At Home on the Globe / Travel / Travel Tips

10 Tips for Finding the Ideal Apartment While Traveling

 Amsterdam Houseboat w bench

Just imagine … Step out the door of your Amsterdam houseboat with a steaming mug of home-brewed coffee as you watch the swirl of bikes heading to the daily Flower Market. Peruse Portobello Road, rubbing elbows with Londoners, stopping for tea on your way home to your cozy Notting Hill flat. Stroll to your local Bangkok Floating Market, haggling amiably with your favorite merchant because you love to see her smile.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It feels good. It feels right. You’re at home on the globe and living like a local.

Today, more travelers yearn to live like locals – experiencing destinations from an up-close-and-personal perspective rather than a sanitized tourist viewpoint.

We learned years ago that the best way to understand and embrace a city is to rent a short-term apartment and immerse yourself in the culture. It takes a bit of savvy to find the right apartment. And if mistakes are a great teacher, then we are definitely well-educated! Here’s your chance to learn from our mistakes and benefit from our successes. We’ve compiled our 10 best tips to help you find your ideal apartment.

Statue of Liberty

1. Make Sure Your Destination City Allows Short-Term Rentals. Before you put tons of energy into finding a short-term apartment in some idyllic location, check out their laws. Most cities (and landlords) are thrilled to have your hard-earned cash, but legislation in cities such as New York, Paris, and Amsterdam have targeted landlords who operate illegally (read “non-payment of taxes”), placing restrictions on some types of short-term arrangements. So before you rent that SoHo loft, make sure your landlord is operating legally. Many of the problems seem to center on Airbnb hosts who ignore local regulations.

Eiffel Tower

2. Work Within Your Budget. I know, I uttered the dreaded “B word,” but few of us dash off willy-nilly on an adventure without some serious consideration of the money side of the trip. Travelers operate to budgets, whether they admit it or not. And everyone has their own preferred style of travel – bare bones all the way to luxury.

The age-old “chicken and egg” question for travelers is “quality or quantity?” when selecting an apartment. Do you want a handsome, expensive apartment or a cheaper place so you can afford to stay longer? Ideally, our goal is to have both, but if push comes to shove, we choose quantity. That means we’re willing to live simply in a smaller, less-expensive apartment so we can stay longer. You, on the other hand, may just have 2 weeks to travel so you’re willing to increase your apartment budget because it doesn’t have to stretch as long.

For us, the cost should certainly be less than staying in a hotel and eating all our meals out. Our goal is for our combined lodging and food budget to be 1/2 to 1/3 … or less than staying in a hotel.

Here’s the catch: Once you start looking at apartments online, you’ll be hooked … and it’s easy to get all dreamy-eyed and let your budget drift upwards. The Bottom Line: Don’t look at Penthouses if you’re on a Studio budget.

Bed

3. Make a List of Must-Haves, Druthers, and Deal Breakers. For “list makers” this step is easy – sheet of paper, 3 columns, bang it out. Others of you may create a Mind Map or a spreadsheet. No matter what approach you use, you’ll need to figure out what your ideal short-term apartment looks like. For example:

• Does it need to accommodate your family of 4? That’s a “Must Have.”

• Do you prefer to sleep on a real bed, or will you tolerate a futon if the studio is in the Arts District? That’s a “Druther.”

• Does the sound of loud music until the wee hours coming from the bar downstairs excite you or set your teeth on edge? Choosing a flat above a bar may be a “Deal Breaker.”

Drummer

Once you have the list, you’re well on your way to starting your search. For example you’ll know you’re looking for a 1 bedroom flat in the Town Center that’s non-smoking, not above a bar, sleeps 4, has a full kitchen, elevator (lift), free wifi, allows children … and is in your budget!

4. Research Areas of Town That Meet Your Needs. If you’re into the nightlife, then you may want to be close to the action so you don’t have to take late-night taxis or public transport. If you’re traveling with kids, look for family-friendly locales. Or if museums are your thing, certain neighborhoods may offer better access. We’re always interested in a potential apartment’s proximity to public transit and and at least one supermarket. Great neighborhood maps are often found in print or online guides such as Frommer’s, Rick Steves, or Lonely Planet.

The Louvre

5. Start The Search. Now for the fun part! The choices of fully furnished apartments available online will boggle your mind. There are hundreds of listing sites, many of them focusing on specific cities or countries. So hunt around for options specific to your destination.

Well-established apartment rental operators include Home Away, FlipKey, Roomorama, VRBO, Wimdu, 9flats, and Airbnb. Of all the choices, our personal faves are HomeAway and FlipKey – two excellent organizations that we’ve used and come to trust.

Other options include: renting rooms in a house, flat, or dorm; exchanging houses; and staying for free via “hospitality” arrangements. Lodging alternatives companies include:
HomeLink and HomeExchange offer home swaps.
BeWelcome, Hospitality Club, and Couchsurfing offer hospitality arrangements.
Airbnb, 9flats, TravelmobHouseTrip, and Wimdu also offer rooms in homes.
Hosteling International offers dorm-style accommodations.

I must admit, that although we are huge fans of Craigslist, we don’t use it for renting accommodation when traveling. We’ve had marvelous experiences selling and buying items on Craigslist, but strangely, when it comes to accommodation, Craigslist is rife with scams and has no oversight. Therefore, we give it a miss.

Malta

6. Ask! Never, Ever Assume! When we rented an apartment for a 1 month stay in Malta, the place looked great in the photos – nice kitchen, separate bedroom, air conditioner on the wall. When we arrived it looked just like the pictures. Since it was so hot that day, we fired up the AC. James said, “Do you smell something burning?” We realized it was the AC … that wasn’t an air conditioner (as we had assumed). It was a heater! A very hot and painful lesson learned! Since then we ask, ask, ask.

7. Read the Reviews or Talk with People You Trust. We don’t rent flats unless they have published reviews, or we talk to someone who has rented before us. Full stop.

We learned this lesson the hard way. Early on, we fell in love with a gorgeous flat we saw online, got caught up in the gotta-have-it fever, and rented it. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of not asking what businesses were in the same building. There were no reviews, so we ended up renting a place over a gambling club. Turns out poker players like to fight … then the sirens … and the cops come in the middle of the night. Sheesh!

These were hard lessons learned and we paid the price. There’s obviously more to an apartment than meets the eye!

No Fighting

8. Verify the Total Price. Before you commit, ask your rental agency or landlord for an all-inclusive price (in writing) – not just the weekly rental amount. This figure should include extra fees such as utilities, phone, internet, cleaning, agency fees, taxes , and non refundable deposits. All of these add-ons can catapult a reasonable price to a jaw-dropping sum.

Also be sure to understand and seriously consider the cancellation policies. We’ve had to use these a few times when family emergencies struck. Knowing their policies in advance helps us choose apartments with reasonable penalties.

9. Negotiate the Deal: The Art of the Ask! Oh, now I’ve dealt the dreaded “Negotiate!” card, but it’s actually just the art of politely asking a few simple questions. For example, don’t be afraid to inquire if they offer a discount for cash paid on arrival. Often the landlord would prefer to give you a bit of a break rather than pay the credit card company their percentage. Or if payment in certain currencies (e.g. Euros) is more valuable to them, they may reduce your rate if you pay in Euros.

Sometimes if you stay a week, they’ll give you the 8th day free as did our wonderful landlord in Riga, Latvia. Woohoo! And we always choose an apartment that will waive their cleaning fee if we leave it sparkling clean. So just ask.

Euros

10. Manage the Pre-Arrival Money Aspect. All Landlords have a payment policy. They may request a deposit and/or reservation fee in advance, along with partial or full payment for your stay. These policies may be negotiable, so after years of experience, these are our insights:

Deposits – A small, refundable deposit to reserve an apartment seems reasonable to us. So, when requested, we pay it on a credit card. Be sure to print a receipt and bring it with you for arrival. But do note that many apartments do not require advance deposits, and we give these higher preference during our search. And never pay an advance deposit in cash.

A non-refundable deposit or “management fee” is not acceptable to us, so we skip those rentals and look elsewhere for a win-win relationship.

Partial or Full Rent Payment – If you’re planning to rent for 1-2 weeks your landlord may require pre-payment. Honestly, it’s a judgement call. First, we look harder to find a place with better terms. We are loathe to pay large sums, in advance, sight unseen. Nevertheless, we have done it once when we exhausted all other possibilities. Luckily, everything worked out OK.

If you’re renting for a month or longer, you should be able to negotiate significantly better terms.

But if you’re visiting a highly desired destination at a peak time, you’re pretty much at their mercy. For example, if you’re dead set on going to Venice for Carnival, then whatever the landlord’s terms are, you’ll have to pay to play.

Venice Carnival

Lagniappe Tip #11 – Use Google Maps Street View to See What’s Around You. Talk about eye-opening! Before you commit to your dream apartment, check it out on the ground.

If you start at your potential location, do a 360°, then walk your street and turn some corners, you’ll get a feel for where your new potential home is – and avoid the Strip Club right beside your building. In Athens, if we had done that, then we would have known there was a pharmacy across the street from our apartment building. So when the taxi dropped us off at the wrong place we would have known – instead of ringing the wrong doorbell, confusing the poor lady who tried to understand our babbling, and making us hail another taxi to find our real flat. Ah, the life of a traveler.

Next week I’ll give you some juicy tips on what to do when you arrive at your apartment.

Cheers,
Terri

This is the second installment in our 3-part series: “Rent a Short-Term Apartment When You Travel.” If you want to catch up, check out 7 Reasons to Rent an Apartment the Next Time You Travel”  and “25 Tips to Make Your Short-Term Apartment a Reality.”

Tulips
Photo Credits:
1, 2. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. 11, 12.

67 thoughts on “10 Tips for Finding the Ideal Apartment While Traveling

    • You’re very welcome. It would be great to look at the process from a landlord’s perspective. I would love to hear your thoughts on it, How many units will you be renting in Progresso? ~Terri

  1. Excellent post. I’ve been looking for an apartment in Istanbul recently and ran into many of the potential problems you describe. It took so long to sort out a flat that I was starting to consider a hotel (which was more expensive, shabbier, small rooms, in a worse area, etc but at least it was straightforward to book)

    • Thanks so much. Looking for a place can definitely be time consuming – my efforts are usually directly proportional to how much time we’re going to spend there. Were you able to find a place in Istanbul yet? We haven’t rented a flat there yet, so I’m not familiar with their market. I saw that FlipKey (owned by TripAdvisor) has 251 Istanbul listings and HomeAway has 150. Both have reviews, let you search by price, and are usually very easy to book. Maybe that’s helpful if you’re still looking. Good luck because Istanbul is an awesome city! All the best, Terri

      • Thanks, Terri. I found an apartment which looks nice (on tripadvisor/flipkey) and booked it. I did have to end an advance though and it was my understanding that this is how everybody operates, so I was surprised to read that you never pay an advance. I had an issue with Airbnb, who would block the entire amount right from the start on my card if I booked through them!

  2. Terri: This is GREAT and timely information! We may try to rent an apartment in Wanaka, New Zealand when we get away in August to ski. There seem to be some nice places available. Thanks for prepping us about how to proceed. Much appreciated! K.

    • Thanks Kelly. We rented a great place in Wellington while James recovered from the Dengue Fever he caught in southeast Asia. We didn’t make it to Wanaka, but it looks fabulous. And I hear the skiing is great! Looking forward to those posts. All the best, Terri

      • OMG, my husband Jason also got Dengue when we were visiting Vietnam in 2010. What a terrible illness! It is hard to avoid in southeast Asia. Btw, isn’t Wellington great? So pretty on the water. I hiked the Abel Tasman Coast Trail across the way in Nelson. Gorgeous!

      • That’s amazing! What are the chances? I fell in love with Wellington – taking walks everyday while James got some recovery sleep. I read that the Abel Tasman Coast Trail is awesome … and you just confirmed it!

    • Thank you Jennifer. Lisbon is a fascinating city and I hope that your family will enjoy it. I would really like to hear about your apartment-hunting experience. Everyone goes about it differently and I’m always interested in new tips. I loved your very informative post on Curacao – great info on what the brochures don’t tell you! All the best, Terri

      • So far we have just used Airbnb on our trip but are going to look at all the options once we get to Lisbon. Your list is going to be put to good use. I will let you know how it goes 🙂

  3. This fits right in with our lifelong desire to live a month somewhere else — anywhere else — and then poke around as if we were locals. Your tips are excellent! And I like the list of web sites to check out. Another thing I didn’t think about is Google Maps — thanks for that tip. It could be we’ll get to do this in the near future!!!! http://ohtheplaceswesee.com

    • Rusha, I’m so glad you can use the info. Have you decided where you will go for this wonderful month? It really is a fun thing to do – and with a temporary “home” you really get a feel for a place, often making it hard to leave! All the best, Terri

  4. Great advice. I agree re: Home Away being a great source for short term rentals. I thought I knew a bit about this process, but your list is truly all-encompassing. Helpful enough that I printed up your post and will include it in our travel folder. Thanks you very much!

      • Congratulations! You must be thrilled to see it all coming together. I’m sure that your to-do list is mind boggling. When you switch into full swing, will you do all of your own booking or use some of the booking sites?

      • we have full time jobs in London, so we will use booking sites or agencies next year. To maximise rental/days with hopefully a longer season. But of course we want to keep some weeks where we can use the house ourselves, after all this hard work!!!

  5. Great advice. Unfortunately, for a single traveler on a budget, apartments tend to be too pricey. There was one fabulous small place in Budapest, though. (It is on Flipkey, although I read about the owner on Fodors.)

    • You’re welcome, Ruth. It’s great to hear that you’ve had success with those 2 organizations. We have dealt with some of the nicest owner through them – a real testament to how they treat both owners and renters. ~Terri

  6. This is excellent Terri! We began traveling by renting flats a couple years ago and I never want to go back. It’s the way to do it but your advice is right on. And Craigslist is out of control with scamming for short term stays. We have been so spoiled in recent years to have a daughter and friends in Cairo and now a brother in Istanbul. One of the things I’ve realized is when you’ve lived overseas, it’s really hard to be a tourist. Renting a flag helps:).

    • Thank you so much Marilyn. I’m sure with all of your travel that having a “home away from home” comes in really handy, And how wonderful that you have family and friends at those beautiful destinations – that just makes the trip even better. You are so right about never really being able to be a tourist again … just a traveler on an extended journey. It’s great to hear from you … and I love the flag idea! ;~} Terri

    • Thanks Jeannee. It’s wonderful to hear from people who have rented apartments and liked the outcome. I also wanted to let you know that we tried your recipe for Mojo Chicken this week and it was fabulous – I’m a total sucker for anything with cumin and lime! Thanks for a great recipe … now we’ll have to make the mojitos! ~Terri

  7. Thanks for stopping by my blog! So happy to find yours. 🙂 This is an especially good post…. we always rent apartments when we are traveling with kids. I have asked for – and gotten – discounts by asking for them when we have stayed in a place for longer than one week, and also during off-peak times. Trip Advisor now lists vacation rentals as well as hotels, etc.

    • Thanks Wendi. It’s great to talk with someone who rents apartments while traveling. I love it that TripAdvisor now includes vacation rentals because there are usually reviews. Are there other rental agencies that you’ve used and like? All the best, Terri

      • I also like to see the reviews on TripAdvisor. You covered pretty much all the sites I have used except for Abritel in France. And I like to go to HomeAwayUK to find more options for Europe! Same with TripAdvisorUK.

    • Hi Lisa, I’m so excited for your upcoming adventures! Have you already made plans for what you’ll do after your summer journeys, or are you playing it by ear? Wishing you all the best, Terri

  8. Thank you for sharing your expertise on apartment hunting. We will definitely keep your advice in mind as we embark on our big travel adventure in the next few months. We are relative newbies when it comes to long term travel and we’re about to try our hands at becoming nomads, so your advice and experience is very valuable to us! We will keep following along.

    • Hi Carol and Al, So glad that you stopped by and found the info useful! Your adventure looks wonderful – I know you’re going to love it! When will you be heading out? All the best, Terri

      • We plan to get the house up for sale ASAP and we will start travelling right after the closing date. So, if all goes well, we’ll be hitting the road before the end of the summer. We still haven’t decided where to go first… any suggestions?

      • Hi Carol and Al, Isn’t it exciting to have so many choices! We’ve done 2 RTWs from the US – the first traveling west, the second going east. Our philosophy is to 1.) tackle “challenging locations” early on, when we’re fresh, 2.) avoid locations at their peak tourist times, and 3.) establish a base location in a region and do day trips from there. Some of our all-time faves include: Peru, Cambodia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, UK and Spain. If you’re leaving in the early fall it’s the perfect time to hit Europe for their shoulder season (fewer tourists, lower prices), but if you’re leaving in August you can enjoy winter in the southern hemisphere. I can’t wait to hear what you decide. All the best, Terri

  9. This post should be a bible for those renting a short-term apartment! I am very partial to airbnb but will check out your other suggestions too!
    Staying at a housebout on the Seine in Paris tomorrow (now in an apartment in a non-touristy area) where from the deck I can see the Eiffel Tower stand proud!!!
    Thanks for this post.

    • Thank you so much Lidia! Wow – Staying in a houseboat on the Seine! How romantic that sounds. And your current apartment sounds pretty awesome, too. Hope you have a wonderful stay in Paris. All the best, Terri

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