily surprised when I went to pay for my mid-morning snack at the flagship store and the cashier told me there was still $US90 left to use, which meant the cost of my groceries was covered for the entire sit. The Austin couple even brought along a vegetarian taco for me to try when we met at the airport – they have been the most generous homeowners yet. It just goes to show how appreciative some people are to have you care for their home and pets. Otherwise, I usually spend between $US10 and $US20 each day on groceries – mostly fresh fruit and baked goods – as well as trying out local cafes and restaurants.
Other costs you may want to consider
House and cat sitting around America has saved me quite a bit of money on accommodation. But what about insurance? It starts to add up when you’re gone for two months at a time. As an Australian citizen, I usually get my insurance through Australian providers like RACQ or Budget Direct, as I’d much rather pay a precautionary $US200 AUD than potentially be billed for an emergency later. I’ve seen World Nomads travel insurance mentioned a lot on Facebook travel groups, but I can’t vouch for it myself. If you’re looking for travel insurance options,Finder has a good comparison tool for those who like to shop around.
The best ways to travel between cities
Transport between cities isn’t cheap either. Budget airline Southwest has become my go-to because their already competitively prices include two checked bags. But if you’re prepared to wake up early or travel overnight, travelling by bus can be very inexpensive. I’ve taken advantage of Megabus’s super cheap fares once or twice, but I usually prefer Greyhound because they offer routes to less touristy places, like Pittsburgh, for example. Occasionally, you may also find better deals on Amtrak. When I went from Birmingham to New Orleans, I chose to ride Amtrak as it cost me only $US38, whereas the bus cost $US77.
You may also want to rent a car
Depending on the house, you may also want to rent a car. While a car hasn’t been necessary for most of the house sits I’ve done, it makes getting around a lot easier in smaller cities and towns easier. For example, a sit that I accepted in Boulder, CO would have been nearly impossible to do without a car as I was staying on top of a mountain where the public buses did not go. I rented a small car from Alamo at Denver Airport – Alamo has always been the cheapest car rental option for me – and it cost me about $US350 for 10 or so days. Along with gas for day trips and several tolls, my car expenses for that probably came to about $US550 total.
A free home can be hard to say “no” to, but if you do choose to become a house or pet sitter, be aware of these potential expenses that you may encounter.
There’s a perfect sit for every traveller
Whether overnight or for several weeks, or caring for a cat in an apartment or for a farm complete with cows, chicken, sheep and pigs, I believed there’s a perfect house and pet sitting gig for everyone. Despite some of the other costs – like insurance and airfares – house and cat sitting around the US has proven to be more than just a free place to stay. I’ve stayed in some truly unique homes in amazing neighbourhoods, I’ve met wonderful people and been afforded the opportunity to connect with their pets and live just like they do, for a fraction of the cost.
Madolline Gourley is a 29-year-old traveller and writer from Brisbane, Australia. Read more about her cat sitting travels on her blog.
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