On the other hand, not everyone has a home to swap, and for years, frugal adventurers have long known how to parlay house-sitting into a way to see the world on a shoestring. Today, many websites connect homeowners and house-sitters, among them, HouseSittersAmerica.com, HouseCarers.com and MindMyHouse.com.
“A large proportion of our sitters are retired couples who, after a lifetime of work, have decided to pick up sticks and travel the world,” says Lisa Logan, a spokesperson for TrustedHousesitters.com. Two years ago, the UK-based company launched its website to connect homeowners with responsible travelers looking for a place to stay, usually free of charge.
In many cases, pets are part of the equation. “Lots of people love pets but can’t have their own for various reasons, so a break away with a dog or cat to look after is the perfect holiday,” Logan says.
Busy schedules and their grandchildren’s needs have kept TrustedHousesitters.com members Dan and Lyn Reece from having pets of their own, and the couple misses the companionship. Several of their best house-sitting experiences during the last three years included a resident pet.
“In each case, exercising the dog brought instant recognition from the neighbors, and led to making quick friends who could direct us to ‘must-see’ attractions in the area, and great restaurants that weren’t on the map,” says Dan Reece, a security consultant whose skills include fixing leaking pipes and scratching dog bellies.
Like other industry sites, TrustedHousesitters.com runs a “police check” on prospective house-sitters. They currently have 500 individuals from 36 different countries—including 70 from the U.S.
Short-term private home rentals can’t compete with free, but they do offer a way to cut costs (cooking at home, no-fee parking and so forth), plus a break from cookie-cutter hotel chains.
Many dog parents swear by VRBO.com (Vacation Rental By Owner), including the Shiffmans, who rely on it to rent getaways for family reunions that can include up to as many as six dogs. VRBO.com boasts an inventory of around 165,000 properties, most of which are in the U.S. Of these, more than 41,000 are pet-friendly, including the duBoises’ lakefront house. HomeAway.com, which is VRBO.com’s slightly larger parent site, has more international coverage in its 260,000 vacation rentals, 73,250 of which are specifically pet-friendly.
Founded in 2008, Airbnb.com is a hip, new player on the block and is growing fast, with more than 100,000 listings for homes, apartments, houseboats, lofts and cottages as well as individual rooms, floors or suites. The service is available in more than 19,000 cities and 190 countries in a wide range of prices. More than 6,000 of the listings are pet-friendly.
Unlike VRBO.com, Airbnb.com includes many hosted opportunities, such as rooms in homes or apartments in houses, with the residents on the premises and part of the experience. Many times, this includes pets, which can mean playdates if you’re cleared to bring your dog or, if you’re traveling without your pet, a little fur therapy to fight off loneliness.
Layla, a lovable brown dog, offers canine hospitality to guests of a shabby-chic tree house in Burlingame, Calif., available through Airbnb.com. “As we present our ‘Treehouse Overlooking SF Bay’ experience to potential guests, we discuss openly that we are animal lovers,” says Doug Studebaker, treehouse builder and host. In addition to Layla, ten laying hens free range in the yard (which may be one reason guest dogs are not permitted). “This attracts other animal lovers from around the world. Funny how animals seem to speak that international language about love and kindness.”
Advocates of sitting, swapping or renting often mention that staying in someone’s home takes them outside the tourist bubble and helps them forge a deeper connection to a community and place. Include dogs in the mix and the experience deepens even more. As Studebaker says, “Animals have a way of creating heartfelt conversation.”