Want 2023 travel savings? Walk, feed, and pet a stranger’s dog.

Would you pay to live in a stranger’s house and take care of their pet?

Since TrustedHousesitters was founded in 2010, that’s been the idea behind the site: for the price of an annual membership (which starts at $129), you can apply for unlimited “house sits” around the world.

Users don’t get paid for pet sitting beyond the free place to stay, but the membership pays off quickly, especially if you think of the sits as a way to skirt the cost of Airbnbs, hotels or even rent. Videos boasting some of the site’s opportunities, like a week-long stay at a hunting lodge in Scotland or a chicken-and-dog-watching gig in the south of France, are popular among viewers who are dreaming of cutting travel costs.

I signed up for the first time by making a sort of dual account with my partner, who’d be traveling with me, which is a common practice of the site’s more than 120,000 users.

The process of setting up a profile is similar to using any social media or dating app: you can add photos, information on yourself and your pet-sitting experience, and info about any humans or pets you’d be traveling with. You’re also asked to complete a free background check (which was approved for me in less than an hour) and encouraged to add references.

At first, we entertained some of the more eccentric sits, like watching two senior miniature horses in Mendocino, Calif.; caring for two turtles and 10 rabbits in Wollongong, Australia; or hanging out with one dog, one cat and four sheep in a renovated shuttle bus in the woods of Kalaheo, Hawaii. (Occasionally, the site has house sits posted where there are no pets to care for — the requested tasks might include raking leaves or collecting mail.)

Thinking more realistically, we applied to watch two large dogs, named Bodhi and Echo, in West Seattle.

We quickly got a response from their owner, Alisa Oberg, and set up a FaceTime call, where we chatted about both dogs’ quirks and got a rundown of our responsibilities. By the end of the call, it was clear that we were a good match and Oberg said that she’d send the formal invitation for the three-night sit and follow up with more information.

Bodhi, left, and Echo relaxing in the backyard.

(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

The actual process felt similar to housesitting for a friend, as we coordinated arrival and departure times around our travel plans and exchanged phone numbers. When we arrived, Oberg and her partner, Kyle, introduced us to both dogs and walked us through what we’d need to know about their care or the house. They left us a detailed guide book as well, with emergency numbers and detailed instructions about feeding and exercising each dog.

Echo, their incredibly mellow Siberian husky, was slower to warm up to us, but Bodhi, his hyper and lanky brother, was immediately comfortable invading our space.

As questions and cute photos came up, Oberg was quick to reply. When it was pouring out and we asked about umbrellas, she even said we could borrow their raincoats for our long walks with the dogs.

Of course, big dogs can take a lot of effort to tire out, so that did make parts of the trip feel a bit less like a vacation and more like a babysitting job. We had to plan a bit around their schedules, coming home between sightseeing to ensure that the pets wouldn’t get too restless at home alone. But the effort of caring for Bodhi and Echo was no surprise, and considering the money we saved on an Airbnb or a hotel, it was more than worth a bit of planning. And for us, having dogs to cuddle with on our trip was certainly an added bonus.

Echo on our morning hike to get coffee (and a dog treat).

(Julia Carmel / Los Angeles Times)

Jori Kerr, 23, and Austin Andrews, 27, started using TrustedHousesitters in November 2021 as a way to make international travel more affordable and attainable. Both natives of Oregon, they started building up their profile with reviews from local housesits before heading abroad.

“We got turned down a lot in the beginning because we were new to the platform, and it can be a bit competitive when you first start out,” Kerr said.

“So once we learned that it was the right fit for us, we decided to expand into international sits,” Andrews added. “And since we had reviews, and had the [pet-sitting] credentials, and COVID restrictions easing up in most of the world, it was more likely that we were going to get accepted.”

Now, Kerr and Andrews regularly post videos about their experiences housesitting on their Instagram and TikTok accounts. “Be reliable, have great communication, be flexible, be clean and tidy,” they suggest in one video where they list tips for getting good reviews.

Some animal lovers, including Danielle LaFleur, 32, and Brodin Ramsey, 30, have even taken to using TrustedHousesitters for year-round housing.

“We’ve watched emus, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens, but dogs are the main ones,” LaFleur said. “We’ve done a saltwater aquarium, so really whatever is available, we’re open to.”

Though LaFleur and Ramsey have technically been based in San Diego for the last six years, they started traveling full-time in June 2021 after their jobs both went remote. With no permanent home to maintain or rent to pay, they try to line up house sits and book places to stay during any gaps.

They now have a mail forwarding system — which allows for them to use a permanent address and receive mail on the move — and even bring their own dog, Chia, along on their adventures. This has prompted them to come up with a list of nearly 30 questions that they ask, mainly about the dogs’ behaviors, when they’re doing a video interview for any house sit.

Hopping between these different house sits also ends up saving them a good amount of rent money. “We get to live in houses instead of a tiny studio in San Diego,” LeFleur said. “We just had a sit in Seattle and it was literally a waterfront house with a hot tub, and you walk off the back deck, and the stairs went down to the beach, and they had kayaks and paddle boards.”

They added that renting a place like that for a few weeks would’ve likely cost them thousands of dollars. The opportunities on Trusted Housesitters have also allowed them to check a few things off their bucket list. “When we were in the Canadian Rockies, up in Banff, we were there for five weeks,” Ramsey said. “Most people go to Banff for like, a week maximum, because it’s expensive, right? And we were lucky enough to be there for five weeks, we hiked every trail we could find.”

Grace Egan, 33, said that she has used Trusted Housesitters only about five times, but each time she’s enjoyed the warmth and friendliness that other users bring to the site.

“When I went to Chicago, I brought them some of my homemade tomato sauce, and they had baked us a loaf of sourdough bread,” she said. “It doesn’t feel as transactional as, like, Airbnb would. It feels more like you’re getting comfortable with people and you’re taking care of parts of their family.”

Kerr and Andrews, who are currently housesitting in Portugal, said that their ideal sits are usually two or three weeks long, since that allows them to get acclimated. They both suggested that new users get a feel for which stays are right for them and what pets they feel equipped to care for.

“I think something that a lot of people misunderstand is, they see the glamour side of travel pet-sitting and assume it’s going to be perfect and easy, and they’re just going to show up and the pet is going to be their best friend and the house is going to be super comfy,” Kerr said. “You have to be able to problem solve and work through issues and challenges, but then be very open to the possibilities that pet-sitting can bring.”

And by the end of our weekend with Bodhi and Echo, my partner and I realized that we’re not nearly outdoorsy or active enough to entertain most big dogs. After one last exhausting hike and another very long game of catch, we agreed that our next sit would be something far more sedentary — perhaps a cat or a lizard.

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