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House swaps and dog walks: Travelers find cheaper alternatives to lodging

Published 05/22/2023, 07:09 AM
Updated 05/23/2023, 04:03 AM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Lillian Smith, 30, from Mississippi, U.S., rides in a taxi as she goes on a tour in Bangkok, Thailand May 13, 2023. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
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By Doyinsola Oladipo

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lillian Smith has spent about eight of the last 12 months traveling around the world, hitting France, Morocco, Japan and South Korea. Her cost for lodgings in that time? About one night in a hotel, along with the time she spent walking dogs, watering plants and changing litter boxes.  

"I have always dreamed of traveling to Japan but didn't have the budget for hotels and Airbnbs," said the 30-year-old freelance designer from Mississippi. Her solution was to agree to house-sit, walk dogs, and care for plants for people around the globe.

Economic activity has slowed in recent months, but many still yearn to quench their thirst for travel that grew out of sitting at home during the coronavirus pandemic. Travel rates are rising, and are now higher than before the pandemic, but travel-hungry consumers are finding creative ways to save money and still vacation.

Some are taking road trips instead of flying or booking a budget hotel room. Others are more innovative - spending $100 to $250 for annual memberships to websites that connect them with people who need simple chores done while their dwellings are vacant.

U.S. short-term rental and hotel average daily rates are about 37% and 19% higher than in April 2019, according to short-term rental and hospitality analytics firms AirDNA and STR.

Consumers are trading down. In April, demand for budget and economy short-term rentals was up 18% and 12%, respectively, compared with the year-ago period, ahead of a 10% increase in demand for luxury rentals, AirDNA said.

Travelers (NYSE:TRV) in March booked 21 million short-term rental nights, the highest number of future nights booked on record, according to AirDNA. One-bedroom or studio in-home rentals in 2022 were 26% and 10% cheaper than hotels in large cities and coastal resorts, according to AirDNA and STR.

As of March, U.S. consumer spending on hotels and motels was up about 7.2% from a year ago, but has dropped by about 4.6% from December 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

VACATIONS WITH CHORES

Smith said she has house-sat in France, Morocco, Japan and South Korea after spending $169 on the cost of an annual membership to TrustedHousesitters, a platform that connects pet owners with in-home sitters. She estimates she has saved over $11,000 in accommodations even though she still must pay for plane tickets.

"I took care of three cats and 20-plus plants while I was in Morocco, one dog in Tokyo, one dog in Kobe, and two cats in South Korea," said Smith.

U.K.-based TrustedHousesitters said its membership figures increased 12% to 160,000 in the past quarter, led by growth in the United States.

Paris-based Nomador, a house-sitting platform, saw a 60% increase in new sitters from the last quarter of 2022 to the first quarter of 2023, CEO Mathilde Ferrari (NYSE:RACE) said.

Some travelers are also turning to unlimited house-swapping. U.S. company HomeExchange said membership levels in the first quarter increased 77% year over year to 110,000 and exchanges increased 63%.

TrustedHousesitters said its sitters rarely face immigration issues but in certain countries like the U.S. and Britain, house-sitting has occasionally been incorrectly categorized as work and required a work visa over a tourist visa.

    "As long as the homeowner is not requiring work and compensating specifically for that work, it cannot be construed as unauthorized employment under the Immigration Nationality Act," said New York-based immigration Attorney, Afia Yunus.

"Arguably even an Airbnb would require us to take out the trash and do different things as they relate to staying in the home."

TrustedHousesitters said sitters and homeowners pay the platform directly and that money is never exchanged between the two parties. 

MORE TRAVELERS ON A BUDGET

U.S. travel companies have taken notice, beefing up economy-level options to draw in growing numbers of cost-conscious travelers.

Hotel operator Hilton in January announced a new economy hotel brand, Spark, aimed at budget travelers and told investors in April it was working on a lower-end extended stay brand. The goal is to attract the roughly 70 to 80 million people who travel in the economy segment, half of whom are "younger people" who can only afford lower priced hotels.

"We're not serving many of them," said Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta, on an investor call in April. "The opportunity is for us to get them hooked on our system early by giving them the best product that they can find in the economy space."

© Reuters. A screen grab shows Lillian Smith, 30, from Mississippi, U.S., during a city tour at Wat Arun temple in Bangkok, Thailand May 13, 2023. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Travel strategist Toni McCord, 52, started house-sitting on Nomador in 2016 and now suggests the platform to her clients who are self-employed or work remotely.

"People are feeling very limited in their abilities to travel because we're in a recessive economy but when I bring up house-sitting, they're like 'Wait a minute, I didn't realize that I could do something like that.'"

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