On Staying There
Once we know when our flights are (and we usually can’t commit to any lodging until our airline tickets have been bought and confirmed), we start to fill in the blanks and find where we will stay. As a family of five we have different needs and concerns than some with regard to travel. This includes things as leaning toward rental apartments and houses in foreign countries over staying at your traditional hotels.
Some of the primary reasons for this include:
- Space: The biggest consideration is packing 5 people into a single hotel room (especially me with 4 women) makes for very cramped living quarters. Many hotels, especially in Europe, will require you to upgrade to a larger (and more expensive) suite or book two rooms, making the hotel a much more expensive option.
- Amenities: Hotels are generally very nice, but when renting apartments or houses we get more of a place to “live” during our stay that includes a kitchen, multiple bedrooms (and privacy), and especially important, washers and dryers. This provides our family with the option to stay home a few nights, cook a meal in our own kitchen, and pack much lighter for our trip knowing we can always do laundry as needed. These two points alone are HUGE cost savings and make our travel much less stressful and more cost-efficient. One of our first steps in a new place is to find the local market or grocery store and stock up our new temporary “home” with supplies. That way we can cook, relax, have drinks, or do whatever in the comfort of a nice place to stay after a long day of touring. A hotel room is rarely somewhere we are comfortable coming back to after a long day. Most apartments or houses we stay at come with many more amenities a hotel couldn’t provide, and we’ll talk about some of those later. It is also worth noting that apartments and houses usually make more sense for longer stays (4+ nights). If we are in an area only a few nights, we definitely lean toward hotels for the convenience of getting in and out quickly.
- Culture: Staying in a rental apartment or house in a foreign country also offers a much more culturally-rich experience for our family. We often get to meet and know the homeowner or renter (usually a local) and we get to stay in a neighborhood or area we might not experience in a standard “hotel.” We sometimes get to know neighbors, the local grocery, and more!
Before going into detail on how we find our accommodations, I do want to point out that finding great places to stay has been a key factor in my family’s success in traveling. With vacation rentals, you deal with local people, not organizations with huge customer support requirements. Many times these people may or may not speak your native tongue. They might not respond to your emails immediately. You will need to know how to pay them, how to ask the questions you may need to get to your new rental, and how to have a successful stay there. If you have difficulty in doing this, it could sour your trip prior to even starting. As a reader (and general consumer) I’m a HUGE fan of Amazon because I can see reviews of books or merchandise prior to making my own decision on whether to purchase. I rarely read a terrible book because I’ve already put some effort into seeing what other people think of it prior to my reading it, and I rarely read a book with very few reviews. That being said, I treat vacation rentals the same way. Choosing the right rental is a big step in a successful vacation, and I don’t want to be the first person someone rents to. The process I go through and the applications I describe below give me the option to see what other people think of a rental, the owner, the process, etc. If a property has little to no reviews, I typically steer clear and move on to the next one. Following my gut and carefully tracking reviews of locations has led to a very successful track record for my family in renting vacation properties. Everywhere we stay is a hit. In a few instances, they have even exclaimed that we hit “Grand Slams!” All it took me was some planning. Per the review process, I also am very good about contributing my own reviews at the completion of each trip for the benefit of future travelers and to help acknowledge a good property. This is just common courtesy if someone has provided your family a nice place to stay.
Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO) (or HomeAway)
One of the first places we look for vacation rentals is www.vrbo.com. With VRBO property, owners list their properties where consumers can locate them via powerful search and filtering capabilities. Each listing includes pictures, descriptions, a calendar of availability, and reviews from previous renters. HomeAway and VRBO are related organizations through some type of merger, and I consider them both the same company.
With VRBO you can find some amazing locations with all the amenities you could ask for that is available during your window of travel and within your price range. We have rented huge villas with 180’ views of the oceans in Antigua and beautiful farmhouses with pools in the Provencal countryside. Take some time to look through VRBO and enter the location of your dreams to see what they have available for rental. You may be amazed at how reasonable the cost is for great accommodations in some wonderful locations.
Once you locate a property you are interested in (or would like to know more about) with VRBO, you use their site to contact the landlord directly. Oftentimes this quickly evolves into offline emails or calls where questions and details are worked out. Payment can go through VRBO but many landlords prefer to be paid directly via either credit cards or foreign bank transfers. Most properties require a down payment and then specify a payment schedule to be completed at some point prior to your stay. This model is similar to Craigslist where you go to find items you are interested in, but Craigslist has no (or little) involvement in the transaction itself. This is why the review process is so important. You can do a lot of work to alleviate risk by evaluating the comments that others have left regarding their interactions and stays at various properties.
We have recently started renting some of our properties from www.AirBnb.com. AirBnB has some very nice mobile applications to not only find properties but also to communicate with landlords. AirBnB and VRBO have a lot of overlap, and you will find that different regions and countries might have more or fewer properties available on one or the other. For that reason, when we travel we usually search both of these sites.
AirBnB differs somewhat from VRBO in the fact that all payment and communication goes through AirBnB and never directly from you to the landlord. AirBnB makes their money on commissions on the transaction (as opposed to VRBO, who charges landlords for the listings and then stays out of the transactions). When you book a property at AirBnB, you will likely pay the full cost of the stay up front, and the landlord is then paid on or near the start of your stay.
AirBnB is also much more focused on the review process (which is a good thing). With AirBnB landlords review you as a renter, and you review them as a property owner. This is a key (and required) part of their rental process and benefits all involved. When you opt to rent a property through AirBnB, you put in a request (and payment) and the landlord has 2 days to review your reviews and decide whether they want to accept you as someone in their property. As a new user to AirBnB, you may be denied a few times (I was) prior to getting accepted for a property. As you use the site more and get more positive feedback, it is easier to get quickly accepted for a property.
We use www.TripAdvisor.com to review rentals and hotels in much the same way we use VRBO or AirBnB. Oftentimes we will use TripAdvisor’s massive review system to look for reviews of a place we are considering but found through a VRBO.
Kayak is less useful when renting a property but definitely of value when looking for hotels for shorter stays. You get a massive amount of coverage across different hotel chains and some very nice searching capabilities.
For hotels we have had success with www.Booking.com. Booking.com offers very competitive rates and is a window into more boutique hotels than we would find elsewhere. Their review system is also very nice and gives us an opportunity to get some insight into the quality of the hotel experience.
Additional Thoughts on Lodging
It is also worth noting that many property owners have restrictions on the length of stay at their properties with some enforcing a minimum Saturday-to-Saturday rule. This has a definite impact on your choices if you have saved money on airline tickets by flying in on a Wednesday and out on a Monday or something unusual.
Taking into account the above sites we use to research and book lodging, it’s important to note that you can use most of them to really tailor your search to your group’s specific needs. Due to my line of work it is critical that everywhere we stay have fast (and wireless) Internet (this is also very beneficial to our travel planning and my daughters’ enjoyment of a location). When renting a bigger house we like to have a private pool, a grill, local TV, and other things that we know from experience will make our trip more enjoyable. I usually also know neighborhoods that I would prefer staying in (if I am familiar with a city). Taking these requirements (and my target daily budget for lodging) into account it’s fairly easy to filter through thousands of possible rentals on AirBnB or VRBO to only those that fit my needs and budget. Then I can start evaluating the reviews left by others on these properties and asking any pertinent questions of the landlord before settling on the perfect property. On a longer trip such as the one we just returned from, we rented an artist’s apartment in Paris’ 10th arrondisment (through VRBO), a farmhouse in Provence (through VRBO), and an apartment in Rome near the Vatican (through AirBnB), which were all perfect, VERY reasonably priced, and very thoroughly vetted for amenities and ease of working with the landlords. Each was a big hit with the family, and we made some local friends in each region during the rental process. We would gladly stay at any of the properties again, and I have a contact list set up of everywhere we’ve rented. Renting again is just as easy as sending an email to a friend and asking if their place is available.
Be sure to check back with us next Monday for part 3!