How to travel the world for free - 'there is literally something for everyone'
Travel tips & advice
Broke with the January blues and craving sun? House-sitting can offer a passport to long-term budget travel...
'Tis the season not to be jolly, but to dread the January fug, dreaming of sunnier climes and a 2017 packed with adventures.
Alas, most people's post-Christmas budgets often don't allow for faraway travel. Airbnb has certainly greased the wheel for millions of budget travellers, but for those who want to trot the globe for next to nothing, there is another way.
Welcome to the world of house-sitting, where property owners enlist the pet-sitting or plant-watering services of others, in exchange for accommodation.
TrustedHousesitters.com was founded in 2010 and has grown to become the world's largest sharing economy travel business specialising in house and pet sitting, operating across 140 countries, with a global community of 300,000.
Currently, there are 174 registered sitters in Ireland (this doesn't include Irish sitters abroad), and 11 sitting opportunities for Ireland live on the site, including a 17th century Georgian manor house, a rural farmhouse near Clonakilty, and a wood-frame house set on four acres in Co Clare.
"The community is very like-minded, bonded through a love of pets and travel," explains CEO Andy Peck. "Members tend to be over 40 if they join as home owners, though there are younger ones too. For house-sitters, the majority are over 40, and many are retired. We also have thousands of families and younger, digital nomads who have joined as house-sitters. There is literally something for everyone.
"Home owners tend to own some incredible properties, from chocolate box cottages in the British countryside to New York loft apartments, eco-lodges in New Zealand, villas in Barbados and chateaux in France and Germany. Nearly all the homes have pets, be they dogs, cats, horses, llamas, reptiles or fish."
According to Peck, the site is growing inexorably: "As a business we've experienced a 70pc year-on-year growth since we launched and in an independent survey we commissioned recently, more than 44pc of people said they would turn to the sharing economy to make affordable travel plans."
Cork native Rachel McMullen works remotely for an Australian online university, and certainly clocked up the air miles in 2016, house-sitting in Canada, Virginia Beach and the UK. "It was my mum who originally came across the website," she recalls. "I was looking to move to Edinburgh in early 2014 and was researching different accommodation options. When we read about house-sitting, the idea really clicked with me and I grabbed hold of the opportunity to travel the world in a unique and holistic way, and of course, the chance to look after some very cute pets!
"Now that I'm able to travel while working from home, house-sitting has totally refreshed and revamped my idea of travel. The opportunity to stay in a residential home - not a hotel, or a hostel - really does give you the feeling of living like a local, wherever you may be.
"Financially, the 'no money exchanged' model has worked a treat, and the money I have saved in rent has instead been fed back into my travel plans," she adds. "I've been on easily more than 40 flights over the last two years. Also, house-sitting gives you the chance to forge real connections with the homeowners, and I have made lifelong friendships with several of the wonderful people I have had the pleasure to house-sit for."
In exchange for a free house, Rachel manages the day-to-day running of the homes, and often looks after house pets.
"It's a responsibility that should not be taken lightly," she says. "In fact, I have only ever applied for house-sits with animals as, working from home is a bit isolated anyway and I would find the experience a bit lonesome otherwise.
"One of my very favourite house-sitting experiences was my first ever house-sit in January 2015 - it was on a beautiful old mill in Somerset, where I had the pleasure of looking after four miniature donkeys, three alpacas, two dogs, a flurry of chickens and one very loud and narcissistic cockerel."
Currently enjoying life down in Perth, travel bloggers Brian Barry, from Cork, and Noelle Kelly, from Tipperary (both blog at WanderingOn.com) encountered the TrustedHousesitters website while living in South Korea in 2010.
"We rang in 2016 watching the sunset on Mount Cook in New Zealand during a three-month road-trip through the two islands, including a house-sit in Christchurch," says Barry. "After a short trip home to Ireland, we took a trip to the Scottish Highlands before visiting the Netherlands. From there it was back to Asia with South Korea being our first stop, for a month-long house-sit just outside of the capital. We explored Kuala Lumpur for a few days and then it was on to Australia, where we have been travelling, working and house-sitting our way around the country since July.
"Travelling slowly and spending as much time as possible in places has always been a major focus of our travels," he adds. "House-sitting appealed to us in a massive way as it gives us the opportunity to do just that. Being able to spend more time in a place, live in a local's home and experience a more 'normal' existence in a new location gives you an entirely new perspective."
Fringe benefits aplenty for travellers, certainly… but what's in it for property owners, who could ostensibly make money from sites like Airbnb?
Pastry chef Autumn Duncan (originally from Ohio) and her husband Ian Dempsey (from Kerry) have a beautiful spacious property in Ranelagh, one of the priciest neighbourhoods in the country. After adopting a puppy, both felt that house-sitting was the best option for them when it came to travelling.
"My husband and I had a lengthy trip coming up, and I didn't want to leave (the puppy) with a kennel for two weeks at such a young age, so a house-sitter was the ideal solution," explains Autumn.
"Ideally, a house-sitter is someone who will treat our home with the same respect that we do," she adds. "For us, the top priority is working with a house-sitter who we trust to care for our puppy, and will keep her safe and happy. We also appreciate a house-sitter who is willing to look after our houseplants and the plants in our garden."
Thus far, neither Autumn, Brian nor Rachel say they have encountered any issues or problems with the arrangement.
"I would advise anyone considering inviting a house-sitter into their home to do research and ask a lot of questions," says Autumn.
"Depending on the needs of the house/pets, sometimes a house-sitter who doesn't have a desire to be out doing a lot of sightseeing can be the best option."
Barry, too, has advice for those taking up house-sitting: "If you're just starting out, put some time into writing your profile and be sure to get some references before applying for house-sits," he says.
"It can take some time before you secure your first gig, so be patient and as flexible as possible. After that, the possibilities are endless."