I am at the Dublin airport awaiting a flight home after two weeks of travel. If you’re wondering how a woman on a fixed income, who runs a cat sanctuary in her day-to-day life, could afford such a trip, keep reading. I am excited to tell you how I have been able to travel the world for free, my only expense being my plane tickets. If you’re interested, settle in for a short read! Okay… a long read. (I’m a former English teacher and can be a bit wordy.)
I just completed a pet sit in Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire for a sweet orange cat named Weasel. The homeowners saved me a bundle in nightly hotel bills. I arrived at a stocked home, with a washing machine and dryer, a full kitchen, a cozy bedroom, and an adorable home located within a short distance of all the attractions of Oxford. They even left me Easter chocolates and wine! And it was all free. In return, Weasel’s parents did not have to pay a thing for me to come and stay. They got free pet care, and I got free lodging. It was a win-win!
First the technical stuff: in order to join the site, you have to clear a background check. You also have to provide references. Once you are accepted, the yearly fee is $100. (This more than pays for itself when you factor in the costs of lodging and/or the cost of a pet sitter.) It sounds cumbersome, but they make the process easy. So, let me tell you all about where I have been so far. Most of my trips were pre-COVID. (I slowed way down once COVID hit, and that is what motivated me to start Cat Trap Fever!) But now that things are returning somewhat to normal, and now that some of my retirement money from my two decades as a teacher has arrived, I am ready to get back out there!
So, let’s start. My first experience with this site was in 2015 in a small village called Peebles in Scotland. The pup was named Isla, and her mom, an 88-year-old woman named Moira, needed to travel to see family. I stayed in her home with Isla while she was away. My favorite memory from this sit? Happy Hour down at the local pub, where dogs were allowed. The locals would carry dog biscuits in their pockets for all the regular pups. Isla and I went most nights around 4 pm to enjoy a pint of Guinness. Moira also introduced me to her kind neighbors before she left. They invited me, with Isla in tow, for a weekend tour of the Scottish Highlands. They gave me a tent to share with Isla. We explored abandoned castles and cottages. It was an unforgettable experience.
The next pet sit I did was in Bologna, Italy for a little cat named Cheeta. My favorite thing was hearing people down on the street, especially the little kids, yelling up to the balcony window, “Ciao, Gatto!” (meaning Hello Kitty!) as they walked by. This was in the summer of 2017 and Italy was experiencing an intense heat wave. It reached 108 degrees while I was there. (In this medieval city, air conditioning was non-existent.) So, I froze bottles of water during the day. At night, I would place the frozen bottles in front of a fan and Cheeta and I would point it in our direction. It actually did a pretty good job of making us comfortable as we drifted off to sleep to the sound of locals walking home from the bistro. I spent two weeks with Cheeta in Bologna and we became fast friends. I couldn’t wait to get back ‘home’ to her after an afternoon of sightseeing.
My next petsit was for Brewster and Louis, two handsome cat boys who lived in a lovely brownstone in Brooklyn, New York. It was Christmas time in New York, so I was able to do all the seasonal things, (like the Rockefeller Tree, bonfires at Bryant Park, and shows at Radio City Music Hall,) but I didn’t have to pay the steep price of a hotel at the holiday season. I saved myself hundreds of dollars. And, I got to come home to a cozy home, cuddle with two cats, and enjoy hot cocoa on the couch in front of their Christmas tree.
Soon, I decided to head back overseas. I visited Beckenham, a suburb of London known for David Bowie. At this pet sit, I was going to have the unique experience of sitting for a cat named Wiggy and a tortoise named Timmy. (The owners named Timmy before they realized she was actually about a 70-year-old grandmother, but the name stuck.) Wiggy and Timmy tolerated each other with only the occasional hisses or wops of the paw. Timmy was super easy to watch. All I had to do was feed him lettuce and grapes while making sure he didn’t roll over and get stuck upside down. Wiggy had a cat door to let him come and go and was quite content to roam the neighborhood until the local fox came around in the evening. A local cat, named One-Eye-Nelson came to visit every day. I loved seeing his little shadow when I would catch him peeking through the front door. The couple that owned this house invited me to come in a day early. They showed me the ropes, made me a home-cooked meal, left me a bottle of wine, and showed me my bathroom which was complete with the most amazing soaking tub. I was in heaven. All these wonderful things, and I had to do was find a cheap flight. I stayed here for two weeks and did not have to pay a thing for lodging.
Being a teacher had its perks, and a big one was having the summer off. After spending two weeks in Beckenham, I decided to jump from cats to dogs! (Yes, this cat lady loves dogs too.) Without returning to the States, I stayed on and picked up a dogsit for a dog named Griff; he lived in Canterbury, England. I stayed with Griff for a week and we were fast friends. I took him with me everywhere I went. (In the UK, and most of Europe, dogs are welcomed into pubs, stores, etc.) It was so nice to have my own furry little travel companion. We visited castles, taverns, and the famous Canterbury Cathedral. And the whole time, Griff was a very good boy. I met so many people who wanted to stop and pet him. My favorite part of this pet sit was the nightly meet-up in the local park where all the locals brought their dogs out to play. What a fun way to learn about a different culture and travel like a local. I decided I was having so much fun being overseas that I stayed on to do another sit, but this time I was boarding the high-speed Eurorail to head across France, Amsterdam, and into Belgium. So far I had been in the UK for several weeks and had not spent any money on lodging. Most of my dinners were cheap, as I ate at home, and my meager budget was going a long way.
Off to Belgium I went, and I was back to petsitting kitty-cats. Stella and Milou were two lovely Belgian cats that welcomed me into their home for a whole month! These two kitties lived in a lovely narrow home right in the heart of Antwerp, complete with a balcony that was just down from one of the main squares. In fact, Stella, Milou, and I spent many a night on that balcony listening to the locals cheer on Belgium in the World Cup which was being broadcast on a large screen right from the town square. What fun it was to watch all the fans walk by in their regalia of red and black, Stella and Milou peeking over the balcony to watch them pass. The courtyard of this home was my favorite place to sit after a long day of sightseeing. And Stella and Milou loved to sit with me. I sipped wine, ate cheese, and they chattered at birds landing on the stone walls of the garden. Interestingly, the wonderful couple that owned this home, Joan and Mitch, have become life-long friends of mine. When I arrived they cooked me a lovely dinner, and took me out to dinner the next night! (They invited me to come in early when they learned I had two nights of lodging unaccounted for.) They were such gracious hosts, leaving me a stocked fridge and permission to use their wine cellar when they left. I was able to spend a lovely month in Antwerp without spending one dime on lodging. On top of it, I met some wonderful people. I can’t rave about this site enough!
The summer of 2018 was coming to an end and it was time for me to return home to the States, but not before fitting in one more quick weekend sit. This kitty cat’s name was Sam and he lived in the Tuffnell Park region of London. I arrived at this lovely home to find that his owners left me a cat-themed bottle of wine. I was only with Sam for a few nights, but it saved me a lot of money on lodging. In fact, I had spent the entire summer (June through August) overseas and there was only one night that I purchased a hotel room. My flight to London and back home only cost me $600. (I’ve spent that on flights to Florida in peak season.) I ate most of my dinners at the homes where I stayed, and many of those homeowners left me groceries and asked me to use any of the perishables in the fridge. I lived the life of a local without any of the costs that go with it.
The 2018 school year got underway, so I decided to keep my travels a bit closer to home. This next pet sit had the most phenomenal view of Manhattan across the river from Brooklyn. This condo cost me nothing but the flight in, which was direct and under $100. I had a gourmet kitchen, a full entertainment center, an amazing rooftop patio, and the cutest little kitty companion named Tiggy. All for absolutely no money other than groceries and transportation. If I had tried to book a hotel room with the same view, it would have easily hit $300 a night.
Unbeknownst to me, this was to be my last year teaching. Health issues, both physical and mental, took me out of the classroom and into the ER in the fall of 2018. My twenty-three-year career had ended. At first, I thought my traveling days would have to end. After all, my income had come to a direct halt. But, after applying for disability, and being granted a percentage of my salary, I found that I was still able to pursue my passion for travel. After a year spent in recovery, I booked a flight to Koln, Germany to stay with a cat named Maraca for several weeks. And, because I was traveling in the off-season, my flight only cost me about $400. Maraca was my first experience with a ‘spicy’ kitty. (I would like to think she was preparing me for my future with feral cats.) She had moved several times with her mom, who was a professor, and anxiety was starting to catch up with her. If I tried to touch her, she would hiss. If I walked down the hallway, and she was in the hallway too, she would scratch at my legs with her claws and chase me. But, at the same time, once I fell asleep at night, I would find that she had climbed up on the bed and cuddled up next to me. By the end of my time in Koln, we had come to an understanding and made a truce with each other.
It was in February 2020 that I did one of my last pet sits for quite some time. (One month later, Covid would hit and the world would temporarily shut down.) My stepfather was having health problems and my mom was feeling overwhelmed. I decided it was time to move out of my Grand Rapids apartment in Heritage Hill and move out to Belding. (My mom lives in my great-grandmother’s house there. Her dad was born in the bedroom and married in the living room 20 years later. So, there’s a lot of history there for me.) The upstairs portion of the house was not being used, so I turned it into a little apartment. Though I was there to help my mom, I still had the ability to travel. So a month ahead of the pandemic changing everything, I took to the skies once again. I was off to Phoenix to get some much-needed sun. Even luckier that I got to spend so much time with this sweet cat, Luna. Luna’s mom was a yoga instructor and dancer. She left me a delicious bottle of wine, a sweet card, and some fresh flowers. It was cold, windy, and snowy back home in Michigan, but the pool on the rooftop of this condo was warm and inviting. And the plane ticket was under $200.
It was in the long months of the pandemic, and during the subsequent shutdown, that the idea to start a cat rescue/sanctuary began to form. My mother had already been caring for feral cats on our street for decades. The only thing that she hadn’t done was take the step to get them fixed. She was working two jobs and caring for a husband with dementia, there just wasn’t a way that she could do it. And there were no resources either. As the months of the pandemic passed by, I started to brainstorm ways to get the little clowder of about ten cats on my street under control. I bought a trap on Amazon and thus began Cat Trap Fever. I started researching ways to get cats spayed and neutered for discount prices and found Spay Neuter Express. I researched how to start a non-profit and before too long, I filed the paperwork and officially started on a new passion in life: saving homeless cats.
Now, that doesn’t mean I gave up on my love for travel. But things would definitely have to change a little. My budget was definitely tighter now that a lot of my disposable income went into starting the sanctuary and rehabbing the garage to make it more cat-friendly. But, I did still have my teaching pension and some investments coming in. At the same time, donations were coming in from wonderful supporters of CTF, so I was able to stop spending all of my own money on the cats and save up again. This was helpful because my disability payments from my former employer were about to come to a halt. I now had to find a way to balance my two passions, cats and travel, on very little money.
It took me a while to become comfortable enough to risk it, but I found a way to budget my savings in order to have it all, so to speak. It was in June of 2021 that I felt comfortable enough to get back out there, with a mask of course! (A kitty cat mask at that.) I spend all my time with cats, so his pet sit for two pups named Lola and Mike, was a nice respite. I couldn’t believe my luck when I applied to stay in an official San Francisco Painted Lady home and was accepted. If the same home was listed on Airbnb or VRBO, it would have cost thousands of dollars to rent. But, I was staying there for a whole week for free. This wonderful couple left me groceries, wine, some premium San Fran coffee, and a gift card for a local grocery store. They even left me their car (a vintage Mercedes) to use while there. (I only drove it once, but it sure came in handy on the day I decided to drive to the beach with the dogs.) My flight to San Francisco was super cheap, so I was able to travel without fearing that it would break the bank.
April of 2022 brought me a new adventure with two pups in Fort Lauderdale. The direct flight from Grand Rapids was simple and the house was beautiful. My favorite part was swimming in the pool with Lily and Teddy. In fact, that was so relaxing that I rarely left the house. The lovely homeowners prepared an excellent dinner the night before they left and told me to help myself to anything in the fridge, freezer, and the well-stocked bar. I cooked at home most nights, lounged by the pool, and played with puppy dogs for a week. All for a few hundred dollars.
So that brings me to the end. Have I convinced you yet? This site is amazing. Pets range from cats to dogs, bunnies, snakes, birds, horses, and sheep. You name it and it is listed. I’ve used the site both as a sitter and as a homeowner. In fact, that summer I was overseas for three months, I had a woman from New Zealand who came and stayed with my two cats in my Grand Rapids apartment. (Turns out she had friends in Muskegon and she had heard about Beer City.) I was able to be gone for three months and not pay one dime for someone to come and stay with my cats.
So now, as I am leaving my pet sit in the UK, I am already dreaming about my next opportunity. I have my eye on a sit in Charleston, one in Austin, and one in Finland. Of course, it will be a long time before I can get out there again. My pension is small and I will need to cut way back on personal expenses over the next months to save up, but the experience of living like a local for such little money is always worth it.
I feel well-rested and rejuvenated (so important for those in the rescue business) and am eager to get back to the cats at Cat Trap Fever. Being away has given me the luxury of the time and energy needed to evaluate the non-profit and really examine if it is reaching the goals that I set in the beginning. I will be talking more about this later, but the distance has allowed me to see that some changes are needed to really meet the goals I set for CTF. Those changes will include doing more TNR (trapping, neutering, returning) and fewer intakes and adoptions. With a capacity for only 20 cats, our effect on the greater over-population problem has been minimal. However, if we conserve our energy and TNR as many cats as possible, our reach will be much greater. (A few months back, for example, we did TNR for 13 cats in a two-day span. I felt so good after that week because I knew that I had literally stopped thousands of cats from being pushed into the never-ending cycle of hurt, homeless, and neglected felines.)
So, I return to Belding feeling ready and motivated to get back into my mission.
I hope you enjoyed learning about the Trusted Housesitters website. If you hit this link, it will bring you to a discount code, my personal code, that will give you 25% off if you feel ready to try it. If there is a specific place you travel to, or would like to travel to, feel free to send me a message, I can send you sample sits for that area so that you can see what is available. Also, if you have any questions or would like to learn more about the site, shoot me a message at any time. It has truly changed my life and given me the opportunity to travel like a Queen on a pauper’s budget.