Queensland couple Neil McLean and Gai Reid journeyed to Europe to enjoy some authentic travel, ‘living like locals’. The result? They spent 300 days pet- and house-sitting their way across four countries, spending less than it would cost them to live at home. Plus they started a new business, Village to Villa – and even made a TV series about it!
When we set off on a year-long, four-country pet- and house-siting journey, we started at home in Australia. That made us confident about the next phase. We spent most of the next year in France, UK and Italy, travelling some 30,000km by air and 36,000km by car. Along the way we picked up a lot of helpful tips for a smooth journey. If you’re new to pet- and house-sitting or if you’re already a fan, we hope you can take away some tips that will enhance your time at your various destinations.
The time of the year when you visit can make a big difference to your experience. If you’re used to cold climates, you may want to go to a warmer region and vice versa. Many sits may be booked months before the actual scheduled time, so do your homework on this one. Another thing is to pay attention to is the time of the local tourist season and will there be any major events taking place nearby?
This is crucial in the decision-making process: only apply for sits that involve animals you know you can manage. These animals will be relying on you for their well-being, and their anxious owners need to know that their precious pets are being well looked after. We avoided farm animals and reptiles! The number of animals and how much exercise they need is also important.
Example: In our truly magnificent location in the Cotswolds (UK) there were three cats, who pretty much came and went at their leisure, but there were also two large black labradors – wonderfully entertaining, boisterous and enthusiastic. We adored them. The challenge was giving them the exercise and play they were used to enjoying. Also, at times their physical strength could be overwhelming.
Choose your house- and pet-sitting options carefully to maximise your time, either relaxing or exploring your new region.
Example: In Scotland we looked after a large modern home that came complete with gardener and cleaner. All we had to do was enjoy the home and care for a sweet old cat. Bekky was a delight to be around and we encouraged her cuddles. Easy job! It allowed us time to leave the property and explore the amazing scenery and history of the region.
Try to arrive a day early to get to know the owners and the animals. On the day the owners are scheduled to take off they’re usually excited and keen to get going. Also, they want to cause their pets the least stress, so they tend to get away as soon as possible. This leaves little time for the ‘handover’. Getting there several hours early or the day before gives you an opportunity to see how the house ‘works’ – and get to know everyone over a meal. We always take a bottle of red and one of white!
Some owners are extremely organised, with a folder of information. Others will get caught up in the excitement of it all and simply forget to tell you key information. Make sure you get things such as emergency contacts, the contact details for the local vet, feeding instructions for the animals and other useful things like the locations of the best restaurants, banks, post office and medical facilities. A guide book can be your best friend! As a further safeguard, when the owner is explaining how the property runs, use your phone video to record key instructions.
The owners’ number-one priority is usually their animals. Many view their pets as ‘family’ and treat them like that. In a lot of cases, the animals get the ‘run’ of the house, which means they’re used to doing whatever they do, including sleeping on furniture, by the fire and hanging around the kitchen during meal preparation.
Example: If pets are mostly ‘inside’ dogs or cats, they will often sleep on the bed with the owners. If you’re used to this as a pet owner yourself, it will be smooth sailing. However, if you’re not up for this, it can cause some stress for the animals… and you, too! The key is to find out by asking the question… where do the animals sleep?
Understand the ‘routine’ of the animals and stick with it. This is probably the key to having a great house- and pet-sitting experience. Just like some children, when the ‘boss’ is away the animals tend to push the boundaries a bit to see what they can get away with!
It’s a great idea to ask the owner to notify their friends, neighbours and relatives that you’ll be holding the fort for a while.
Example: In Italy, the owners tapped us in to their network of friends and people who do work at their property. We were invited to a big dinner celebration; to pick olives at a family farm; to go truffle hunting with experts. We met some fabulous people who have since become friends. It can also be handy when something goes wrong – like the hot water stops working or the central heating goes cold. A list of names and numbers of people who can come running when you need them is gold.
Being responsible for a home (often a large one), property and animals can weigh heavily on you at times. Never take on more than you know you can handle easily. Go with the flow of it all and view it as a valuable experience.
To read more about Neil and Gai's adventures in global house-sitting, keep an eye out for their ‘Living like locals’ blog, with a new story featuring on Travel at 60 – and a new video on Youtube – every week. They also made a series about their time in Europe, called Village to Villa… Living like Locals, which you can see on Amazon Prime.