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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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, 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.
Another one of our favorite options is to use Booking.com to find great apartments in buildings that have a reception desk. That way it doesn’t matter what time you arrive – there is always someone there to check you in, give you the keys, and answer your questions. It sure beats waiting on a street corner hoping that a landlord will show up. When you search for your destination at their website, check the filter on the left side for “apartment” or “kitchenette” depending on your preferences.
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 and Couchsurfing offer hospitality arrangements.
• Airbnb, 9flats, HouseTrip, 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.
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!
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.
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.
Bonus 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.
Updated January 2, 2020
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.”