Sunday, March 25, 2012

France and England on $98 a Day - Our Accommodations

Finding accommodations in seven different locations wasn't easy, but after a longer search than usual, we found some economical places that are also unique. We will stay in one hotel, two gites--a traditional Bretagne granite house built in 1900 and a gite that began life as a barn in the 16th century--a garden flat in fashionable Notting Hill in London, and three B&Bs, one of which was converted from a former convent.

Not only are the accommodations diverse, but the prices are within our Tightwad budget, too. The B&Bs plus one night's hotel average around $100 a night ($50 per person) while the gites and London flat average slightly more at $110 per night ($55 per person). Since one of the top-rated London hostels, the Oxford Street YHA, charges $63 per night per person for a private twin-bed room with a shared bathroom, I think our $55 is a bargain.

The price is even more of a bargain considering all the advantages of having our own place. We'll enjoy en suite bathrooms, free wi-fi (The Oxford Street hostel charges extra for an Internet connection.), room to spread out and relax, a washing machine (We'll be able to take fewer clothes because we can wash them frequently.), and, most importantly, we'll enjoy the money we save by preparing our own food.

Maybe our accommodations aren't the stuff of headlines, but David and I think they should be!

[Note that all prices are quoted in US dollars with an exchange rate of €1 equals $1.30.]

Practicalities -
A gite used to be defined as a simple rural vacation cottage, but the term now includes much more luxurious lodgings as well.  Today, a gite might be a ten-room villa overlooking the sea or a stylish apartment on the outskirts of Paris.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

France and England on $98 a Day - Accommodations

Jaime and I met for lunch last week to talk about our upcoming trips. She is an artist who will spend two or three months traveling in early summer from the beaches of the French Riviera to the fjords of Finland. Since she is lucky enough to have been born French and still has relatives in several European cities, she only needed to find accommodations for a few places. She has discovered, as I have, that the very best and least expensive accommodations are apartment rentals.
Dining area in our Rome apt.

While David and I prefer one of the Home Away/VRBO listing services, (I'll tell you about our rentals for this trip in upcoming posts.) Jaime, who often travels solo because her husband must stay home, thinks Airbnb is best. Renting a room in someone's home can be extremely inexpensive and a built-in friend/host often comes with the accommodation. After weeks of independent travel, it can be comforting to know there will be someone at "home" to hear all about your day's adventures.

Jaime says she has filed a "User Profile" because she wants potential hosts to know she is a mature, professional woman who will treat their property as respectfully as she would her own. She would want to know the background of anyone staying in her home, so she assumes her European hosts feel the same.

One of the aspects of the program she particularly likes is that her rental money goes directly to Airbnb and will not be sent to the host until after the first day. Not releasing the funds until the second day is the company's way of guaranteeing that the guest is satisfied with the accommodation. If the apartment has been misrepresented, then Jaime's money will be refunded any time within that first 24-hour period. The company would also help her find another place to stay.

This kind of reassurance, the ability to use credit cards, and the friendliness of Airbnb hosts will leave Jaime free to concentrate on her art. Instead of worrying about arranging for rooms in impersonal hotels, Jaime will feel "at home" wherever she goes in Europe.   

Practicalities -

The Airbnb site is full of helpful information, FAQ, and even videos.

In a conversation this morning with Rachel J, a company representative, I was told the best way to handle reservations was to use the "Contact Me" button on the site to e-mail the host. After viewing the photos, reading the apartment description, and going over other people's reviews, you can deal directly with the host about any other questions you might have. When you are satisfied that you've found exactly the right rental, then use the "Book It" button to confirm your choice.

One of the major advantages to Airbnb is that there are multiple ways to pay the rental fee. All major credit cards, PayPal, or e-check are acceptable. 

I also really like the way security deposits are handled by Airbnb in the case of long-term rentals. A guest's credit card is authorized 24 hours before the reservation begins and credited back to the card within 48 hours of the guest's departure. Using the credit card carries its own safeguards and so does having Airbnb handle the transaction. In the case of damage claims, Airbnb mediates with the guest and host until matters are fairly resolved.

Here is an article by Linda Lacina that recently appeared in Smart Money magazine about the pros and cons of the apartment rental market.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

France and England on $98 a Day - Itinerary

Metro in Paris
Because David and I are heading this spring to some places off the usual tourist track, we've relied even more than usual on the Internet. We had to find mass transit to get to and from London and small towns in France with car rental offices. While we rely on public transportation in big cities, we are traveling much of the countryside in France where train and bus service is limited. We'll need a car.

Since we've always wanted to take the Eurostar which travels under the English Channel, we'll take that train to Paris after our overnight flight to London. It's possible to buy a ticket 120 days in advance, and the earlier the purchase the more the ticket is discounted. Buying our Eurostar tickets months in advance meant we saved 50% off the usual price!

We didn't want to rent a car in Paris and have to deal with traffic snarls, so we next had to find a small French town that was easily accessible from Paris. Vernon seemed to be the answer. It's only 45 minutes from Paris, easily reached by train, and is the gateway to Giverny where Monet's house and gardens are located. Starting our trip in such lush, inspirational surroundings will be an auspicious beginning we hope.

Driving the car to Brittany should be easy. After touring Giverny, we're heading to Dinan, one of the best preserved and still functioning medieval cities in France. Our rental house is within walking distance of the ancient town so we plan to park the car and explore on foot. We'll also take in as much of Brittany as we can on daily drives.

We follow that town with a trip to the countryside in Normandy. Our gite near Picauville and St. Mere Eglise will put David in the center of the battle area he longs to see. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Where Guidebooks Fear to Tread

Michelin's map of Brittany

Actually, guidebooks do exist about a couple of the lesser known places on David's and my itinerary this spring, but we had to special order them. While several books about European countries crowd the library shelves, there were none about the Brittany and Normandy areas of France. 

Still, we were undeterred. I've wanted to see Brittany ever since I read Mark Greenside's intriguing book, I'll Never Be French. When I wasn't laughing out loud about his attempts to understand French culture, I was delighted by his description of an area that seemed to jut away from France like some rogue appendage, 150 miles out to sea. A place where rivers meander aimlessly but, nevertheless, charmingly, down to harbors clustered with sailboats.  Not only is the whole of Brittany dotted with cobblestoned old cities and a few castles while a rugged coastline jogs along its perimeter, but it's inhabited by independent folks of Celtic and French descent. Add culinary treats like crepes and galettes (made from buckwheat), artisanal cheeses, and special buttery cakes called kouign amann, and you can see why I absolutely have to see this part of France.

David's goals are more noble. He's wanted to visit the Normandy battlefields since his dad first told him about World War II. He wants to walk every battle site, linger at the museums, and see the town where The Longest Day parachutists were shot as they floated down from the sky. We've scheduled four nights near Picauville, but it may not be long enough for him.