Josie Schneider is an international house sitter and freelance writer. For four months each summer, she is the editor of the annual Ann Arbor City Guide in Michigan, and then she travels for the remaining eight months. Josie was in Grenoble, France during this interview, where she’ll spend the winter. You can read about Josie’s house sitting travel experiences on her aptly named blog House Sitting Travel.
Josie was kind enough to answer our questions below.
TA: How many years have you been traveling and what got you hooked?
Josie: My father gave me the Let’s-go-everywhere gene, and I inherited the Delve-into-all-the-happenings-there gene from my mother. When I was 5 years old, our family of four road-tripped up through the States, into Canada, and past Alaska’s Arctic Circle. We blew through 3 sets of tires, got hospitalized for blood poisoning, and averted a near bear attack when a passer-by shot the thing dead. That trip set my traveling standard. In 2003 I began world travel. Conrad and I discovered we are perfect traveling companions–we enjoy the same pace, have the same schedule for eating and sleeping, can walk for miles exploring a new city or region, and appreciate the same cultural events. This is no small feat. Even very happy couples/friends can be horrible traveling companions. But when it works, it’s a beautiful thing. We play off one another–challenging and pushing for something new or adventurous. I should add that Conrad is now 78 years old. He’s a huge inspiration to me and everyone we know because he works out every day and can run circles around me, 13 years his junior. When we stayed in an Airbnb in Madrid–in a fourth floor walk-up–he carried his luggage up then came back down for mine.
TA: Do you specialize in a particular type of travel?
Josie: Yes. House sitting. This fun, low-cost way to travel is a complete game-changer for us, and many other folks, young or old. We look after peoples’ homes while they’re away. Match-up websites put homeowners and house sitters together. No money changes hands.
Since lodging can be the biggest chunk of our traveling budget, taking that cost off the table means we can travel farther, longer. One year, we decided to take eight months circumnavigating the globe by stringing together house sits. We started in Helsinki, Finland and ended in Melbourne, Australia.
Since I have a website where I blog about how to succeed at house sitting, I wrote a blog about that eight-month trip and laid out exactly what it cost. I want people to know that traveling does not cost as much as you may think, especially when house sitting. Our entire eight months of travel cost eleven thousand dollars.
I need to add that we collect airline miles, too, so we eliminate that cost as well. We employ a strategy called credit card churning, which means we sign up for multiple cards a year to get the sign-up bonus–usually 50-75K miles.
I know that our traveling style is not for everyone, but I’m on a crusade to inform as many people as possible because the benefits of travel are so fantastic.
TA: What is the best vacation you’ve ever taken?
Josie: Conrad and I have never shied away from adventure, so we took a remote off-the-grid house sitting assignment on the side of a mountain in southern Spain. We lived for six weeks almost entirely outside, savoring nature and the pioneering spirit. Every day a 7 p.m., a large herd of Ibex goats wandered by, foraging. Sometimes they were so close we could smell them. We got to know the rhythm of the weather, and enjoyed many recipes made with the lemons, rosemary, almonds, pomegranates, dates, and prickly pear that grew on the property. We did yoga outside at sunrise and skinny-dipped in the pool. It really changed our lives, and when we talk about it, we know that no one can truly understand the complete serenity there.
House sitting allows us to experience any kind of living we choose–temporarily. To me, that’s a really important aspect. I don’t wish to live off-the-grid for the rest of my life, but am super grateful for the opportunity.
TA: What’s one place you’ve always wanted to visit?
Josie: All the places, big or small, that I haven’t yet seen. In every tiny village, there’s something special. For instance, while wandering around the tiny village of Lurcy-Levis, France, we happened upon som industrial buildings at the outskirts, covered with grafitti. As we stood admiring the beautiful artwork, a man came out and explained to us that this campus of buildings is a school for grafitti artists from all over the world. Now Lurcy-Levis is urely not on anyone’s bucket list, but it has this amazing school there. It’s those happenings for me that make me want to look around every next corner, walk one more mile down the path, delving ever deeper into the amazing things humans do.
TA: What’s one thing you ALWAYS pack when you travel?
Josie: Since I cook wherever we go, I take a microplane for grinding spices or zesting citrus. And of course, good knives.
TA: If you could only give a traveler one piece of advice, what would it be?
Josie: Go. Just go. Many people I talk to think travel sounds so scary, or complicated, or impossible. But it’s really just a series of baby steps, strung together. Go to the airport, find your gate, then follow the signs at your destination for baggage claim. The steps are all really that simple. I still admit that sometimes I get a little overwhelmed at the prospect of going to a new place where I don’t speak the language, but I’m always amazed later, thinking, “What’s the big deal!?” Even when we’ve had challenging situations, we simply figure it out — and people everywhere are very kind–not to mention that much of the world is a safer place than the United States. Really.
TA: What are some of your favorite travel blogs and communities?
Josie: There are simply too many blogs to mention, and it very subjective. One that resonates with me might repel you. I read dozens of blogs every week, then a dozen more the next. In terms of communities, I admin a large Facebook group House Sitting World. This is a 15K-strong bunch of travelers who share travel hacks, house sitting tips, visa info, airline deals, and stories of challenges, including crazy house sits with unusual pets, insect infestations, difficult homeowners or neighbors. We also share the triumphs, such as the incredible kindness of peoples everywhere who serve as guides in their home countries, buy you things, cook for you, and generally become friends. Within our FB community we also meet up in person when we house sitters happen to be in the same city.
TA: What’s a travel scam travelers should be wary of?
Josie: Since we’re seniors, we are possible targets for pickpockets and scammers–and both have been attempted on us. The possibly most damaging scam–which can happen anywhere in the world–happens when a tourist looks confused. For instance, in a railway station, subway, or on the sidewalk in a large city. If you are searching a map or standing looking around like you don’t know where to go, then the scammers can zero in. They look for this behavior. Pickpockets especially like when you have lots of luggage. So what they do is come up and offer to help. It could be to help you find a taxi, a tuk-tuk, or help you purchase tickets at a kiosk, or give you a tour. My advice is to just say, “No.” Walk away. They want to hurry you into a situation before you can think.
In terms of keeping your wallet and passport safe, keep them in a front pocket or under your clothes.
TA: Which country has surprisingly good food?
Josie: We had a lot of fun at the Hawker’s Market in Singapore. The island country is small and doable, English is spoken there, and the exotic, inexpensive food in the Market can please everyone. Hawker’s Market is basically Chinatown, but mostly locals eat at the Market. Halls of stalls have vendors–including a Michelin-starred booth–where every kind of meat hangs in front, masses of tables hold slurping diners, and the smells are amazing. We had BBQ sambal stingray, chili crab, (a national specialty), laksa, chicken feet, and bak kwa, an addicting pork jerky street food snack.
TA: What was the most romantic place you ever visited with a partner?
Josie: Paris. Like several cities in the world, Paris has an infectious vibe. And that vibe is romance, inspiration, and a feel-good sensation that seeps into everything you do and see there. You want to hold hands or walk arm-in-arm across the gorgeous Pont Alexandre III, with its patinaed cherub-laden lamps, or up the Champs-Elysee at sunset. Sit in the grass having brie and wine at the Tuileries Garden next to the Louvre. Spend an afternoon at a sidewalk café watching the fashions go by. The statuary alone is enough to put you at awe at every turn, but the beauty never lets up. It’s simply the most amazing vibe I’ve ever felt. You can fall in love with everything, including yourself.
TA: Have you ever met someone while traveling who changed your life? Who were they?
Josie: Conrad and I were wandering up Spain’s west coast by car, wanting to land in Barcelona for a few weeks. But staying downtown was too expensive, so I searched online for a place outside the city. On an unassuming website, a restaurant advertised apartments in the tiny village of Sant Pere Molanta. The restaurateur, Joan Reventos, has become a friend we go back and back to visit. We have taken friends with us to visit him and his family, too. Here’s why: Born and raised in the Penedes wine region, Joan enthusiastically wanted to show us all his favorite places, including his vineyards and family farm, as well as ancient churches, museums, and world-class wineries, like Freixenet. He served as a knowledgeable host for all things local, making us fall in love with the region, too. We have dined in all three of his restaurants, trying seasonal foods such as Carne D’olla, an autumn meat soup, and calcots, a winter onion dipped in romesco sauce. His sister Anna invited me into her kitchen to learn pastry and chocolate-making. We drank Joan’s homemade mistala dessert wine, pouring it directly into our mouths from the porron pitcher. Changed our lives? Hell, yes.
TA: Which underrated destination deserves to be more famous?
Josie: Vilafranca del Penedes. This is the capital wine city outside of Barcelona. The city itself is large enough to have a medieval old city, where pedestrians wander and everyone socializes every day, plus great shopping and eating at every turn. Even casual plastic-chaired diners have exceptional cuisine. A bottle of decent wine cost 3 euros, and a wonderful meal can be had for 10 euros per person. A short drive away is Sitges, a sparkly beach resort. Walk the boardwalk for several miles and stop at a bar for sangria and oysters. Two world-class wineries are nearby, as well as ArtCava, a boutique vintner where you can don an apron and make your own wine. The basilica at Montserrat is a day trip up a craggy mountainside by cablecar or bus. A museum, the basilica, and funicular to the summit, as well as miles of lovely walking trails await. A surprisingly good cafeteria serves fantastic food. Many castles are nearby, too, where you can poke around history. This is my favorite part of the world and we’ve been back many times to discover more.
Most people who go to Barcelona, (admittedly a first-rate destination in itself), never venture outside the city. A train from Barcelona goes directly to Vilafranca and is, in my opinion, a worthy place to land for a truly authentic Spanish experience.