I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not a master at this. Not in the way that I’m a master at selling all of our possessions, or annoying our dog, or drinking six people’s coffee intake on a daily basis, or being angry if the sun gets up before I do. But, I have traveled a lot and lived many places, and have been forced to find living spaces on all of these occasions, be they short- or long-term.
I’m always the guy who gets stuck with the booking. Always. It doesn’t matter if I’m traveling with friends, family, my better half, or imaginary friends. No one ever wants to do this. Never! And since I’m known around many parts as the research nerd, this glorious task is more often than not – read: always – bestowed upon me. I like to think it’s because I’m well-traveled, or that I speak multiple languages. But in reality, I’m just the nerd who can (or has the patience to) sift through Internet crap and find what we need. [Edit: Angela reminded me that she booked our hotel for a trip to Dallas a few years ago. Credit where credit is due!]
That said, I’d like to give you an amateur’s perspective on how we go about looking for furnished places during our stays in various cities, countries, and distant planets. (That last one is a lie – I’m afraid of space travel.)
We read a lot of travel blogs. A lot. We like them. Unless they suck. But overall, we read a lot of good ones, as you can see by our sidebar links over there. Most people seem to favor hitting the ground and then finding a place. I totally get this, and it totally makes sense. You want to have your own eyes and ears and the rest of your body on the ground so you can hunt properly. So you can talk to agents, go into coffeehouses and check out the ads, and not unwittingly have your bank transfer stolen by someone who will “send you the keys when you arrive,” or “send their friend with the keys.” Those last ones are common web scams here in Germany, and I suspect they exist all over the place.
And while that’s all well and good, or bad, or somewhere in between, sometimes you really just need to get a place in advance. Maybe it’s high season. Maybe you’re paranoid. Maybe you’re Captain Plans-A-Lot. Maybe you have an aversion to something. I don’t know what. But something. Or, maybe you’re like us and you travel as a trio that consists of an obsessive-compulsive guy, his lovely partner, and their dog. And while you could totally get away with booking a few nights at whatever place in the area, and find a flat from there, you’d rather just get it out of the way.
So, after ranting for a while, you’ve decided that you want to book in advance. You need a flat. Not a hotel, because you’re sticking around for a while. And not a hostel, because you are the above, and you’re not really into the whole group shower thing. I mean, shared shower thing. And so it is. (I must note here that we’ve stayed in some great hostels, with private rooms, that were just as nice and if not better than hotels. So, don’t ever fully throw a hostel idea in the trash.)
I’m going to try to give you a half-assed list as to how you should go about finding a flat, or private stay, or whatever you want to call it. This is what we’ve done. It doesn’t mean this is what you have to do. Scoff at the list all you want. Or love it. Or use and abuse it.
0. BE FLEXIBLE (or Ground Zero Before You Move Forward)
It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about amenities, location, budget, air quality, feng shui, or whatever else your wants and desires and rational decision-making abilities tell you. You must be flexible. And if you already travel a lot, or live overseas, you already know this is true. Despite my OCD, I believe this to be true for life in general. Never settle, unless settling is a better idea. If you can’t be flexible about anything, then you’ll usually end up paying more than you should or being unhappy about your decisions. I’m not telling you that you can’t do that; if that’s your bag, then by all means…However, flexibility can turn your stubbornness into an epic awesomeness of riches. It’s like playing the lottery with what you think you want or think you know. Or something like that.
A good example of this happened a couple of years ago in Paris. We’d booked a flat in the proper location, with all the amenities we needed. At the very last minute, the owner emailed us to tell us that a water pipe had broken, and that we couldn’t stay in the flat. She offered us a different place instead. It wasn’t exactly where we wanted to be, and it didn’t have exactly what we wanted. But you know what? So what. That’s what. I’ve lived in Paris, been there a million times, and can navigate most of it blindfolded, yet I had barely ever spent time in this particular neighborhood. So, even though I had a bountiful array of experience with this city, I also got to see a new area, learn about it, spend time in it, and have a “new” experience in an “old” location.
We did later catch her in a lie (she had actually double-booked, something that her assistant accidentally slipped to me after we arrived), but that really didn’t affect our stay. I simply learned that I should never book with her again, and made the most of our new-found situation.
1. KNOW WHAT YOU WANT/NEED (or What You Think You Want/Need)
What are the main features you need when you stay somewhere? Is it Wi-Fi? A balcony? Great views? A kitchen? Pet-friendly? A real bedroom? Close to town? Close to public transport? A pool? Yada yada. We almost always know what we need, what we want, and what we can handle. Sometimes we’re wrong, but life isn’t worth living if you aren’t willing to make mistakes and learn from them.
Your desired amenities will certainly change depending on your location, but it’s always a good idea to go into your search knowing what you must have and what you can live without. What kind of compromises are you willing to make? You can’t always have a 60 square foot balcony with sea views of mermaids having pillow fights while dolphins bring you the freshest fruits of the sea and silvery flakes of the purest snow fall on a white-tipped mountain off in the distance while servants fan you with palm fronds and you lay in a chaise lounge covered in rare alpaca cashmere and stuffed with the finest bald eagle down feathers. If you can, why are you even reading this?
2. KNOW YOUR BUDGET (but Don’t Let It Fool You)
You probably know how much you can spend, or how much you shouldn’t spend. Oftentimes, I’ll see places that are advertised as crazy cheap, but then I find out that it doesn’t include taxes, utilities, internet, cleaning, breakfast, linens, more than one toilet flush a day, breathable air, etc. Or you have to check out at 3am or be charged for another day, can’t check out ‘til 11pm, whatever. The list goes on. If you’re booking online, be sure to read all the fine print. If you’re talking to an owner, get the totals. Totals are all that matter. Know how much you’re paying, and know what is or is not included.
Example: During our most recent search, we found a place we really like. We got our rates, and they were awesome. After further discussion with the owner, we found out that the first month was all-inclusive, but the two off-season months only included rent. We’d be stuck with utilities for those two months. Not a problem, but we wouldn’t have known if we didn’t ask.
There’s a flipside to that as well. I can tell you countless times when I’ve seen a daily rate on a site that was just inhospitable for a month-long stay. Or I’ve seen room rates on a hotel/flat website that are extraordinarily high. Things that would make me scratch a place from my list if I didn’t have the wherewithal to know that all is not what it seems. While seasoned travelers know how this works, your Average Joe might not have encountered it before.
And with that, I say this: Contact the owner, the manager, or whoever runs the joint. You can easily scrape countless dollars/euros/etc. off your rate by doing something amazing: By asking. Who would have thought?! I never ask if I can get a better deal, although some people do approach it in this way. What I usually do is ask if they have a better rate for a month (versus a week) or a week (versus a night). Is it high season or low season? They might not even advertise different rates. All you have to do is ask.
The awesome Niall Doherty recently negotiated a terrific rate on his flat in Kathmandu, Nepal. At the request of the owner, he didn’t tell the public what he was paying. However, he was able to get a much better rate because he planned on sticking around for a while, something he talked about in detail in this post and video.
We recently went through the storm of contacts for our next home city/country. I would say that at least 95% of these flat owners did not have a monthly or seasonal rate in their listings or on their websites. Many of them were too expensive if you simply took their daily rate and multiplied it by thirty days. So what’d I do? I sent them all direct emails, telling them who we are and what we do, and how long we want to stay. I also told them when. Because I can tell you right now: If there are palm trees in your view, chances are the place you want to rent is much, much higher in the high season. We’re planning on being there in the month that high season winds down, plus another two months. There will literally be a plethora of available spaces. That’s good for us. But you know what? It’s good for them, too. They can fill what would otherwise be an empty space in the off-season, and they can afford to give us a good deal because it probably wasn’t going to be rented out, anyway.
I’m not actually going to tell you how much we’ll be paying until that time comes. I can tell you, though, that it’s significantly cheaper than paying a daily rate, or going during high season, or simply booking via some website. Which leads me to…
3. TALK TO THE OWNER (or Don’t Book Through 8 Layers of Agents)
I know already said to contact or talk to the owner in regard to price. Now I’m talking about communication, connections, relationships, and making your stay more enjoyable by dealing with the right people and staying away from the jerks. It’ll also help you decipher whether you’re talking to an owner with a vested interest in his or her own property, or an agent that hasn’t even been to the property in the last five years.
I honestly don’t have that much against using a booking engine. Sometimes, they are wonderful, glorious, convenient outlets for us to find a place to stay. Sometimes, they are not. You might get screwed one way or another, or you might find the best place you ever stayed. But, I do think we all know that cutting out the middleman can not only save you a ton of money, but it can help you build better relationships with those whose services you are hiring. Again, this does not always work!
But when it does, it is such a glorious thing. Talking to the owner, getting to know them, and booking direct can give you friends you never thought you’d have. It can open doors that would otherwise be closed to you. It can also save you endless loads of your hard-earned cash. I always, always, always try to contact an owner through his or her website. Sometimes, I even find their contact info in a forum, and just shoot them an email. I couldn’t find their site, but they’d gladly reply with a link.
We recently had an owner offer to take us out with his family, go fishing, barbecue with them, be taken around the area, and basically live like a local. We might have been offered this upon our arrival, who knows. Had we booked through a website, we never would have known that this was possible. Offers like that can not only increase your level of comfort, they can greatly influence the decision you make about where to stay. Clearly.
I also tend to stop replying to owners who repeatedly send me emails about the wonders of their place, without actually ever giving me a real price. I really don’t need to have a week-long conversation with you on email in order for you to tell me how much it’s going to cost to rent your place for three months. I hate to say it, but shit or get off the pot. There are oodles of places available, and your wishy-washy, covert-ops attitude is not going to get you a customer. Do you act like that with your guests as well? No thanks, says me.
4. LOOK IN THE RIGHT PLACES (or You Probably Never Thought About This)
Are you having fun searching for a furnished rental on Google? Is it enjoyable for you? Do you wake up with excitement every morning, knowing that you’re going to have to search through endless arrays of B.S. and overpriced sites that cater to holidaymakers? I’m obviously being sarcastic, but if you actually do enjoy that, then you are quite the interesting person. And again, why are you reading this? Seriously.
I hate it. How many times am I going to search and reorder my search terms when using Google to find a place, and actually find a site that’s not aimed at retired Brits with stashes of GBP to blow? That’s not me, and that’s probably not you, either. I have a few tricks up my sleeve. They might be common knowledge; if they are, everyone’s been hiding them from me while I work in the shadows.
Do yourself a favor and actually read the text, not simply the list followed by scoffing and temper tantrums. I’m sneaky like that. And, these really aren’t in any particular order, so read them all. 🙂
a) TripAdvisor: I know what you’re thinking. Don’t let that site fool you, though. Last time we went to Mexico City, I was having a hard time finding a place and was on very short notice after a last-minute change of plans. But guess what? I found a completely awesome, family-owned, centrally-located B&B-type establishment. I’m not sure, but I do believe it was in the B&B section for Mexico City on the TripAdvisor site. Did you even know TripAdvisor has B&B sections? Did you know they have sections for flats, too? Anyway, I found the information, tracked down the owner’s email, and contacted him directly. He was great. His whole family was great. The pricing was right, and we ended up with a sort of two-bedroom suite in the very heart of the city. I don’t remember how much it cost, but it was a fantastic deal. And, they offered half- or full-board (meaning partial or all meals), so we were free to eat meals there if we wanted to. Courteous staff, good prices, and patience for our less than stellar Spanish. Who knew?
This also happened very recently when I was doing my usual research. I found a forum post on TripAdvisor, through Google, with people asking about accommodation in our desired location. One or two property owners posted replies in there with their information. I took that information and put it into the local version of Google (see below for more on that). Et voilà, I found their websites. I then contacted them and got all sorts of great information. And forget joining forums, unless that’s your thing. I can assure you that it’s not mine, which is a story for another post. There are plenty of people out there who’ve most likely already asked your question. Find the questions, and find the answers. It doesn’t work every time, but it does work and can be a handy tool.
b) Airbnb: I’m not a huge fan of this site, as it normally caters to short-term visitors. It caters to the type of people to whom €40-80/night is a good deal. It’s not a bad deal, not for an entire flat. But when you’re staying for a few months, it’s a little bourgeois, don’t ya think? Fortunately, Airbnb seems to let sellers offer monthly prices. If you search anything over a month, you’ll get monthly prices. While there are a lot of very expensive places there, I’ve also found fully furnished, all-inclusive apartments with great reviews and in great locations, fitting all the amenities we need. For under €300/month. Yes, please. You might not find the best rates here for mid- to long-term stays, but it can happen.
c) Holidaymaker Sites: This would include sites like Owners Direct, and others I previously alluded to that drive me bananas. But, all you have to do is contact an owner directly and ask them if they offer monthly pricing. We’ve been offered pricing that was less than half the advertised rate. As I said before: All you have to do is ask. And don’t be afraid of offending anyone. If they are offended, then you probably don’t want to stay there, anyhow.
d) Craigslist: What, what? Really? You’re probably asking yourself why you’re even reading this. Clearly, I know nothing about booking accommodation if I’m recommending craigslist, what with its reputation for being a diseased host of accommodation scam artists. Am I right? Well, here’s the thing…You never know what you may find.
I will not hesitate to say that 90% of craigslist accommodation postings are either complete scams or severely overpriced. But, if you are willing to sift through the bullshit, you could find yourself sitting on a gem. Just do your homework, and verify, verify, verify. You just need to be extremely cautious about what is real and what is a mirage filled with lies, hate, and robbery. If you can’t stomach that, or have any concerns about it, then skip this section altogether. However, I can give you two very good examples of how craigslist worked out for us.
Example 1: Several years ago, we made yet another pilgrimage to Prague. There were five of us traveling, and things weren’t quite as connected as they are now. I found several listings on the Prague page of craigslist. The location was right, the price was right, a phone number and email were posted, and a website was linked. The pictures didn’t look fishy, and nothing suspicious stood out to me. Even though I was cautious about it, I went ahead and visited the website, found that it was a small, but fairly well-known network of flats in the city, and contacted the agent. I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderful our stay was. It was in the heart of the city, near my favorite restaurants, fitted with all the amenities we needed, and priced quite properly. There was no deposit involved, merely a bill from the agent when she met us to give us the keys and show us the flat after we arrived. Oh, and did I forget to mention? Car service from the airport. Like you see in the movies. Haha! Literally, a driver was there with my name on a card, waiting for us. He was a very nice guy, and the whole experience was superb.
Example 2: When we moved to Berlin in 2010, we needed a short-term, furnished rental while we got settled, registered our business, and looked for a place of our own. There are plenty of sites for these types of accommodation in Berlin that I can list off the top of my head. The problem is, most of them are overpriced, most require ridiculous deposits, most don’t allow pets, and most cater to those whose companies are footing the bill, or expats with too much money and/or not enough patience with the German language. There are also sites with listings from private owners, but we weren’t finding anything that fit our needs. I had been browsing craigslist for months, yet to find a diamond in the rough. Until I did. It wasn’t the perfect apartment, but it was in the location we wanted, with amenities we wanted, and the owner was willing to let us have our dog there. Like many who post on craigslist in Germany, he is American (you’ll find mostly English speakers using the site in Germany), and was traveling in India for a year. His previous tenant had gone, and he needed someone for the couple of months that we needed a place. We emailed quite a bit, learned a lot about each other, talked on the phone – for the security of both parties – and all decided that this could work. After all of the security measures that were taken, everyone was comfortable and we went ahead and wired part of the cost to him. We knew his address, phone number, full name, email address, and more, and after all of our conversations, we were not overly concerned about sending some money his way. And guess what? We all became friends, and now live about three blocks away from each other. In fact, the three of us just went for coffee and cake last week.
So, there you have it. If you have the patience and fortitude, there is a chance that you could possibly find what you’re looking for on craigslist.
e) Recommendations and Networking: You can find recommendations on forums, travel blogs, Twitter, wherever. A lot of people don’t (or don’t like to) share specific contacts on the internet, for a variety of reasons. I have no qualms with that. Just ask. That’s all you have to do. What are they going to say, “No”? Big deal. There are plenty of people out there; some are willing to share, some are not. Nothing to get mad about.
If you’ve found a place that doesn’t fit for whatever reason (no pets, no Wi-Fi, too big, too small, not available when you want to come), just ask the owner if they can recommend another place. If you think a property owner doesn’t know a dozen other property owners, you’re crazy. A lot of them know each other. Ask! You might just find what you’re looking for.
Same goes for networking locally. How do I know? I know from experience. But I know right now because a very nice girl came over to our apartment a little while ago to buy a suitcase from us, interrupting the writing of this very blog post. Her German was vastly superior to mine; so much so that I actually thought she was German. We got to talking, and I told her how we live and what we’re doing. While it was not her thing – she specifically told me she wanted a family and that traveling full-time is crazy – she just happened to mention that she’s from Armenia. And her family owns one of the top-rated guesthouses in Armenia. I won’t go into the details, but we found out all kinds of things about this place run by her family, and she gave me all of her – and their – information. We don’t plan on going to Armenia anytime soon, but this is a good example of how simply talking to someone can open opportunities for accommodation to you. It can open many more opportunities than that, but that’s for another blog post.
And this is the one that makes all the difference to me:
f) Search in the Local Language: Yes. This can completely change your outlook about where you’re going, where you’re staying, and how far you can stretch what’s in your pocketbook. If you’re looking for a place in Spain, do not search on google.com. That’ll garner you the holidaymaker website results. In this example, we’ll search specifically on google.es – the Spain-based version of Google – so we can get local results.
Google Translate will give you the words you need to search for, whether it’s ‘apartment,’ or ‘furnished apartment,’ or whatever. This works for all sites. You can do the equivalent for google.de (Germany), google.me (Montenegro, where we’re going next), etc.
Back to the example. If simply using google.es doesn’t do the trick, there’s a link on the left side of Google that allows you to narrow your search to sites in that language, or sites that operate out of that country. On google.es, it will give you the options of: Páginas en español (“websites in Spanish”) and Páginas de España (websites in Spain). That can root out the foreign holidaymaker websites and throw them in the trash, leaving you to focus strictly on the locals. While you might not speak the language, Google Translate has already given you your keywords, and can help translate the site results for you. An added bonus is that you can learn some basic vocabulary, which you should be doing anyway. 🙂
We used this to great effect for our upcoming move to Montenegro, and found dozens upon dozens of sites on google.me, which were probably all the way down on page 82 at google.com. I wouldn’t know, because I stopped searching on google.com when I realized that I wasn’t following my own advice. Switching to google.me made all the difference. And the vast majority of these sites were family-owned, which you already know is something we prefer.
5. A WORD OF ADVICE (or Don’t Get Ripped Off):
Look, the fact of the matter is that you’re eventually going to get ripped off. It could be for €1, it could be for more. You just never know what will happen. And while you need to understand that it can and most likely will happen at some point in your long and fruitful life, there are plenty of things you can do to avoid it. (If you can’t live with that, then you should probably build a tent in the woods, grow your own food, and live off the grid. But even then, wildlife will steal your food, and eventually developers will probably steal your land. So, there’s that.)
The number one rule of thumb that I have when it comes to this is: Do not randomly pay for a large chunk of your stay unless you are absolutely certain that it’s legitimate. If you’re booking through a proper site, it’s most likely okay. If you’re booking with someone that came highly recommended, it’s probably okay.
Just be wary of people who ask you to wire or PayPal large chunks (or all) of your bill in advance. I understand they want security in case you show up, but there’s a certain point at which we all need to sit back and ask ourselves how much is too much.
Another thing regarding security: The benefit of emailing with owners and the like, instead of booking online (email confirmations are great tools, though) or over the phone, is that you have an actual record of what was said, prices that were quoted, etc. If you get to your booked accommodation and are told things aren’t quite what they seem, you have a record of it. If you’re told prices when you check out that are vastly different from when you booked, you have a record of it. The world is full of wonderful people, but it’s also full of people trying to get over on you. Use the power of the written word to call someone’s bluff when they try to scam you into giving them more than they deserve.
Again, this is not perfect. The web and the people who use it and the owners who offer properties are constantly changing. The way I search today is not the way I searched a few months ago, or a few years ago, and on and on. Once you’ve done this a few times yourself, you’ll start to get the hang of it. It just takes patience, a willingness to think differently, and more than anything else, a willingness to do some research.
I should also reiterate that all of the typical sites for booking hostels, holiday rentals, apartments, and more can be of value to you. You should never ignore one of these sites simply because of what I said, and I easily could have made this list longer. I just wanted to write a post about how we mainly do things when it comes to accommodation, and how doing things even a little outside of the box can vastly change your opportunities.
Do you have any abnormal or unknown tricks or tips about how you find accommodation? Let us know in the comments or via email!