The #1 Misconception About House-Sitters and Lifestyle Travelers

by Nora on March 13, 2017

Two recent conversations I’ve had have festered in me, to the point where I woke up this morning feeling downright angry. These conversations were innocent enough, yet they revealed a significant misconception about house-sitters, and lifestyle travelers in general.

house-sitters

 

Conversation #1

I had lunch with an expat friend in Cuenca, who was going away for a few months and recently found a house-sitter to take care of her place.

“She’s a bit odd,” my friend said of her house-sitter.

“How so?” I asked.

“Well, she doesn’t seem like most house-sitters. She….well, she seems to have money.”

 

Misconception: House-Sitters are Broke

I quickly corrected my friend by suggesting it’s very dangerous to assume that house-sitters don’t have money. For many house-sitters – even the “homeless” kind who house-sit full-time – it’s a lifestyle choice, not a necessity. I’ve often waxed poetic about how house-sitting (like many forms of free accommodation) is a unique opportunity to live a slice of local life and peek into different cultures from the inside out. It’s not just about saving money. Far from it, in fact.

When I was in Peru, I met up with some readers of mine who were passing through; a retired couple who had buttoned up their place in the U.S. and were traveling long-term, staying in various short-term rental places along the way. On my recommendation, they started house-sitting, and now, they’ve made it a full-time lifestyle, house-sitting all over Europe. Although I didn’t ask specifically about their finances, it seemed they have no worries about money (after all, they could afford vacation rentals all the time prior to my telling them about house-sitting), and they regularly pop back to the States to visit their grandchildren, gifts in hand. For them, house-sitting is a fun lifestyle choice that allows them to enjoy the comforts of home, the companionship and fun of pets, and even to provide a service to homeowners.

Recently I was lurking a Facebook group dedicated to house-sitting. A homeowner started a thread about how it seemed to her that all house-sitters care about is a WiFi connection and that her off-grid home wouldn’t be appealing to house-sitters. She tried to tone down this abrupt opening statement (but only ended up stoking the fire) by expressing some sort of understanding that house-sitters are obviously broke and need to work online to make whatever money they need for food.

If the irony that this homeowner was sitting in her off-grid home playing on Facebook wasn’t too much…..she was “schooled” by a plethora of house-sitters who suggested that WiFi isn’t always about earning enough money to buy bread; for lifestyle travelers, it’s a lifeline to their friends and family back home. Once she apologized for her curt assumption, she was besieged by lifestyle house-sitters who said they’d love to take care of her place in her absence.

 

Conversation #2

Over another lunch in Cuenca with a woman who was visiting for a month (an American retiree looking for a new place to call “home” in the world), she described the place where she was staying; a little guest house behind a property owned by an expat couple. She had found it on AirBnB before she arrived and described it lovingly. When I asked her how much she was paying for it, she proudly declared it was only $850US/month.

I mustn’t have been able to mask my surprise, given that my research revealed an average furnished place in the centre of Cuenca comparable to her description shouldn’t cost more than half that.

“Well, I don’t think I’m an average traveler. I don’t have to be so careful about money. And besides, by U.S. standards $850 is a bargain,” she said.

 

Misconception: Lifestyle Travelers are Broke/Cheap

Again, I bristled at the assumption that “average travelers” need to be careful about money, and then launched into a short tirade about all the ways tourists unwittingly cripple local economies by saying things like “by U.S. standards it’s a bargain”.

This woman’s transgressions aside, there’s also a problem with AirBnB. People looking for local accommodation from abroad have limited options, and if you insist on committing to something long-term before arriving (which I totally understand, but frankly it’s a rookie move), then you’re usually going to pay a premium. More often than not, in developing countries it’s not locals listing their places on AirBnB, it’s expats and foreign landlords, who know they can jack up the prices. I met another couple of readers who were visiting Cuenca for a month, and booked their apartment again using AirBnB in advance; they paid over $1,000 for it. And again, they thought it was a great deal, while I swallowed hard and kept quiet.

So, while the above two readers either preferred to have their accommodation booked in advance at a premium, or didn’t know that arriving and finding something locally for much less money was possible, or just didn’t care, in all three cases, I felt them financially looking down their nose at me. Like as a lifestyle traveler, I’m some dirty hippy who can’t afford to eat at nice restaurants, or wear nice clothes, or overpay for my accommodation.

I do eat at nice restaurants. I wear designer travel clothing. I just don’t overpay for my accommodation.

In fact, the tables are turning when it comes to lifestyle travel. The more Financial Case Studies I curate and publish, the more amazed I am at how much money people are making with their online businesses while traveling full-time. I nearly fell off my chair when I read a submission by some travel blogging colleagues (who started in the game years after I did) who are making well over $120,000/year. And they also house-sit regularly; obviously not because they need to save money, but because they enjoy house-sitting.

 

The Irony of it All

The big misconception used to be that lifestyle travelers must be rich to travel full-time. In fact, my entire website is dedicated to showing people that traveling full-time can be financially sustainable. In my initial years of full-time travel, I was building my online business and didn’t have a huge disposable income to work with. In my quest to make ends meet, I stumbled on some amazing ways to travel full-time and live around the world for way less money than you might ever suspect. For example, in 2010 and 2011, I spent $17,000 each year all-in, visiting 22 countries in those two years. (My secret? How to Get Free Accommodation Around the World)

So, I certainly created a case for how it’s possible to be a lifestyle traveler for very little money.

But now this perception is backfiring on me. I’ve been publishing my annual income and expenses for over five years now, and have actually been “accused” by some people of spending “too much” money! This, from a commenter on my last expense post:

“I am surprised how expensive eating and drinking is in Peru. In one month you spent almost $300! How is that possible?? In Spain for myself I spend 140€. My goal is to spend 500€ per month living in Thailand or Manila or New Zealand. No way I can spend $1,500-2,000 per month.”

Good for you. You win a prize for eating cheaply. I could certainly have spent less money on food and drink in Peru if I had needed to. And I sure don’t make $120,000/year, but I’ve said it over and over again: financially sustainable travel is not synonymous with budget travel; it’s about making lifestyle choices that are in line with the money you make.

Now, it seems the tables have turned and the outside assumption is that anybody who travels the world full-time in any sort of budget-conscious way (eg: house-sitting) must be broke. Prior to the location independent career movement, which allows people of all ages to earn a living with little more than a laptop and internet connection, I would have said that the assumption that house-sitters and lifestyle travelers are broke(ish) might have been pretty accurate. But this is simply not the case any more. Just look at my $120k/year travel blogging colleagues.

Add into the mix a huge demographic of retirees hitting the travel scene with disposable income and a desire to experience life around the world, and house-sitters and lifestyle travelers now come with all kinds of financial configurations and budgets.

So, before you look at me pityingly because I have no money and must live a tough life because I enjoy getting free accommodation around the world, please consider the possibility that I just might have more money in my bank account than you do.

Then again, you know how much money I make. It’s not a lot by any standards. So maybe you should be the one paying for my lunch, if it’s such a bargain for you.

 

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tiffany March 13, 2017 at 11:12 pm

Oh Nora – this post covers a lot of topics. And yes, the whole, well back home this would be a bargain comment and all the assumptions, ah. I feel you on these points. And yeah, the whole, you spent how much money? It’s kinda ironic bc I’ve been in some of the ‘cheaper’ places and spent the most bc that’s where I did the most amazing things that just cost most – like scuba dive in UNESCO sites, etc. To me it’s all about value and appreciation and gratitude and understanding to create this lifestyle.

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2 Nora March 14, 2017 at 12:58 pm

Hey Tiffany,
Thanks for weighing in! I’m glad I’m not the only one who has encountered these challenges/reactions. (We can suffer in solidarity – ha ha ha)!
Indeed, in some of the more expensive countries I’ve lived, I’ve had the lowest expenses, and vice versa. It’s such a personal thing…..

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3 Julian March 15, 2017 at 3:15 pm

Exactly, it’s a lifestyle choice, not a necessity!! It’s about being a smart traveler and knowing how to manage your costs and make logic, sustainable decisions. Thanks for the post 🙂

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4 Nora March 16, 2017 at 8:48 pm

Thank you, Julian! Glad you “get it”. 😉

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5 sis. mccray April 7, 2017 at 4:58 pm

Hi Nora!!!

Congratulations on buying a Hotel!!!!

What a fantastic deal!

We have sooo much in-common, but some things that are not.

Some things in-common are: extensive travel and living in different countries, writing about our adventures, meeting different people from all over the globe, and yes, buying a hotel.

Though i have not yet experienced the latter of buying a hotel (yet), i almost Bought an Island in 1999! However, i chose to leave the USA and go to other places instead.

If i had known i would be coming back to the USA I would have purchased it for $2000. Another Town in a desolate area (at that time) offered me to take it for Free! I was not as smart as you in Ceasing the Opportunity!

Let me know when it is ready to be occupied and at what rate!

My most interesting places Are in the Near East and a few other places, but at some point, we just have to meet!!

Glad you are doing well.

sis

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6 Nora April 7, 2017 at 6:25 pm

Great to hear from you, Sister! Keep on traveling. Let’s see where in the world we find one another!

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7 Bob Weisenberg March 16, 2017 at 10:48 pm

Hi, Nora.

It’s true! We housesit because we enjoy the pets and because of the instant community. We’re booked for the next six months in Vancouver, Brooklyn, Peebles (Scotland), and Chambery (French Alps). Thank you for encouraging us to try housesitting.

Enjoyed this article. Could you please elaborate on the idea of arriving without an apartment and looking for one locally after you arrive? We always book Airbnb months in advance. I like the idea of just arriving and looking, but when I’ve tested the method out by looking around a city we’re living in, I have not had much luck in finding good short term furnished rentals on the spot. The best places see to be either longer term (more that 1-3 months), or unfurnished, or already rented. Plus it’s easy for any cost savings to be eaten up by the extra cost of a hotel or B&B while searching. Perhaps you have some techniques I’m not using (and probably an article you’ve already written you can point me to).

Thanks.

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8 Nora March 17, 2017 at 7:16 pm

Hey Bob,
I’m so glad you got on the house-sitting bandwagon! It’s perfect for you guys.

I should have been more specific about the idea of finding a place after arrival – because it works better in some places than others. I have a friend in Cuenca who lived in a few places (very cheaply!), and she found them by walking down the street and looking for “se aquila” (for rent) signs in windows above storefronts. In Pisac Peru, I discovered it’s possible to find places by word of mouth or local Facebook groups. I think the kinds of places where you can find a better deal on arrival tend to be developing countries, where a local owner might not have the desire/budget/knowhow to post their place online, or places where word-of-mouth prevails.

In locales like Europe, I suspect it would be harder to find something locally (especially in-season), but maybe easier in smaller towns.

And you’re absolutely right – there’s a balance if you’re paying for a hotel while looking for a place…..

Maybe a happy medium would be to find a place on AirBnB/CraigsList/Facebook prior to arrival but just to rent it for a month, and to give yourself that month to find something else. You run the risk of being “homeless” after that month if you can’t find anything and your place has incoming guests, but….

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9 Liz Ziser March 16, 2017 at 11:50 pm

I couldn’t agree more! And unfortunately, have seen this seep into work exchange lifestyles as well. In my experience, I’ve seen hosts take advantage of (what they believe to be) budget travelers’ time. Assigning double the expected workload since their volunteers are “broke and lucky to be there”. Work exchange (or house sitting) can be an incredible experience, but we’ve got to break these misconceptions that travelers don’t have money and are perhaps more interested in the lifestyle/experience of it all. Great post!

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10 Nora March 17, 2017 at 7:19 pm

Hey Liz,
You bring up a great point about greedy work exchange hosts. I’ve met my share of volunteer hosts with the “you’re lucky to be here” attitude…..and I don’t particularly care for it.
I think as more and more people retire and start to explore unconventional ways of life such as these, homeowners and volunteer hosts will start to get the picture that it’s more of a two-way exchange. It’s not all about broke 20-year-olds any more!

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11 Russell March 17, 2017 at 1:46 am

Hey Nora,
Since you came to us all those years ago as our house sitter, I have taken from both our chats then and your subsequent blogs, how it facilitates the ability to accommodate in exchange for chores (especially looking after pets!) and was a way to travel in my retirement but also to broaden my outlook on the world by perhaps visiting more places and experiences a different culture and learning. Perhaps even have my children come to stay during those travels too…how is your mum?
Take care
Russ & Sarah

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12 Nora March 17, 2017 at 7:21 pm

Hey Russ & Sarah!
How wonderful to hear from you guys. And how cool that you’re considering a bit of house-sitting yourself! It’s a great way to travel/visit with the kids – I can certainly attest to that after getting to take care of your awesome place and pups with my Mum. (She’s doing great BTW! I won a trip to Ireland last year so I took her – her only trip abroad since we were at your place, so it was a great gift).

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13 Barb March 23, 2017 at 8:42 pm

I appreciate your point of view, Nora, but sometimes it can be an advantage to be thought of as ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’ financially. If I don’t appear to have much money I am not a target for being robbed, and sometimes I can get bargains the seemly well-heeled aren’t offered. Sure, I can also be talked down to but I don’t have to hang out with those sort of folks, and usually won’t.

Love your blog and enjoy your writing style. Keep it up. 🙂

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14 Nora March 24, 2017 at 12:26 pm

Hi Barb,
Interesting point, Barb! However are you describing your appearance of not having much money by your lifestyle, or by your outward appearance? In my experience outward appearances can also be very deceiving, which, as you point out, can be worked to your advantage!

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15 Barb March 24, 2017 at 3:07 pm

Well, both really. As I’ve gotten older ‘things’, especially name brand ‘things’, just don’t appeal to me anymore except when they do, lol. I will by decent shoes, camera and pack, anything else can be a thrift store semi-original for all I care. And I do care! I care a lot about my carbon footprint. I also care about being of service so house sitting is interesting to me. I already get paid for ranch/farm sitting gigs which can be more challenging than simple house sitting, but I try to give a little something extra where ever I am at. The shear nature of ranch sitting does require a little less upscale wardrobe as I am sure you can imagine, lol, and maybe I get treated like the poor relation at times because of it but I find a smile, an upbeat attitude and the ability to speak clearly and intelligently gets some would be snobs to reassess their first impressions. If that isn’t happening I’ve already picked up on the vibe and waste no further energy on them.

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16 Nora March 25, 2017 at 6:15 pm

Great attitude, Barb!
I’m also not a “brand name” snob….I certainly never understood the whole $1,000 purse trend! I buy quality things (like shoes, etc) that will last and look good. I also have my share of work clothes….and if I need some extra stuff at a destination, I also love thrift stores.

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17 Ian April 4, 2017 at 8:11 pm

Great post Nora. I had no idea that people thought that way of housesitters. We are youngish retirees who will be setting off on longterm travel in a couple of months and while we are open to housesitting and think it could be fun our budget doesn’t require it. Good tips on finding apartments. We were planning on booking a week on airbnb (or similar) and if we decide we want to stay longer then do it when we are on location. If nothing is available, oh well, we will just move on to a location that does have space after a week.

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18 Nora April 5, 2017 at 6:23 pm

Hi Ian,
Great plan to just book your first week with AirBnB and see how you like the place. Keep house-sitting in mind if you’re going to stay on the road long-term; it can be very rewarding and helps to fend off travel fatigue.

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19 Wendy Dewar Hughes April 4, 2017 at 9:55 pm

I have considered looking into house sitting as a means of saving on accommodations while travelling as it’s usually the biggest cost. However, it seems like house sitting often includes pet sitting and my husband has animal allergies. How prevalent are situations that just want someone to be there?

Also, can you recommend the best Facebook groups to pursue the house sitting option?

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20 Nora April 5, 2017 at 6:26 pm

Hi Wendy,
Yes, house-sitting is usually synonymous with pet-sitting. There are gigs that don’t involve care for pets, but they’re few and far between.
If you’re serious about pursuing house-sitting, then I’d recommend perusing the house-sitting websites (the FB groups I belong to don’t have a huge number of gigs on offer).
Here’s some more info on house-sitting with a list of websites you can check out: https://www.theprofessionalhobo.com/financial-travel-tip-81-free-accommodation-with-house-sitting/

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21 Wendy Dewar Hughes April 5, 2017 at 6:37 pm

Thanks for the tips, Nora. I will look into those sites.

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22 Kathryn April 5, 2017 at 2:13 am

A few years ago, my sister had to get a housesitter because we were going away and needed someone to look after her dog. It was interesting talking to people and find out their stories. She wanted someone she could meet beforehand because her dog is often scared of strangers and we were surprised at how many local people offered their services. Often because they loved animals but lived somewhere that meant they couldn’t have a pet. The lady she ended up getting lived out of town and had just lost her dog so didn’t want to invest emotionally in another. She did petsitting so she could have some time in the city to catch up with friends but also have some animal time.

Tbh, I’m one of those people who pay a premium for Airbnbs. Even though in some places (usually places with a low cost of living to start with), it does work out more expensive, it does have advantages. I figure if I have to take time to go househunting once I arrive, that cuts into my work time. I’d rather arrive and have a place organised so I have minimal disruptions.

The other advantage is that you do have a third party to deal with any issues. I hate conflict so would rather have Airbnb customer services deal with all that for me than do it deal directly with a host/landlord.

Also, you get an all-inclusive rate with Airbnb. When I was looking for a place in Thailand last year, I could’ve got something much cheaper but then read reviews on places that said the landlord extorted them over things like power bills + nickel and dimed them for every thing. Want a clean towel, you have to pay for it, etc. All those extra costs can really make a cheaper place not such a bargain.

I think one of the reasons Airbnbs are more expensive, relative to local prices in developing areas is that they have a minimum that the host can rent the place out for -around $15 a night, I think. I stayed at a place in Japan where the host had switched from offering couchsurfing to renting his place out at the minimum Airbnb rate because it meant he had their insurance coverage. That minimum price meant a bargain in Japan but in some places would put it well above market rates 🙂

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23 Nora April 5, 2017 at 6:29 pm

Hi Kathryn,
You bring up some good points about using AirBnB. I too dislike the hassle of finding places and dealing with landlords (some of whom actively try to rip off foreigners). I’d never really thought about the AirBnB premium as being a price for circumventing it. I take it you’ve had consistently good results with AirBnB?

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24 Kathryn April 5, 2017 at 10:51 pm

I’ve had some bad Airbnb experiences, with actual rentals but my dealings with their customer service has been great. I know other people who haven’t but I made sure I document everything and keep all communications with hosts on the site. Even if it’s a face to face conversation, it’s worth sending a message summarising that if you think it might lead to a problem later. I’ve never had an issue cancelling a rental when there’s been a problem and often they throw in a credit to help find another place.

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25 Bob Weisenberg April 5, 2017 at 11:41 pm

I would like to give Airbnb a very strong endorsement. Our experiences have been uniformly excellent all over the world. We have been on the road for almost three years now, almost all Airbnb, until we took up housesitting. We are in a great Airbnb apartment in Penang, Malaysia right now.

A vital hint–we have never paid the listed price for an Airbnb apartment. We always line up several choices, then tell the owners we have several good alternatives, and ask them to tell us the best price they can offer us. Since we are usually staying 2-3 months, this price can be as much as 1/3 of the listed daily price. It all depends on the season and the market.

Some hosts have this built into their pricing on Airbnb, with the “monthly discount”, which is often 20 to 40 per cent. But in many cases they have not filled this in, and you have to ask them. And we have found that even the listed monthly discount can be larger for a longer rental.

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26 Nora April 6, 2017 at 8:40 pm

That’s a GREAT tip, Bob! It can make AirBnBs much more affordable for longer term stays.
And Kathryn – very smart to keep records of everything. A woman after my own heart – ha ha!

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27 Ellen Malloy April 5, 2017 at 11:00 am

What a great post on a particularly poignant topic. Not just because it is more of your great writing but for the selfish reason that until the headline jumped out at me in my email inbox, I had lost track of your blog during a life transition and didn’t realize you were still in Cuenca.

I am moving there in the next couple weeks but have been stalling booking my plane ticket. I did the housesitting route for two years thanks to your blog, but the move to Ecuador will be my first time setting down some long-term roots overseas. It’s thrilling. It’s terrifying. And I have virtually no idea how to arrive in a country where I not only know no one but also don’t have a house to go take care of.

It’s comforting to read your advice to look for an apartment after arriving, since that was the direction I was going… but I wasn’t doing such a good job figuring out how to avoid AirBnB in the process. If you’ve got any advice or connections for a place I can stay when I first arrive while I find a place to live, it would be greatly appreciated.

Of course, if there’s anything I can bring down for you from the States, I’ve got room in the suitcase! I’d appreciate the chance to thank you in person for being my inspiration and guide in a journey that, honestly, well, I am not even sure how to put into words what the last few years of traveling and housesitting has meant for my life.

Thanks.
Ellen, now in Chicago, soon “of Cuenca”

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28 Nora April 5, 2017 at 6:36 pm

Hi Ellen,
Wow! Wow. Wow! On so many levels…..that you were inspired by my site to take to the road and do house-sitting, and that you’re moving to Cuenca! Wow! Awesome. 🙂

You know what? After reading/responding to a few comments here, I would like to retract my scathing review of AirBnB. I think that renting a place through AirBnB for the first week or two could be a good idea….it gives you time to arrive somewhere comfortable and find something longer-term. I do have a favourite hotel in Cuenca that you could check out, but it isn’t super cheap at $30-45/night. (Send me an email if you want the name of the hotel).

And thanks for the offer to bring something down with you! I do, in fact, have something I’d like brought down, but it needs to be shipped to you from the UK and that will take 3 weeks, so I think it’s cutting it too close. No worries!

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29 Jay April 6, 2017 at 4:12 am

Hi Nora,
I have been on th road for a year and nine months. I use Airbnb a lot. If you contact the owners/managers and let them know you are interested and want to see the apartment before you commit. I’ve only received a no twice. Needless to say I did not rent there. Because I am a seasoned traveler (74 countries and counting) I have a good idea of what rent looks like in most places. When I don’t know, I go on line and search for local real estate. I have to admit as much as I like Airbnb the owners often have an overinflated view of the value of their homes. If I am staying anywhere for more than a week I must preview before I commit. I save by staying no more than two days in a hostel while looking for properties and usually have one or two appointments before I arrive. I am not willing to house sit but it looks like it would be great for the budget! Safe travels, Jay

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30 Nora April 6, 2017 at 8:43 pm

Hi Jay,
Great strategy to get a hostel for a couple of nights and check out the AirBnB places before committing. Do you ever have problems finding a place that’s available at the last minute like that though?

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31 Jay April 8, 2017 at 12:05 am

Hi Nora,

On Airbnb there are places you can rent right away without ever talking to the owner/manager. They have a lightning bolt next to the listing and this means the property is readily available. So I never have to worry about not finding something and like Bob above I rarely pay the listed price. I also have to add that in travel almost everything is negotiable……..even the price of hotel rooms. I usually book a hotel I like for one night upon arrival. Then I speak to the front desk and ask how much would the room be if I were to stay two weeks to a month. I have received rooms at deep deep discounts. Here is why it works. When you book through Expedia or websites like it, the hotels pay a hefty portion to Expedia and such. So you eleminate the middle man when you book directly with the hotel. For example I booked a hostel in Chiang Mai for two nights at seven dollars a night while I looked at apartments. But I liked the hostel so much I decided to stay there (it was a newly opened hostel and I like new places). Two of the seven dollars the owner makes goes to Expedia. So we compromised he charged me six. He made an extra 30.00 and I saved thirty. I am in Bali now and a room that was 54.00 dollars is suddenly 34.00 a night. I know 34.00 may sound like a lot but my budget covers it. I like to treat myself every now and then. Here in Bali I certainly could get something cheaper. I have saved as much as 40.00 a night in really nice hotels when I am having a princess moment and want pampering. So my point is that EVERYTHING is negotiable especially when you do it so that both parties feel good at the end of the deal. That is sweet!!!!

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32 Nora April 8, 2017 at 4:57 pm

OMG Jay, thank you so much for the excellent advice. Very useful! I’d not thought of negotiating longer-term stays with hotels. I’ve only worked out upgrades with them. I’m trying it the next opportunity I have!

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33 Ellen Malloy April 6, 2017 at 7:38 pm

Well, dang it. I am sorry about that timing. Especially frustrating as I was just in the UK for two months.

And yes, your blog is inspiring. Very, very inspiring.

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34 Nora April 6, 2017 at 8:46 pm

Thanks, Ellen! I hope you enjoy Cuenca when you come! 🙂

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