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House swaps and dog walks: Travellers find cheaper alternatives to lodging

New York City, US

Lillian Smith has spent about eight of the last 12 months traveling around the world, hitting France, Morocco, Japan and South Korea. Her cost for lodgings in that time? About one night in a hotel, along with the time she spent walking dogs, watering plants and changing litter boxes.  

“I have always dreamed of traveling to Japan but didn’t have the budget for hotels and Airbnbs,” said the 30-year-old freelance designer from Mississippi. Her solution was to agree to house-sit, walk dogs, and care for plants for people around the globe. 

A screen grab shows Lillian Smith, 30, from Mississippi, US, during a city tour at Wat Arun temple in Bangkok, Thailand, on 13th May, 2023

A screen grab shows Lillian Smith, 30, from Mississippi, US, during a city tour at Wat Arun temple in Bangkok, Thailand, on 13th May, 2023. PICTURE: Reuters/Jorge Silva

Economic activity has slowed in recent months, but many still yearn to quench their thirst for travel that grew out of sitting at home during the coronavirus pandemic. Travel rates are rising, and are now higher than before the pandemic, but travel-hungry consumers are finding creative ways to save money and still vacation.

Some are taking road trips instead of flying or booking a budget hotel room. Others are more innovative – spending $US100 to $US250 for annual memberships to websites that connect them with people who need simple chores done while their dwellings are vacant. 

US short-term rental and hotel average daily rates are about 37 per cent and 19 per cent higher than in April, 2019, according to short-term rental and hospitality analytics firms AirDNA and STR. 

Consumers are trading down. In April, demand for budget and economy short-term rentals was up 18 per cent and 12 per cent, respectively, compared with the year-ago period, ahead of a 10 per cent increase in demand for luxury rentals, AirDNA said.

Travelers in March booked 21 million short-term rental nights, the highest number of future nights booked on record, according to AirDNA. One-bedroom or studio in-home rentals in 2022 were 26 per cent and 10 per cent cheaper than hotels in large cities and coastal resorts, according to AirDNA and STR. 

As of March, US consumer spending on hotels and motels was up about 7.2 per cent from a year ago, but has dropped by about 4.6 per cent from December, 2022, according to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Vacations with chores
Smith said she has house-sat in France, Morocco, Japan and South Korea after spending $US169 on the cost of an annual membership to TrustedHousesitters, a platform that connects pet owners with in-home sitters. She estimates she has saved over $US11,000 in accommodations even though she still must pay for plane tickets. 

“I took care of three cats and 20-plus plants while I was in Morocco, one dog in Tokyo, one dog in Kobe, and two cats in South Korea,” said Smith. 

UK-based TrustedHousesitters said its membership figures increased 12 per cent to 160,000 in the past quarter, led by growth in the United States. 

Paris-based Nomador, a house-sitting platform, saw a 60 per cent increase in new sitters from the last quarter of 2022 to the first quarter of 2023, CEO Mathilde Ferrari said. 

Some travellers are also turning to unlimited house-swapping. US company HomeExchange said membership levels in the first quarter increased 77 per cent year over year to 110,000 and exchanges increased 63 per cent.

Lillian Smith, 30, from Mississippi, US, works on her laptop, in an apartment she is house-sitting, on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand , on 13th May, 2023.

Lillian Smith, 30, from Mississippi, US, works on her laptop, in an apartment she is house-sitting, on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, on 13th May, 2023. PICTURE: Reuters/Jorge Silva

TrustedHousesitters said its sitters rarely face immigration issues. However, a spokesman for the UK Home Office saidhouse-sitting in the United Kingdom is considered a form of work and not permitted with a tourist visa.

“As long as the homeowner is not requiring work and compensating specifically for that work, it cannot be construed as unauthorised employment under the Immigration Nationality Act,” said New York-based immigration Attorney, Afia Yunus.

“Arguably even an Airbnb would require us to take out the trash and do different things as they relate to staying in the home.”

TrustedHousesitters said sitters and homeowners pay the platform directly and that money is never exchanged between the two parties. 

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More travellers on a budget
US travel companies have taken notice, beefing up economy-level options to draw in growing numbers of cost-conscious travelers. 

Hotel operator Hilton in January announced a new economy hotel brand, Spark, aimed at budget travelers and told investors in April it was working on a lower-end extended stay brand. The goal is to attract the roughly 70 to 80 million people who travel in the economy segment, half of whom are “younger people” who can only afford lower priced hotels. 

“We’re not serving many of them,” said Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta, on an investor call in April. “The opportunity is for us to get them hooked on our system early by giving them the best product that they can find in the economy space.” 

Travel strategist Toni McCord, 52, started house-sitting on Nomador in 2016 and now suggests the platform to her clients who are self-employed or work remotely. 

“People are feeling very limited in their abilities to travel because we’re in a recessive economy but when I bring up house-sitting, they’re like ‘Wait a minute, I didn’t realise that I could do something like that.'”

Correction: This story has been corrected to show that housesitting in the UK is not permitted with a tourist visa, according to a government spokesperson


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