Life

How this young family is traveling through Europe, staying for nearly free

The Swenson family: William, Theo, Ezra, Jessica and Vesper. 
Jessica Swenson

Imagine plowing through your travel bucket list in one short year. Now, imagine being able to bring your family along for the ride and housesitting your way across a continent, saving thousands on accommodations in the process. One American clan is proving that such an epic adventure can be not only attainable, but even sustainable.

In 2017, Jessica and William Swenson (now 35 and 37, respectively) were living in the Bay Area of California with their three young children, Ezra, Theo and Vesper (now 8 ,6 and 5 years old). Life was humming along until William, who worked in finance, lost his job when his company relocated. Not long after, his mother passed away from lung cancer.

It was a tough year for the family. So Jessica proposed they take a yearlong trek around the world. Sure, it was an out-there idea, but the timing felt right; plus, Jessica was a photographer with a flexible schedule, their kids were home-schooled and the couple had always dreamed of traveling.

“We had this long list of places we wanted to see, and why not go with 2017 just kind of being a crap shoot for us?” Jessica recalls reasoning. “It kind of gave us the energy to catapult into the unknown, to be able to see those places we’ve always wanted to see," she tells CNBC Make It.

“We call it the perfect storm,” Jessica says. “A lot of things crumbled in order for us to find the faith to leap.”

The Swenson family in France.
Jessica Swenson

The family had some money to get them started — William had received a compensation package from his former employer and inheritance after his mother's passing, and they had some savings.

Still, “I knew because we didn’t have remote work in place, that we would just have to be really creative with how to stretch our money,” Jessica says.

So Jessica started researching their options and discovered TrustedHousesitters, a U.K.-based housesitting platform. For a $119 annual membership users get access to the TrustedHousesitters network, which features thousands of housesits available worldwide. In exchange for watching over a client’s pets and house while the owner is away, sitters stay in the home at no cost. Since it was founded in 2010, the platform has made headlines for offering luxurious accommodations, essentially for free, and boasts housesits in locations ranging from Kuching, Malaysia, to Istanbul and Vienna.

Sitters can choose from different levels of verification, including criminal background checks and ID document checks, with the level of verification that they’ve achieved prominently displayed on their profile. TrustedHousesitters also offers a 24-hour vet advice hotline and membership support.

“There’s actually no money being exchanged, which works really well, because you can run into things with [work] visas, and different things depending on the country and government regulations,” Jessica says. “So you kind of get away from that, in it just simply being a trade sort of economy, as opposed to it being currency exchanged.”

Knowing free accommodations would alleviate a huge part of their travel costs, Jessica opened a membership on the site and tried out a few gigs in the Bay Area as a test. When that went well, she took her family for a “trial-run” gig overseas on an English farm. The trip was a success. It was the validation the family needed to dive into the nomadic lifestyle.

The Swenson family in South Africa. 
Jessica Swenson

“It was kind of a practice run like, ‘Hey can we actually do this thing? Is it too good to be true? There has to be a catch,’” Jessica says. “But then we did it, and we said this is awesome; we can totally foresee ourselves doing this and it can be sustainable. Just that local flair; we like that off-the-beaten track, we like going to places you wouldn’t necessarily go to.”

Since sitters on the site don’t make actual income from their services, the Swensons also decided to rent out their San Francisco home during their time abroad as a revenue stream. The Swensons estimated that their yearlong trip around the world for a family of five would cost around $45,000 to $55,000 all-inclusive, which is about $25 to $30 per family member per day.

In October 2017, the Swenson family packed up their bags — which included just one backpack per person (with youngest daughter Vesper sporting a Disney "Paw Patrol" sack) and left the comfort and familiarity of home for what Jessica calls their, “epic field trip.”

First the family traveled through to a slew of countries using redeemed credit card points for free hotels and staying at a combination of cheap hotels, Airbnbs and hostels to keep things affordable, before hitting the U.K. and Europe to start housesitting in March. In most of the initial countries, the Swensons stayed for shorter stints and didn't want the responsibility of "working" by taking care of someone's pets or home.

"We were obviously hoping the rest of the trip would fall on the less expensive side," Jessica says.

Over the first six months, they traveled to China, Bali, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Morocco and beyond. It was everything they'd imagined.

"I just feel like we were a flurry of emotions, and it felt like an out-of-body experience that we could have this dream and actually walk through the dream together as a family," Jessica says.

Then in the spring, they headed to London to housesit their way across the U.K. and Europe, staying virtually for free. 

The Swenson family in Ireland. 
Jessica Swenson

"Flights are so inexpensive coming in and out of London that we have used that as a 'home base' as we housesit and travel throughout Europe," Jessica says. "TrustedHousesitters is also based in England, so finding sits there is very easy."

While Jessica says they travel with personal toiletries, homeowners often allow the family to use food that's left in the pantry or fridge, as well as things like laundry and dish soap. And "we now look for sits that either include a car or don’t require one to save even more and not have to rent," Jessica adds.

So far, the Swenson's TrustedHousesitters profile lists 18 housesits since 2017. They've had gigs in Vasteras, Sweden, and Doolin, Ireland, and they housesat their way through France, shacking up in spots like Saint-Hilaire-du-Harcouet and Biarge. In England, they've hit places like Shifnal, Brighton and Thornton-le-Dale.

"It also allows us to stay in expensive countries longer," Jessica explains. "For example, Sweden is so costly. One time, we bought coffee and some sandwiches at a Starbucks, and our bill was over $50! On our own, we may have been able to stay four to five nights. But since we also housesat there, we stayed four weeks, comfortably within our budget."

Every stay varies, says Jessica, but a typical week for the Swenson family includes a mix of trips hiking and to museums, along with some homeschooling for the kids. It’s a seemingly idyllic balance of exploration, education, family time and taking care of the home they’re staying in, she says.

“Just the enjoyment of the family unit, I feel like that’s sometimes lost in the hustle and bustle, especially in the Bay Area,” Jessica says. “People are commuting one to two hours for their job, they don’t always have that special family unit time. And we’ve really invested in our family this year, and we’ve really seen the fruits of that."

"I also really just love being around my husband," Jessica adds. "And this year has allowed for us to spend lots of time together being a team as we travel and navigate through different countries."

Of course, the housesitting half of their trip has involved more strategy and prep work.

"Since I’m a big planner, I secure sits and organize our calendar up to three months in advance so we know where we will be," Jessica says. "Owners tend to start listing their [vacations] one to three months in advance, although there’s also a good handful who post last minute. We’ve secured a few short ones to fill in our calendar gaps this way. Ireland was high on our list of countries to visit, and we were able to do a short trip through confirming a last-minute housesit as well as a cheap flight."

The extra work is well worth it, says Jessica, not only financially, but for the experiences they have along the way.

"The biggest difference outside of saving in big ways with budget, is that you’re also experiencing a country at a local level," Jessica says. "It’s a bit like how Airbnb started out before places became investments and run by property managers," she says, referring to the vacation rental website's recent abundance of corporate-run listings in some locations.

"With housesitting, we spend time with owners before they leave, as well as have opportunity to connect with neighbors. One housesit we did, the neighbors had a little boy around the same age as our boys. They played together daily during that two-week sit," she says.

In addition to Europe, the Swensons also housesat through many cities in Australia (like Mount Gambier, Melbourne and Brisbane, among others) and South Africa. Jessica remembers her family connected so well with one family of Australian homeowners that they watched the Swenson's three kids while Jessica and William went out for a rare date night to see a musical.

The Swenson family in South Africa. 
Jessica Swenson

Jessica acknowledges that there are also risks involved, noting that when you housesit, you are relying on homeowners to follow through with the confirmed sits. (So far, the Swensons had only two cancellations but were able to find replacement sits.)

And the adventure has not been free from turbulence. Figuring out mundane, routine tasks — like grocery shopping — can pose a challenge, says Jessica. Then, there have been a few emergency situations: In Bali, Jessica rolled her ankle and, in France, her son dropped a piece of wood on his toe, prompting a trip to the hospital.

“When something happens, you forgot how you’re accustomed in your own home country, knowing the process, where to go, how it’s handled,” Jessica says. “And whether you like how it’s handled or not, you at least understand the system. With each new country, we really have to understand the system that you just take for granted in your home country.”

Housesitting also adds an extra layer of responsibility, which the Swensons, including their kids, take seriously. (The children are indeed well-behaved, according to some of the reviews on the family's Trusted Housesitters site profile.) But now, after traveling for so long, Jessica says those housesitting duties actually provide them with downtime, where they don't feel pressured to use every spare second to squeeze in sightseeing.

"Some may say that they don't like having the responsibility of taking care of pets as it may limit their tourism activities, but we really enjoy it," Jessica says. "It allows you to slow down and have rest days. We are still able to get out during the day and we love being in one location for a while to really explore. We also love being able to model taking care of others' things and furry loved ones. We see it as an act of service and love being able to do it as a family."

The Swenson family in France.
Jessica Swenson

The Swensons are currently in Finland on a monthlong housesit, after which they plan to head back to England, and then hit Scotland, Germany and Denmark before returning to California in October. They have yet to put a clear plan in place regarding what life will look like when they get home, but Jessica says they loved traveling and have tossed around the idea of buying a camper van and road-tripping throughout the U.S. too.

What Jessica wants her children to gain from their experiences abroad, she says, is world citizenship.

“Just understanding that there’s more than just our one country,” she says. “I feel like when we left, we learned that Americans, it’s like 40 percent of Americans have passports, which just blew my mind." (As of 2017, there were 136,114,038 valid U.S. passports in circulation, according to the State Department, which is more than 41 percent of the number of American citizens that year.)

"Yes, we are a large country and you can go different places staying in your country, but knowing that there’s just that global mind view, there’s so much more out there ... embracing different perspectives and different worldviews," she says.

What the Swenson family has found, she says, is that every culture in which they have immersed themselves during their journey has embraced children; whether it’s making silly faces with their kids on the bus or just saying "hi."

“I loved how they really have been able to make friends wherever they go,” Jessica says. “As long as you meet someone that’s kind to you, they speak the language of play. They can play together, they may not have the same language shared, but they can still enjoy each other’s company, and they can glean from that.

“So I think just that world perspective and that kindness goes a long way,” she adds. “And that there are universal truths with family life, which has just been really fun. Kids whine and have bad attitudes all across the world, and everyone needs a nap," she laughs.

"And so yes, there are differences, but there is also commonality in us all. And just a sense of adventure; knowing that you have dreams and you can see them through fruition, as long as you are dedicated and you work hard and you research and you don’t give up.”

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