Monday, April 4, 2011

Europe on $85 a Day - Luxurious Lodging at Hostel Prices

David and I are planning a five-week trip to Italy, Spain, and (maybe) Morocco for $85 a day per person based on shared accommodations. This is the third in a series of articles telling you how to travel as cheaply--and comfortably--as we do.
Entry to our Paris apartment

David and I have filet mignon tastes but a peanut butter budget, so we have to find lovely lodgings at low prices. Luckily we know how to do that.

On this trip, we will spend 33 nights in Italy and Spain for 2,574 euros, or an average of 78 euros per night. That translates to 39 euros per person, less than what most hostels charge. But we will get so much more than any hostel can provide for almost the same price. Our "hostel budget" will get us an entire apartment with our own kitchen, living room, TV, wi-fi, and laundry facilities. And even more remarkably, if we reserved a hotel with the same amenities, we would be spending three or four times the 39 euro daily rate.

Finding the perfect place at the right price isn't always easy. Actually, for a week or so, it's a full-time job. We make no appointments and even friends are forewarned that we won't have time to answer e-mails! But the concentrated effort always pays off with great accommodations at cheap, cheap prices, so the pain is worth it.

Once you're convinced that an apartment is the best way to have a home away from home, you'll find that there are many resources to help you.
One of my favorite sources for information is Slow Travel because the site helps you find the most reliable apartment rental agencies in the area. By printing honest reviews written by people like you and me who have actually stayed in the apartments, you can learn which agencies accurately represent their rentals.

The reviews are lengthy and give excellent information about the room sizes, condition of the furniture, proximity to public transportation, price, and ease of working with the rental agent/owner. Slow Travel is the site David and I used to locate the small consortium of owners at Beau-Paris, where we found our wonderful Paris apartment.

As I said, you cannot rent an apartment at this site but the unbiased information it provides is invaluable. Note that you can filter the search results by agency, property name, or reviewer. This is a great help if you want to do what I suggest and consolidate all the property reviews about a particular agency so you can determine if a company is reputable.

An excellent rental source is Vacation Rentals by Owners, a site where owners list their houses or apartments in locations all over the world. You work directly with the owner, using VRBO as a safe go-between for correspondence until you've established a relationship with the owner. Then, you can feel free to e-mail each other directly. Many friends have used this site with great success, and it has been helpful to us over and over again. We used VRBO to find our lovely, historic villa in Mexico last summer and it is the source for our rentals this spring.
Sunset view from our San Miguel de Allende villa
VRBO, actually a "family" of companies catering to tourists, says it lists "150,000 rentals in over 100 countries." While all the sites in the "family" offer reviews from previous tenants, VRBO has only one way to filter results, while Home Away has several filters pertaining to room size, price, location, and amenities. Both VRBO and Home Away list rentals all over the world while Vacation Rentals concentrates on North America and the Caribbean.

We found another excellent source of rentals, Holiday-Rentals United Kingdom, which is, I think, partnered with Home Away and therefore VRBO in some way. It caters to tourists in the British Isles who are always anxious to escape their dreadful weather, so you'll find lots of listings on this site!

Another option in rural areas, of course, is to look for gites in France and agriturismo in Italy, Spain and Portugal. These privately owned properties subsidized by the government provide excellent accommodations at low prices.

No matter which source you use, however, be sure to do your homework. Trustworthy owners/companies will be honest about the apartment's advantages and shortcomings. They will provide lots of information about the amount of furniture and its condition. It's helpful to know, for example, the number of beds if you have a group of people, or their sizes if you're as tall as David and I. (Some sites are unintentionally misleading. For example, an owner will state on his site that there is bedding for four, and he is correct as long as one couple doesn't mind sleeping on a fold-out couch in the living room! You need to read the descriptions carefully. Bedding that might be suitable for children may not be suitable for adults.) And, of course, learning you will have a washer/dryer, means you can pack far fewer clothes.

The site should supply the answers to all your questions. Here are a few questions we usually ask. Is there free parking? Is the apartment within walking distance of shops and public transportation? Are there stairs? Is there a cleaning fee or is the renter responsible for cleaning before he leaves? Is there a patio or terrace? Also look for lots of photographs (four is the minimum, and I love sites with ten to twenty!) to document the promises made in the text. The very best sites will also provide square footage and a diagram of the apartment's layout.

Perhaps the most important aspect of a listing, though, is that reviews from previous renters should be available to you. An owner who has nothing to hide should be proud to share his guest book with you. Read it and learn if what pleased or disappointed others will affect your vacation.

If you cannot find this basic information on the site, or if an owner/company does not promptly respond to your e-mails, move on to another. There are many owners/companies vying for your rental dollar, so deal with someone who will give you all the information you need to make an informed choice. After all, your rental will be your temporary home in a foreign country, so your selection needs to be a good one.

If you've done your homework and read all the apartment reviews, but still worry that something may go wrong, buy trip insurance. VRBO offers a policy that starts at $39 and protects you in case your vacation home has been double-booked, is in foreclosure, or has been misrepresented. If you don't rent from VRBO or one of its partners, there are plenty of other trip insurers that will be happy to provide you peace of mind for a price.

I'm not the only one who's convinced that vacation apartment rentals are the only way to go, as you'll see when you read Pauline Frommer's excellent "Complete Guide to Vacation Rentals." She begins the comprehensive guide by saying, "Rent once and you'll never go back to a hotel vacation again."

I couldn't agree more! You don't have to be a tightwad traveler to know that staying at a four-star apartment for the price of a room in a hostel is the smartest choice to make. After you've experienced a great vacation in an apartment rental, you'll be retiring your backpack forever!

Practicalities -

Another blogger, Mary Clark, believes in apartment rentals, too.  Read her suggestions here.

Unfortunately, many rental owners discriminate against young adults. Some of the most desirable rental ads state that there are age restrictions.

Many people assume that, unless they are staying in a city for at least a week, they cannot rent an apartment. That may have been true in the past, but no longer; more and more owners are renting for three or four-night periods.

1 comment:

  1. This place is one of the best to spend my Christmas vacation together with my family and children. Thanks for sharing this!

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