A few years ago, I was about to embark on an extended road trip with my family when a friend put me in touch with a retired man who traveled around the country, living rent-free.
I was intrigued about how he did it, and he explained that he and his wife signed up to be pet sitters through an online service. The way the service works is you pay a small annual fee to get access to a list of people who need their pets and houses watched while they're out of town.
You don't pay anything to stay in the home or receive any money for taking care of the pet. But what you do get is to live rent-free wherever you pet sit.
I was instantly on board. I quickly paid the small fee, and my wife and I immediately began looking for a furry friend to watch. We set up an online profile, complete with a picture of our family, and described our experience with owning pets in the past.
I hoped to find a good dog that got along with our kids in a decent location. What I got was the equivalent of a $10,000 vacation for $130.
Pet sitting in paradise
When we applied to watch Lilly the labrador retriever (name changed), we didn't know the exact location of her home or that it was in a resort beach community. We knew it was located near the South Carolina coast and that the home's backyard overlooked a beautiful marsh.
When we finally got the address to where we'd be staying, I was dumbfounded. The townhome was located in the resort beach community and had private beaches, walking trails, shops, restaurants, parks, pools, and an acclaimed golf course that's part of the PGA Tour.
It also had alligators. A lot of alligators that we had to keep Lilly and our kids away from. But aside from the prehistoric monsters and the typical heat we've grown somewhat accustomed to in the south, the location was a paradise.
We took Lilly for multiple walks daily, played fetch with her at the beach, and enjoyed the beautiful sunsets over the marsh from the back porch for three weeks. We even got the chance to go on an amazing pirate boat adventure with our kids — complete with water cannons and pirate treasure — that set sail right from the resort's docks.
Not only did we score a cheap place to stay at a fantastic location, but we also had the great experience of meeting an amazingly friendly retired couple (they even brought back t-shirts from their vacation for our kids!) and a sweet dog who adored our kids.
Pet sitting as a travel hack
The $130 upfront cost to sign up for access to potential pet-sitting jobs was incredibly inexpensive compared to the free place we stayed in. I recently looked at equivalent Airbnb homes listed in the same resort community, for around the same time of year and three-week length. Several comparable stays I found ranged between $8,000 to more than $10,000.
If you're considering using pet sitting to travel on a budget, it's important to note that a good amount of responsibility is involved. Just like owning your own pet, you have to make sure the pet you're watching is constantly taken care of. Many of the pet sitting jobs that I saw had specific requirements for taking care of the animals.
Additionally, you have to be open to meeting new people and embracing some of the initial awkwardness of the process. We had never met with the couple before we showed up at their home, sat down for dinner with them, and stayed in their guest room the night before they left town. While we had a great experience with them, I imagine that not everyone may have an equally enjoyable time with strangers.
Also, there is a degree of flexibility involved in pet sitting. When we arrived at Lilly's, we found out that the couple's vacation trip was shortened to three weeks from the previous five-week timeframe. That was fine with us since our next destination was to visit my wife's family. But had we booked another pet-sitting gig somewhere else or had other firm housing plans, we would have had to figure out where to stay next with a pretty quick turnaround.
I haven't pet-sat since that trip, and now that I'm thinking about it, I wonder if someone needs a sweet Labrador taken care of this winter. Perhaps near Disney World? I have references!
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