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How to Score Free Stays Abroad

The beautiful house where we stayed during our month in Lyon, France

Last summer I had an amazing time house-sitting in France with my daughter – first in Lyon for a month, then in Paris for three weeks. Since our return, a few people have asked how I was able to do that. Did my job pay for it? (No, but I did some work while I was there.) Did I stay at friends’ homes? (No, but I didn’t have to pay for lodging either.) Did I suddenly win the lottery and used the money to travel the world? (I wish!)

The truth is that France was the last thing in my mind when I decided to get away for the summer. That was, of course, until I realized I could stay there for FREE all summer. Say, what? Yes! We stayed in beautiful French homes for free throughout our time there, simply taking care of families’ pets and gardens while they traveled to other places during their summer holidays.

So How Exactly Do You Do That?

One of the nice things of being “my own boss” as an independent PR consultant, content writer, and advisor for my mother’s travel business is that I’ve been able to enjoy a certain degree of flexibility in terms of where I choose to work from.

After spending the first half of the year living a digital nomad lifestyle in Mexico’s Mayan Riviera, it became clear that the Caribbean’s hot and extremely humid summer temperatures would be hard to bear for both June and me.

As I started looking into the possibility of heading back to California for an equally hot but less humid summer, I came across an online article that talked about house-sitting. I was instantly hooked!

In case you’re new to the concept, house-sitting is a way to connect world travelers with homeowners who are willing to let them stay for free at their residences in exchange for looking after their beloved pets and homes while they are away on vacation. This might also include carrying out housekeeping tasks like gardening, pool cleaning, and even caring for farm animals!

There are different online platforms that allow free browsing for house-sits. In order to apply for stays, most sites require paying a membership fee that can range from $20 to $119 USD. Creating an online profile that includes proof of identity and residence verification is another common requirement.

I first tried Trusted Housesitters, one of the largest and most established house-sitting sites with a wide array of international homes to choose from. However, I found our house-sits though Nomador, a French site with an English version and plenty of properties throughout Europe. Unlike other sites, Nomador allows you to apply for up to three home-sits without paying the membership fee, which is how I ended looking at places in France.

Once my profile was verified and approved (this took a couple of days), I was able to apply for house-sits that seemed a good fit. I found that sharing a bit about myself and what I was looking for helped get more responses to my applications. I also asked a bunch of questions about the property, such as accessibility, nearby services, what was required and expected from me during the stay, what was included, etc. This helped filter a few properties that wouldn't have been great traveling with my child.

After agreeing on travel dates and initial logistics using the Nomador site's online platform, I scheduled Skype calls with each host. I would definitely recommend doing this to anyone considering house-sitting!

Finally, there was a contract to sign (typically provided by the site used) and a Home Book or Manual detailing useful information such as WIFI access, trash days, emergency contact information, veterinary information for the family’s pets, local stores and services, public transportation, etc.

We were ready to go!

Our Lyon House-Sitting Experience

Before I started browsing homes on Nomador, I didn't know anything about Lyon – France’s second-largest city which, to my surprise, doesn’t get as much publicity as it should! (I wrote about our lovely Lyon experience here: Discovering Lyon with Kids, Exploring Vieux-Lyon and Its Traboules, and Eating in Lyon).

After finding a wide array of options available for home-sitting in Lyon, I decided to apply for a few stays in July. My first response arrived almost immediately: an invitation to care for a loving French bulldog called Gunther, and his somewhat shy cat buddy, Skylos, while their owners traveled to Rome for a week from June 29 to July 5.

The residence was a two-bedroom apartment situated in one of Lyon’s most charming neighborhoods, Croix Rousse, at the top of a hill overlooking the city and providing magnificent views just steps away from our door. The neighborhood is well connected to the rest of the city through public transportation, including a Metro station a few blocks away. We also had the benefit of a daily farmers’ market two blocks from the apartment. We absolutely loved our one-week stay with Gunther and Skylos, which gave us a great opportunity to explore a very walkable area as we started settling into life in France.

Our second home-sitting in Lyon sounded almost too perfect, starting exactly on July 5 through July 26. The house featured four bedrooms (one of them a children’s playroom!), a large living area with an open kitchen, and a huge garden with fruit trees, plenty of flowers, a set of swings and a trampoline.

The original post said it was 2 km. from the city’s center, easily accessible via public transportation, in a suburb called La Mulatière. Our job would be to look after the family’s two albino cats, Olaf and Opal, and keep the garden alive and thriving despite the hot temperatures expected during the summer.

Booking the house took a little more effort. After the initial messages over the Nomador platform (which works great, by the way!) and an introductory Skype call, we started communicating via email. This resulted in a few of our hosts’ messages getting miscategorized as junk and sent to my spam folder where I didn’t see them for weeks. It almost cost us the stay, which would have been tragic as I had already booked our flights by then. In the end, it all worked out. The lesson learned: always make sure your new contacts are added to your “Safe” email list to avoid missed emails!

Our three-week stay at the house in La Mulatière was pretty good. Watering the garden and plants became a daily meditative time for me. Up until then, I didn’t know I could enjoy gardening so much – and that the plants under my care could actually survive!

On the downside, the location would have been great with a car, but not having one meant hour-long roundtrip walks to the closest grocery store, having to drag the packed cart uphill on the way back. This was especially tough on a few really hot summer days we had while in Lyon. I also had to rely more on Uber rides than I wanted to since the only bus that could take us all the way into the closest Metro station (a 30-min. ride) wasn’t always on time or reliable. This created a bit of a challenge when planning our days out and about, but nothing that we couldn’t handle.

In the end, our two home-sits in Lyon offered us a full month of free lodging, giving us plenty of time to explore the city at our own pace, make friends and live like the locals. I absolutely loved the experience. I can honestly say that both June and I fell in love with Lyon!

From there, it was time to travel up to Paris…

Home-sitting in Paris

I’ll be forever grateful for the wonderful gift of finding a three-week home-sit in Paris. The moment we stepped out of Paris’ Gare de Lyon train station it was clear that our experience would be very different from our time in Lyon, and I felt extremely excited about it.

Being raised in Mexico City and having spent a good amount of my adult life in Los Angeles, I have a special affinity for big cities. The hustle and bustle that comes with them immediately makes me feel at home.

I’d been to Paris before, but never like this, having the luxury of time at my hands to do as we wished for three whole weeks!

Our cute Parisian home was a two-bedroom apartment located in the 12th arrondissement, a few blocks away from the Bois de Vincennes and its impressive castle, the 14th-century Chateau de Vincennes.

It came with the biggest and fuzziest cat I’ve ever seen, Bobun, who wasn’t necessarily thrilled to be left home alone but eventually warmed up to us.

Literally right outside our door, bus 87 started its route all the way up to Les Invalides in the 7th arrondissement. And the Michel Bizot metro station was only a 5-min walk from us, easily connecting us with the rest of the city.

In the days that followed our arrival to Paris, we became quickly familiar with the metro system and used it frequently to explore its different neighborhoods and landmarks. This slow travel experience was perfect for us, allowing us to also take some days off to recoup from all the walking around the city and avoid the dreaded "travel burnout" (I wrote about this in another blog post, How to Avoid Travel Burnout).

Why I Loved Home-Sitting

I wouldn’t say that home-sitting is for everyone. It definitely requires a certain degree of flexibility and adaptability. Also, it’s not like staying at a hotel, where you get your room cleaned every day, have the option of ordering room service at odd hours, and there’s always assistance should you have a special request.

On the other hand, these are a few things you don’t usually get with a hotel stay but that were part of our home-sitting experience:

  1. Having the option to slow travel. Being able to stay for a longer period of time in a single place allowed us to explore each city at our own pace and take breaks whenever we needed to

  2. Living like a local. If you ask me, this is one of the best ways to truly experience a new place. Having the option to walk to the local boulangerie for our daily croissants and pain au chocolat, for example, is one of those special treats I still miss!

  3. Cooking our own meals. This was key for us since my goal for the whole trip was not to spend any more money than I would have back home. Yes, we went out some times and enjoyed some great meals, but most of the time we ate breakfast and dinner at home and often packed a lunch and snacks to take with us during our daily escapades

  4. Having space. Hotel rooms can feel limiting after a few days, especially when traveling with kids. June appreciated having space to play and relax while I liked having my own space to get my work done

  5. Pets! Both June and I love animals, and being around them during our time abroad was good for our hearts and souls

  6. It’s free! Let’s be honest, lodging tends to be one of the biggest expenses when traveling. Nothing beats free housing, even if it implies a little bit of work caring for furry friends left behind or tending to the family’s garden

How to Make the Best of a Home-sitting Experience

This being our first home-sitting experience, I learned a few important things to take into account when planning a home-sit.

  1. Research first. Even though I took the time to research the places we were visiting, I’ll admit that the house in La Mulatière presented a few more challenges than I was expecting, mostly having to do with transportation and access going into the city. In the end, it all worked out, but there were a few times I felt frustrated and somewhat isolated. My recommendation: Figure out the exact location and research access options before committing to a house-sit. Ask as many questions as you need to until you feel you know everything you need to know about the place.

  2. Communication is key. I almost lost a house-sit because I missed several emails that went into my spam folder. Make sure you add your hosts’ emails to your contacts list and have several ways of contacting them at all times. A popular app used outside the U.S. to communicate free of charge is What’s App. I used it to send regular updates and photos of their beloved pets to our hosts. They truly appreciated this!

  3. Figure out transportation. The first days in a new city are always a bit weird, not quite knowing your way around and feeling perhaps a bit of apprehension about public transportation. Using public transportation in both Lyon and Paris was mostly easy and convenient. While printed maps are still useful, I found using Moovit extremely practical when planning trips around town. This public transit app allows you to calculate the best routes and times to get from Point A to Point B in many major cities around the world, including options like public buses, subway lines, train lines, and even Uber rides.

  4. Be open to new things. No home-sit is the same as the previous one. Each place comes with its own special features and, some, with its own challenges. Keeping a good attitude and being open to new things is key.

Disclaimer: This blog post contains affiliate links to certain products. I may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. However, this does not impact the reviews and recommendations I provide here. All opinions are mine.


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