Here’s how I spend Christmas in a different country every year

Jane Thomas has done house-sits in Kuala Lumpur, Thailand, the Caribbean, Turkey and Budapest - here's how it works

Jane Thomas, 41, an author originally from Plymouth, has travelled abroad for Christmas and New Year every year since 2000 – saving herself thousands in the process. She explains how it works.

I’ve been overseas for every Christmas and New Year over the past 20 years, spending Christmases in Botswana, Kuala Lumpur, Thailand, the Caribbean, Turkey, Budapest, and Croatia among others – and this Christmas I’ll be in Tunisia for a month.

The first festive period I spent abroad was Sydney in 2000. I am the youngest of three children and had recently left home. We were no longer spending Christmas together and I like the idea of starting a new year in a new place – it feels like a fresh beginning.

Since 2012 these annual festive trips have been arranged through house-sits, where you stay in someone else’s home free to look after the house while the owner is away. I’ve probably saved tens of thousands of pounds over the years by not having to pay for hotels or accommodation. You even hear of people housesitting full-time, meaning they don’t pay any rent or bills, which can be a great way to save money during this cost of living crisis.

Originally my house-sits were arranged through friends or friends of friends, but now I go through an official website. There are a few websites that offer this, but I go through Trustedhousesitters. You pay a subscription each year, either as a homeowner or as a sitter, which starts at £99.

The homeowners put up some photos of their place and explain when they will be away and what the expectations are. You don’t pay any money to stay in the house, but there will be light duties such as picking up the post and looking after pets.

If a property appeals to me, I’ll send a message to the homeowner explaining why I want to come to their home. Some sitters using other websites do charge a fee to homeowners, but I don’t charge anything. I like visiting new places, often staying in lovely homes without paying a penny, and that’s worth it for me.

I’ve stayed in some amazing places. I was based on an island in Panama for two months this year and a few years back I spent three months in Hawaii. In total, I’ve been away for five months this year in homes that aren’t my own without paying any accommodation costs.

My husband was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in Botswana, and we’d love to get back to Africa in 2024 if possible. I’ll start looking for next year’s Christmas destination next summer, which is when I typically line up my festive house-sits. This year I’m in Tunisia for four weeks until the middle of January.

I’ve worked entirely online since around 2010 (I’m an author), so have a good deal of freedom to be on the move, and to stay away for an extended length of time.

Housesitting is essentially a free holiday, but you are responsible for the house and it often involves looking after dogs, cats and chickens. There is a work aspect to it, and you have to put the animals first, which means you can’t be away from the home for too long if you are looking after a dog.

Jane when she house sat in Hawaii (Photo: Supplied)

I always like to make something of Christmas even when I’m in arbitrary corners of the world. I have a tiny beaded Christmas tree from Mozambique that I carry with me, and I always make sure to have a Santa hat for me and spares for whoever happens to be with me that year (and yes, I insist they are worn at least on Christmas Day, including outside the house!). My husband Grant, whom I met a couple of years ago, now comes away with me. He’s an exploration geologist, working away for weeks at a time and will then have a few weeks off after each trip so we can travel together.

It’s cheapest if you can fly on Christmas Day. I remember once taking a flight back from India on the day itself and saved a lot of money. It was also a really lovely atmosphere – everybody was wishing each other a happy Christmas and given a mini box of chocolates. But flights in early December and after around the 9 January (when schools are back) are also likely to be reasonable.

This year, my flights to Tunisia will cost £190 for a return. When I flew to Turkey a few years ago, my flights were £56 for a return.

If you are going overseas, it’s useful to have a credit card that doesn’t charge fees on overseas purchases. I use the Halifax Clarity credit card. I also always take a decent amount of cash, as shops and places don’t always take card payments.

If you like the idea of a last-minute Christmas getaway, it’s not too late to do a housesit this year. It’s amazing how much stuff is still available for Christmas even now, while some people are changing their plans last-minute so have a place empty. British Airways just released some sale price flights for New York and there are about 30 “sits” currently listed there over the festive period.

You don’t have to go abroad – there are plenty of places available in the UK. It’s definitely worth doing if you want to stay in a nice place or explore a new area and are looking for a way to travel on a budget.

Housesitting: What you need to know

Housesitting assignments can range in length from days to weeks. Most use it as a chance to spend some time visiting another place, but some also use it as a chance to live rent-free to help them save for a house deposit – moving between properties regularly without having a base of their own. 

The main benefit is that your accommodation costs are nothing, saving you hundreds or thousands of pounds. Your food costs are also likely to be lower, as you’ll have access to a well-stocked kitchen so won’t need to eat out as much. Regular housesitters say they make friends with the neighbours and get to know people in the local community.

For homeowners, the benefit is that their house is looked after, and they save money on pet care or garden care. Housesitting platforms say demand among homeowners and sitters surged after the Covid-19 pandemic, as the increase in people working from home led to a boom in pet ownership.  

Trusted Housesitters is the largest housesit website in the UK, but another option is House Sitters UK, which only offers homes in the UK and not overseas. House Sitters UK charges annual membership of £29 a year, while Trusted Housesitters charges either £99, £129 or £199 depending on the package you want. The most expensive plan includes public liability insurance and two airport lounge passes. Another option is Mindahome, which charges £20 a year.

If you are doing a housesit overseas, and plan to work while you are away, check whether you will need a work visa while staying in your host country. Many countries now offer ‘Digital Nomad’ visas, allowing you to temporarily stay in the country while working remotely for an employer or UK clients.

It is worth being aware that some countries are stricter than others when it comes to whether you need a work visa or not.

It can be a grey area as to whether you need one or not, depending on where you visit. For example, an ESTA may not be deemed acceptable for house sitting in the US.

Therefore, before you travel it is worth checking with the country if they are likely to accept a travel visa or if they require a work visa.

Click here to read the story of a woman who fell foul of visa laws when pet sitting abroad.

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