Web editor Madolline Gourley loves to travel. She’s been doing so for years, visiting places from New York City to Alabama, and Darwin in Australia. But unlike most people, in most of these holidays, she didn’t spend a single dollar on accommodation. Her budgeting secret? Cats.
Most of us know about couchsurfing and youth hostels, but one offbeat travel hack may well be the globetrotting community’s best-kept secret: Housesitting holidays, where tourists take care of houses abroad while the owners are away. Sometimes, this also involves petsitting for animals that come with the house. Gourley, who lives in Brisbane, Australia, specializes in cats.
Although housesitting and petsitting have been pretty popular among older travelers, it has generated little buzz in mainstream tourism—quite surprising, considering our aggressive obsession with cute, squishable pets.
A cat lover, Gourley learned about catsitting from her work colleague a few years ago and knew right away that the travel plan was perfect for her. She has since become a regular user of housesitting platforms like Trusted Housesitters and Aussie House Sitters, where she’s always on the hunt for new travel destinations.
“It is strange and people are like, ‘That's a really weird way to travel,’” Gourley told VICE. But she thinks these cats are actually great companions for a lone tourist.
“It's like you have one friend here, and then you’re going to go to your next friend in the next city,” she said. “Some of the cats that I’ve left behind, I do feel a bit sad about because I really like those cats.”
She still remembers many feline friends by name. There’s Bonnie, the three-legged cat in New York City; the perpetually ravenous Jasper from South Carolina; and Sydney-based Pixel, who reminded her of that Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland.
Gourley’s first catsitting assignment was around Christmas 2017 in San Francisco. It was for a couple, and it proved to be a good gateway into the world of feline-based traveling.
“They were just so lovely, so they definitely helped shape this whole kind of catsitting experience for me,” she said. Their cat Harvey was painfully shy but warmed up to her over her one-and-a-half-week stay at the house.
Since then, she has been to the United States about seven times. Each time she visited the U.S., she would line her catsitting assignments back to back so her accommodation was secured for the entire trip. She said she never once had to pay rent.
Over the past year, Gourley’s holidays have been limited to domestic travel due to COVID-19. But she is still determined to make her feline-filled holidays work, regularly looking for catsitting opportunities around Australia.
Last Christmas, she found herself in Darwin, an Australian city far from her hometown and outside of her globetrotting radar. Turns out, she was drawn to an assignment there after seeing a petsitting ad featuring a Persian cat with a “smooshed-in face.”
“I think the picture of the cat prompted me to apply for that housesit,” she said. “Because the cat was just such a little character. I was like, ‘Why not? Let's go to Darwin.’”
When you look at the numbers, catsitting holidays are a huge budget saver for avid travelers. While Gourley doesn’t get paid for her catsitting jobs, she does get to live in people’s houses for free. Since she started house and petsitting, Gourley estimates that she has saved about AU$30,000 ($22,000) to AU$40,000 ($29,000) in travel expenses, mostly because of rent-free living.
“But at the same time, I wouldn’t have spent that money to go to those places. I’ve gone to those places because I could get free accommodation, if that makes sense,” she said.
Her interactions with hospitable homeowners have led her to A+ recommendations that are hidden from travel guides—that’s how she managed to catch glimpses of snow monkeys at a local park while she was in Launceston, a city in Tasmania, Australia.
The precious connection Gourley has forged with homeowners is one of the reasons she continues catsitting. She has become good friends with some of the homeowners, such as a couple in Seattle she met a few years ago. She even befriended their neighbors during her stay, joining in on their gatherings.
Gourley has also met some pedantic homeowners with tedious housework routines, but her housesitting experiences have mostly been filled with warm hospitality.
Compared to dogs that may have to be walked several times a day, cats are much lower-maintenance, offering a lot more flexibility that’s suited for tourists exploring a new city. Gourley said catsitting usually leaves her with about 12 hours free to go out every day.
On a typical day during a catsitting assignment, Gourley starts off with chores in the morning before embarking on her sightseeing itinerary. Some days, she just stays in the house to catch up with her friends and family, or write about her latest adventures on her blog.
Traveling alone, Gourley found, is an exciting cocktail of blunders and serendipities—from entering the wrong apartment in Texas, being accidentally locked out of the house in New Mexico, to enjoying home-cooked meals with friendly cat owners and being shown around by gregarious strangers.
However, Gourley cautions against using the feline travel hack if you’re not really an animal person.
“If you want to house and petsit, I think it is very important that you actually like animals. Yes, a free place to stay is great, but you must care for people's pets,” she said, adding that it’s also important to be a reliable caretaker and keep things clean while you’re making yourself at home in someone else’s living space.
So far, catsitting has brought Gourley to 14 U.S. cities and four in Australia, and she remains bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about her travel adventures ahead.
“I think having a love for cats has opened lots of doors for me,” she said.
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