After a year on the road, the hawkers standing outside the hostels became irritations rather than mild annoyances.
Our waistlines groaned under the constant fattening fare from restaurant kitchens. We missed having a safe and secure base. We wanted to travel but we also wanted the luxuries of home—a kitchen, laundry room, and place to stash our electronics.
Right now, this place is home. Our two bedroom apartment, with a galley kitchen smack up against the living room and a small bedroom in the back, is in the Ventas neighborhood of Madrid, near the infamous bull fighting arena, and about ten minutes by subway to the Plaza Mayor. We walk outside and are in a green shaded park, stretching five blocks, surrounded by tiny cafes and stores. Aging Madrilenos play bocce ball as if it was a career. Children run and climb over the playground in the after school hours. And, we purposely walk our dogs away from the off-leash dog park because Madrilenos never pick up after their pets.
As we hop from apartments to houses to chalets and villas, we’ve discovered that, within a few days, vacation rentals truly became temporary “homes.” We’re in neighborhoods of families and couples, within walking distance to parks, grocery stores, and local restaurants and bars, easily able to escape the clamor and noise of most cities’ main tourist attractions. We make breakfast in the morning and wash our laundry on the weekends. Renting a vacation property is as close to being home as a nomad can find in any foreign country.
The Honesty Conundrum
Unlike a hotel, where you can rely on Tripadvisor reviews and a brand name, vacation rentals are individually owned and managed and the level of professionalism and honesty varies from owner to owner. That being said, the vast majority of our vacation rentals have been even better than listed on the website. In Cornwall, England, the middle-aged owner greeted us with homemade scones and clotted cream, and, in Bodrum, Turkey, our sweet landlord watched our dogs while we traveled for the day to visit Ephesus. But, there are a few times when things have gone wrong: in Istanbul, we arrived to an apartment filled with rotting food in the refrigerator and floors so dirty that our feet turned black. We chalk this up to one of the problems of travel and try to remember that, ultimately, when we rent vacation properties, we are relying on the kindness and honesty of strangers.
What to Look For In a Vacation Rental
If you’ve decided to stay in a vacation rental, here are some key questions to ask homeowners before you book the property:
- Where is it located? Is it within a short commute to major attractions and is it possible to use public transportation? Always ask the homeowner for the house’s address and do a simple Google map search to determine how long it will actually take to get to major attractions and use Google Street View to help you get an idea of the neighborhood and location.
- Is the property available?
- Is there parking nearby or at the property location?
- What kitchen amenities are included? If you are traveling with children, have food restrictions, or are on a tight budget, you might need a full kitchen with stove, oven, and a microwave. Many European apartments will only have a two burner hob, which will limit the amount and type of cooking. In Thailand and much of Asia, apartment units will only have a refrigerator and no cooking facilities because dining out is cheap, healthy, and delicious.
- Is there a washer/dryer? If not, is there a reliable laundry service or laundromat nearby?
- Will the owner have the property cleaned before you arrive? I know this sounds obvious but some people on Airbnb assume that you will clean the property when you arrive.
- Is there air conditioning/heating?
And, here are a few other questions for those traveling with pets and/or young children (or, in our case, both):
- If you are traveling with pets, is there a park nearby or is there an attached yard?
- If you have limited mobility or are traveling with older pets or young children, are there lots of stairs?
- If you are traveling with young children, is there a portable crib available? Many homeowners will provide a portable crib if you ask ahead of time.
Where to Look for Vacation Rentals: Vacation Rental Websites
Vacation rental sites are a dime a dozen but, in our experience, there are only a few that are worth your perusal.
These are listed below in alphabetical order:
Airbnb: Airbnb offers budget options, allowing users to stay in a single room or full apartment or house. Owners register and list their property on Airbnb for free and pay a 3% fee when renters book, meaning that there are, unfortunately, many random or fraudulent homeowners on Airbnb. One significant advantage of Airbnb is that all payments are completed via Paypal. We have had the best success using Airbnb in Eastern Europe and Turkey.
Go With Oh: The Oh Properties are located in select European cities, including Barcelona, London, Vienna, and Venice. Every single property has professional photographs and a floor plan, which greatly helped us visualize the space. We were impressed with the Oh properties, which were clean, beautiful, and most accurately reflected the website information, but these properties tend to be more expensive.
Homeaway: Homeaway is the largest vacation home site and has approximately 700,000 properties across the world, distributed across several different sister websites. Owners pay a yearly fee of between $360 to $1000 USD to list on the site, but, because individual property owners list their homes, the amount of information and quality of pictures varies from property to property. We have had success using Homeaway in the UK, USA, Caribbean, Africa, and Australia and using their sister site Homelidays in Western and Eastern Europe.
VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner): VRBO is the second largest vacation home site and has about 540,000 properties across the world. Like Homeaway, owners pay a yearly fee to list on the site, and the quality of information varies from property to property. We have had the best success using VRBO in the United States.
Two sites I do not recommend:
Craigslist: Because it is free to list on Craigslist, there are many scammers who post model home pictures as vacation rentals. Since you have to pay a deposit upfront on a vacation rental and it is not possible to visit the property before you make the payment, I would never rent a vacation property on Craigslist.
Tripadvisor: Tripadvisor pulls information from other vacation home rental sites, including Holiday Lettings and FlipKey, and publishes this information in the “Vacation Rentals” tab. We have had limited success finding properties using Tripadvisor/Holiday Lettings/FlipKey, primarily because they do not have a large inventory, especially in comparison to Homeaway and VRBO.
Negotiating Rent, Security Deposits, and Payments
One of the major benefits of staying in a vacation rental is that it is possible to negotiate rent, especially for longer stays. Homeowners list their nightly or weekly rates on their website page and most will not negotiate rent for a short term stay of a week or less. However, homeowners will offer discounts for multi-week or month long stays; long stays are great for the homeowner because they don’t have to pay extra cleaning fees and won’t have dead days.
For a month long stay, we request and, on average, receive about 25% off the weekly rate. I suggest always starting off by asking for 30% off the weekly rate for a month long stay (i.e., if the property lists the weekly rate at $1,000, I would ask for a monthly rate of $2,800) and asking that pet fees and other fees be knocked off. And, we have negotiated higher discounts when staying in lesser known areas or during the off season.
Once you have negotiated rent, most homeowners request a deposit upfront, in order to reserve your home. There are four major ways in which you can pay this deposit:
- Paypal: This is the most preferable but least used solution, especially in Europe and Asia. One of the major benefits of booking a property through Airbnb is that all Airbnb rentals use Paypal.
- Check: In the United States, payment of the deposit may be made by check mailed directly to the homeowner.
- Credit card: Vacation rental companies that manage multiple homes will sometimes allow payment via credit card.
- Bank transfer: In Europe, 90% of individual homeowners request a bank transfer for the security deposit. European banks make bank transfers quite easy but, unfortunately, if you are an American or Canadian, an international bank transfer can be cumbersome to manage. Contact your bank about how to make an international bank transfer before you leave the country.
If a homeowner asks that you pay the complete rent upfront, you should negotiate to pay 50% upfront and 50% on arrival. This strategy has saved us on more than one occasion. On the afternoon we arrived in Prague, ready to enjoy a two week long stay, the bathroom lacked a toilet and the kitchen had no stove. We stayed in a hotel until the owner finished remodeling the apartment and I negotiated a 40% discount because of their error and the hassle to our stay.
On the other hand, if you are happy with the apartment on arrival, you will usually need to pay the outstanding amount in cash. It is important to remember that most banks place limits on the amount of cash you can withdraw in a single day and withdrawing too much cash may cause the bank to place a hold on your account.
Packing for a Vacation Rental
Vacation rentals will provide linens and basic kitchen supplies, such as pots and pans, mixing spoons, plates and utensils, and oil. However, in addition to our personal items, clothes, and electronics, we always carry along a “mini kitchen” because we’ve found that most vacation rental kitchens are not adequately stocked with supplies for longer stays, especially for those who enjoy cooking. We can fit our mini kitchen into a small backpack or storage container and it includes the following:
- Two kitchen towels
- Thin inexpensive plastic cutting boards
- One very good sharpened knife: if you’re traveling by plane, you may not be able to take this but, I highly recommend carrying a good knife if you are road-tripping, because chopping with most vacation rental knives is akin to chopping with a spoon
- Pop-up Tupperware: these are space saving and useful as food storage or mixing bowls
- Good quality 1 gallon ziploc bags: we prefer the Hefty OneZip storage bags and use these to marinate, mix, store, and organize food
- Small pepper grinder with peppercorns
- Tiny containers with an assortment of commonly used spices including salt and sugar
- Corkscrew/bottle opener
We have made unimpressive spaghetti with pasta sauce to the gourmet lemon braised artichokes on wild rice with our simple mini kitchen and one pot and pan.
In many ways, opting for a vacation rental is the diametric opposite of what we nomads are trying to achieve. Here we are, wandering the world, exploring the unknown in urban splendor and rural glamor, and, yet, we also yearn for a stable, solid base. But, the home that we find in these vacation rentals is different than what we have left behind. By choosing to live among locals, making friends at the dog parks and playgrounds, and stepping behind the counter of the local grocer, we learn what home means in that one corner of the world.
Summing it Up
Negotiate: ask for 30% off and expect to get maybe 25% off the price, if you’re booking for a month or longer.
Pay 50% up front and the other 50% on arrival.
Still need more info? We’ve covered some of the vacation rental websites in more detail in the past.