I am a housekeeper, living for free in amazing places all over the world | Budget travel

MMy partner Nick and I spent last Easter at a farmhouse in a village in the Cotswolds. We read books, enjoyed lunches on the terrace and went for long walks along footpaths between the canary yellow rapeseed fields. With an Aga, original artwork and an en-suite bathroom with a clawfoot tub, this limestone mansion would have cost thousands to rent – especially over the Easter holidays. But we stayed for free, in exchange for looking after the owners’ friendly cocker spaniels, a long-haired cat and the children’s hamster, while the family went skiing in the Alps.

We got this amazing breakthrough through Trusted Housesitters, a website that matches owners with sitters all over the world (membership £99 for a year). House Sitters UK offers a similar service but only covers this country (£29 a year). Unsurprisingly given the state of the economy, companies offering housesitting services are reporting a boom this year. Trusted House Sitters has seen a 130% increase in new members compared to 2019, with owners placing more than double the number of requests for UK sitters.

We discovered Trusted Housesitters in the summer of 2013, when Nick quit his job and we decided to leave our flat in London and travel for a while. Money was tight, so we needed to be creative, and decided to try domestic help. After creating a profile detailing our animal, garden and house experience, we posted it along with lively photos of us among the poppies in Italy, and crossed our fingers.

Nick and Nicki have lunch on the terrace in Wicklow, Ireland.
Nick and Nicki have lunch on the terrace in Wicklow, Ireland. Photo: Courtesy of Nicki Grinhault

We didn’t have to wait long. We were soon contacted by Rachel and Frank, who were desperate for a break from their small farm in County Wicklow, Ireland (and perhaps persuaded by my stint as a jillaroo on a sheep station in Australia). We were greeted by excited sheepdogs, and introduced to their chickens, ducks (which produced fresh eggs every morning), pet sheep and a tabby cat called Bruiser. Sunny days were spent with the dogs – picking fat blackberries, hiking the Wicklow mountains and swimming among seals in Clogga Cove. We were hooked and realized that maids could help us travel on a budget.

Sits have included a three-storey terraced house in London and a lakeside beach in Montreux, Switzerland, and we ended the year caring for two Labrador crosses in a house on the Isle of Lewis. It was a magical trip: we explored the atmospheric standing rocks of Calanais, picnicked on wild beaches where the Vikings once landed (and where we witnessed a whale carcass being eaten by ravens) and watched porpoises jump out of a glassy sea.

Almost a decade later, we are still in the house. Nick retrained as a teacher and we sit in the UK, and sometimes abroad, during the school holidays, when accommodation is most expensive (and the need for house sitters highest). While that’s reason enough to get free holiday accommodation, housesitting has other benefits. It’s fun to spend time with different animals, with all the comforts of a home away from home. You can also get to know your neighbors – even in London. When we were looking after a cat in Golders Green one August, we were invited to dinner by the lady next door (a fascinating literary agent), and ended up putting the wide-eyed kitten with her the following spring.

Exploring what’s on your doorstep can lead to some amazing travel experiences. Like the time we lived on a small farm in Sussex and discovered the Knepp rewilding project. On one visit, we saw baby storks in nests in the oak trees and the rare purple emperor butterfly, and treated ourselves to a bottle of the estate’s sparkling wine.

Nicki attends the Montreux Jazz Festival while sitting in a cabin on the shores of Lake Geneva.
Nicki attends the Montreux Jazz Festival while sitting in a cabin on the shores of Lake Geneva. Photo: [email protected]/Nick Luft

We’ve done weekend and month-long stints, looking after pets from a budgie to an adorable pair of rescue donkeys, but mostly dogs and cats. With constantly attractive profiles online, domestic help can become addictive. I still get a buzz when we land a free stay in an incredible place. One such was a 12-bedroom Edwardian manor house in Devon, with three golden doodles to play with in the wooded grounds. It is also a wedding venue and we slept in the romantic bridal suite for three weeks.

However, housesitting is no ordinary holiday, as looking after pets and country mansions can be demanding. On rare occasions, house sitting is just that, but usually the main focus is pet walking – and most owners like to be kept informed about their pets’ welfare. And of course dogs get scratched (like the terrier puppy who swallowed the bandage on his bad leg), cats go missing (and thankfully are found, meowing on top of a roof) and some animals have problems – like e.g. rescue dog who spun on the spot every time a car drove by. It’s also competitive – to get five-star reviews (a gateway to the best positions) you need to look after your family pets as if they were your own and go the extra mile. Our hosts return to an immaculate home with flowers and a thank you card, and a home cooked meal in the fridge.

With a stronger desire to get away from the big smoke after the pandemic, we have clocked up five house places this year alone. To save several kroner, we chose places a couple of hours’ drive or train ride from our apartment in London. The one I loved most was 10 days with two black cats in a stone cottage straight out of the movie The Holiday, on a private estate near Marlborough in Wiltshire. Not only did we have cats for company, galloping horses and red kites circling overhead, but a neighbor who took me to see a crop circle and taught me how to make crab apple jelly.

People talk about enjoying a home away from home, but this way we can bag somewhere that is usually bigger, smarter, prettier or in a better location than our own home – and all without paying a cent.

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