A while back, I left my corporate desk job to be a blogger, which was a big life change for our family. At first, the career change slashed my income by 85 percent.
As we wrestled with making that decision, it was important to us that we didn’t sacrifice the small things we enjoy as a family. Visiting our local zoo. Getting an awesome family board game we’ve had our eye on. Picking up Costco pizza for dinner once in a while – i.e. twice a week like clockwork.
And we had one big, important budget item we didn’t want to sacrifice: Going on family vacations.
But Why Are Family Vacations So Important?
Even when our budget was tighter than it had ever been, we knew we needed to make family vacations a priority at least once a year.
Here’s why it matters: Research shows you’re better off spending your money on family vacations instead of toys for your kids. This is because after a week or two, kids get bored with the “new” toy. (Although…did we really need research for that part? Any parent could tell you that!)
Vacations also even serve as “happiness anchors” for kids. This is kind of like the concept of core memories from the movie Inside Out. In other words, vacations stick in kids’ brains as vivid memories, and later on as adults those memories can even help them get through tough times.
But…how can you plan vacations when you’re worried about whether you’ll be able to pay your mortgage?
Here’s the Good News
We figured out a way to get free family vacations. Every single time.
Full disclosure: At first, this might sound a little weird. But it works.
Ready for our secret?
We rent out our house. To strangers.
This isn’t a second rental property. This is our one and only family home.
When we get a rental, we pack up the family (including our cats) and check into a nearby hotel for a few nights.
The first year we used this strategy, we rented our house eight times.
And it’s because of this strategy that we took a family vacation that year to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – without spending a DIME from our savings. No credit cards either.
Could we save that money and apply it to our mortgage or car loans to get ahead? Yes, we certainly could. But travel is important to us as a family, so we’ve chosen to make that a priority even in a challenging financial time. And that trip was completely free, thanks to our home rentals.
The Secret of How This Works
We don’t make a huge profit from renting our house out, but here’s the secret to using this trick to pay for all your family vacations, free and clear, and even get a little spending money left over.
Warning: If as you’re reading, you’re thinking “That would never work for me,” hang tight until the end of the post for a couple more creative ideas that might be a better fit for getting you free family vacations!
- List your house on Airbnb. You have other options for getting your listing out there, but as an Airbnb host, you are protected up to $1,000,000. They handle the money, verify the personal ID of guests and hosts, and do lots of other important stuff you can learn about here. (By the way, if you use my link, you’ll get a $40 credit towards your first stay at an Airbnb property.)
- Wait for your first reservation request. Talk to your guests through the Airbnb messaging system to finalize the details, then do a little dance because the magic is about to happen.
- During the rental, find a place to stay in town. We use hotels.com to book our room at a clean and comfortable but affordable hotel. For example, if we were renting our house for $250 a night, we would try to find a hotel for $100-150 a night. So for a 3-night weekend stay, you could make $450 profit. That’s not a huge amount, but that’s why it’s important to use hotels.com to book your room. Every 10 nights you stay through hotels.com, you get a free night. You will rack these up over a few rentals and have 2-3 free nights for your own family by the end of the year.
- When you pay for your hotel stay during the rental, use a credit card that will earn miles for your airline of choice. Immediately after you receive the rental payment, pay off the amount of your hotel stay on the credit card. Racking up credit card debt is NOT part of this plan! If you sign up for the Southwest Rapid Rewards card with my special link, you get 40,000 bonus points. That’s enough bonus points for two round-trip flights.
- Any profit you make, sock it away in savings to cover extra costs during your family vacation. These could come in the form of plane tickets not quite covered by miles, an extra hotel night to round out your free nights, dining out costs, car rental, and so on.
After a few rentals, you’ll have built up enough free hotel nights for your family vacation, plus some airline miles to lessen the blow of flight costs. And more importantly, you’ll have saved up all your profit to cover flights and other vacation expenses.
Check out This Example
- 8 times a year, you rent out your home for three nights at $250/night
- 24 nights x $250 = $6000
- 24 nights of your own hotel stays x $125 = $3000
Airbnb also takes a small fee off the reservation total to cover handling the transaction, hosting your listing, and so on. In this example, the total fee for the whole year’s reservations would be $180.
Which makes your profit:
- 2 free hotel nights on hotels.com
- 3000 airline points or miles, which is well on your way to one free leg of a flight – you can ramp up these earnings faster if you use your airline card for paying bills and buying groceries and then pay it off right away
Forget the Free Vacation – Here’s the Best Part
When we pack up and check into a hotel for a few days, we have the BEST time as a family.
Here’s why: We don’t have a home improvement to-do list to work on. We don’t have errands to run to keep the house stocked. We don’t have laundry to do.
We just have each other.
So we play our favorite board games, we find fun stuff to do around town, we eat nachos for dinner.
It’s a lot like camping. Except without bug bites and coyotes howling at the wind while you’re trying to sleep.
During one of our hotel stays, we taught our 6-year-old how to play Clue. She beat us on her first time. And the second time, too, actually.
Now that’s some quality family time.
Why This Works
If you’re doubting whether anyone would rent your house, think about this.
When you are traveling as a family, which is more appealing to you?
- Staying in a family home with all the creature comforts like a kitchen and a fireplace and a real crib, or
- Paying for two (or more) hotel rooms that may or may not even be next to each other and likely will have just a mini fridge where you’ll have to shove tiny bottles of alcohol out of the way to make room for the baby’s milk
There’s nothing special about our house. It’s in a regular neighborhood and not even close to downtown or any of the popular stuff to do in our city.
But the demand is high. We end up turning down several reservations a year because we’ve decided we want to rent just 8-10 times a year.
Not only does renting a family home give travelers a better experience, they can also save money. For example, a family traveling with mom, dad, three kids, plus grandma and grandpa would have to get at least two hotel rooms. At $125 a night, that could be the same cost as getting a whole HOUSE to stay in. Then your guests can save money by grocery shopping and making their own meals.
How to Make Even More Money
While you’re renting your home, you could go camping to save up even more money.
Or you can stay with family or friends you’ve been meaning to visit anyway – as long as you can get there without spending too much on travel.
That way, you’re not spending ANY money on hotel stays.
I Bet You Have Some Questions…
I’ll do my best to answer the common questions, but leave a comment if you have more!
Isn’t it weird to have strangers in your home?
It was, at first. But it’s just a house filled with things.
This experience has given us the amazing gift of realizing what’s really important: time with our kids.
What about all your stuff?
First, it helps to keep in mind that your renters will know from your listing that they’re renting a person’s primary residence. They’re not expecting your home to have empty closets and pantries.
With that said, here’s what we do:
- Clothing, shoes, toys – We leave all our clothing and other belongings exactly where they are. After a while, we decided we’d like to clear one dresser drawer in each room and leave a little “for guests” tag on the drawer pull to let them know they could use that drawer. As a side benefit, we were grateful for the excuse to purge clothing we weren’t wearing anyway (making Marie Kondo proud!).
- Valuables – When it comes to valuables like laptops, cameras, and jewelry, we take some of that with us to the hotel (like laptops and our digital camera). But for everything else, we installed a lock on a spare closet and store all valuables in the closet. Then when it’s time to clear out of the house, we just lock the closet and go.
- Food – We have a “you use it, you replace it” rule for guests. If we have anything special in the fridge we don’t want to share, we put that food in a brown paper grocery bag, write “not for guests” on the bag in Sharpie, and put the bag back in the fridge. If you didn’t want guests using your pantry food, you could also install a lock on your pantry door and lock it before you leave. But in general, we come out ahead in the food equation because guests typically buy groceries so they can cook during their stay – but they rarely use everything all up, so we get the leftovers.
What if someone breaks something?
So far, we haven’t had anything broken. But we break a plate or a cup once every couple months ourselves, so we’re not too worried about replacing a broken dish if that were to happen. The guests leave a security deposit that will cover small issues like that.
And by going through Airbnb, you get the benefit of their million-dollar guarantee.
Did you have to spend money up front to get your house ready?
Yes, but they were projects we needed to do anyway, like fixing a broken stair railing and painting rooms with dingy old paint. Our first few home rentals went towards covering those projects instead of family vacations.
What are the hidden costs of renting your house?
You can choose to provide the basics like toilet paper, bed linens, towels, soap, shampoo, and so on. Or you can choose not to.
So it’s up to you how much you cut into your profit with these little extras. In your Airbnb listing, you will just note which amenities you provide so guests know what to expect.
Is it a total pain to clean your house for every rental?
Yes. Yes, it is.
Down the road, we chose to use part of our profits to fund a house cleaner before each rental visit. That cuts into our profits, but it’s worth it to us to 1) get a clean house out of the deal, and 2) not be stressing out running around cleaning at the last minute before each rental.
Some municipalities and state governments have regulations related to this type of rental. For example, where we live the city and state both require you to collect taxes on the rental. This doesn’t cut into our profit because the taxes are on top of the rental rate.
Our city also requires us to have a rental license on file with them, and there’s an annual fee for that. It’s a small fee for us, but research first to make sure you know what you’re getting into.
If we can make this work with two adults, four kids, and three cats, you totally can too.
Bonus! Two More Creative Ideas for Free Vacations
Renting your house out may not work for you, so here are a couple more ideas for free vacations:
- Swap houses – List your house on a site like HomeExchange. People who are looking to travel to your area can then contact you to arrange a swap, or you can proactively reach out to people who’ve listed their homes. Then use a credit card to earn points and save up for airfare. Side note: This is how we were able to visit Hawaii for our honeymoon! (We used the Southwest Rapid Rewards card. As a bonus, when you sign up, you get enough bonus points for two round-trip flights. Use my special link and get 40,000 bonus points.)
- Pet sit – I heard about this from my hairdresser. You can sign up as a pet sitter on a site like TrustedHousesitters, then people hire you to watch their pets and their home while they’re on vacation. My hairdresser’s friend managed to get a trip to Europe this way! Again, you have to pay for airfare, but you can use a credit card like the Southwest Rapid Rewards card for your regular monthly expenses to earn points, then pay it off at the end of every month.
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Would you rent your house out to strangers? Share your thoughts in a comment below!