I am a home nanny and I am staying in amazing places around the world for free

My partner Nick and I spent last Easter on a farm in a Cotswolds village. We read books, ate dinner on the terrace and went for long walks along the paths between canary yellow fields of rapeseed. With aga, original artwork and a bathroom with a tub on legs, renting this limestone mansion would cost thousands – especially on Easter holidays. However, we stayed for free in exchange for taking care of the owners’ cocker spaniels, a long-haired cat and a baby hamster, and the family went skiing in the Alps.

We made this amazing breakthrough with Trusted Housesitters, a website that matches owners with carers around the world (£99 per year membership). House Sitters UK offers a similar service but only covers that country (£29 a year). No wonder, given the state of the economy, companies offering housesitting services are booming this year. Trusted House Sitters saw a 130% increase in new members compared to 2019, with owners submitting more than twice as many applications for UK sitters.

We discovered Trusted Housesitters in the summer of 2013 when Nick quit his job and we decided to leave our London flat and travel for a while. We were short of money, so we had to get creative and decided to try working from home. Creating a profile detailing our experiences around animals, gardening and home, we posted it along with vibrant photos of us among poppies in Italy and kept our fingers crossed.

We didn’t have to wait long. We were soon contacted by Rachel and Frank, who were desperate to take a break from their small farm in County Wicklow, Ireland (and perhaps were persuaded by my time as a jillaroo at a sheep station in Australia). We were greeted by excited shepherd dogs and introduced them to the hens, ducks (who laid fresh eggs each morning), tame sheep and a tabby cat named Bruiser. Sunny days were spent with the dogs – picking greasy blackberries, walking in the Wicklow Mountains and swimming with seals in Clogga Bay. We were addicted and realized that taking care of the house could help us travel on a budget.

The premises included a three-story townhouse in London and a lakeside plot in Montreux, Switzerland, and we ended the year away by caring for two Labrador crosses in a farmhouse on the Isle of Lewis. It was a magical trip: we explored the atmospheric standing stones of Calanais, picnicked on wild beaches where the Vikings once landed (and where we witnessed ravens eating a whale carcass) and watched porpoises leap from the glassy sea.

While caring for a cat in London, we were invited to dinner by the lady next door – and the next spring we sat with her eyes wide open

Almost a decade later, we’re still taking care of the house. Nick has retrained as a teacher and during the school holidays, when accommodation is at its most expensive (and the need for babysitters is greatest), we help in the UK and sometimes abroad. While getting free vacation accommodation is reason enough to do so, housesitting has other advantages. It’s fun to spend time with different animals while enjoying all the comforts of a home away from home. You can also meet your neighbors – even in London. One August, while looking after a cat in Golders Green, we were invited to dinner by a neighbor (a fascinating literary agent), and the following spring we sat with her eyes wide open.

Exploring what is at your fingertips can lead to amazing travel experiences. For example, when we stayed on a small farm in Sussex and discovered Knepp’s rewilding project. During the visit, we spotted stork chicks in their nests in the oaks and the rare purple imperial butterfly, and also helped ourselves to a bottle of sparkling wine from the estate.

We did weekends and monthly periods and looked after the pets, from a budgerigar to an adorable pair of rescue donkeys, but mostly dogs and cats. With the constant appearance of attractive profiles on the internet, homecare can become addictive. I can still hear the buzz when we get a free stay in an amazing place. One was a 12-bedroom Edwardian mansion in Devon, with three golden scribbles to play in a wooded area. It’s also a wedding venue and we slept in the Romantic Honeymoon Suite for three weeks.

Caring for a home is no ordinary holiday, however, as caring for pets and country houses can be demanding. In rare cases, home care is just that, but usually the main focus is pet care – and most owners like to be informed about their pets’ welfare. And of course, dogs get into trouble (like a terrier who swallowed a bandage on his sore leg), cats die (and luckily are found meowing on the roof), and some animals get in trouble – like a rescue dog that spins around every time when a car passed by. It’s also a competition – to earn five-star reviews (the gateway to the best places), you’ll need to care for your family pets as if they were your own, and take it a step further. Our hosts return to a spotless home with flowers and thanks and a home cooked meal in the fridge.

With a stronger desire to escape the great smoke after the pandemic, we have made five houses this year alone. In order to save more pennies, we chose places a few hours away by car or train from our flat in London. What I enjoyed the most was 10 days with two black cats in a stone cottage straight from the movie Holiday, on a private estate near Marlborough in Wiltshire. We were accompanied not only by cats, galloping horses and red kites circling overhead, but also by a neighbor who took me to crop circles and taught me how to make crab and apple jelly.

People talk about enjoying a home away from home, but this way we can pack something that is usually bigger, smarter, prettier or in a nicer location than our own home – all without paying a dime.

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