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Published: August 11th 2019
Two for the Road Notes for the Self-Sufficient Traveler
My wife and I conceived of a plan to travel for several months while not straining our bank accounts excessively. Our ability to be away for so long was predicated on stays in residences that afforded us self-sufficiency, autonomy and affordable prices. We had no intention of taking every meal for months on end in a restaurant or hotel.
The advent of Airbnb, VRBO, Booking.com and other resources allowed us to plan months in advance to secure acceptable facilities on our arrival. We’ve learned a lot, made mistakes, had successes and have been generally satisfied with our decisions.
Over the course of a year, Susan has consulted five sources for accommodations: Airbnb, Booking.com
, TripAdvisor/Homeaway, Expedia and VRBO. Here is what we’ve found and our level of satisfaction:
All five are effective at helping you find accommodations. In planning a trip with a number of stops, cities and possible changes of dates, we recommend landing on one of these and making it your go-to source. It got to be tedious to remember whether a reservation was with Air BnB or with some other property resource.
We’ve developed a list of the most important criteria in finding the right place to stay: communication, facilities, favorable reviews and location. Here is what we’ve found: Communication:
The most critical aspect is access to the owner of the property and accurate address information. On one occasion, we repeatedly requested a time to meet with the owner of an apartment in France. We had the city but no address. We tried email, phone, but no response. He knew our arrival date. What we didn’t know was that his English speaking wife, who handled the property, had died. He did not speak English. When we finally reached him we had to get an interpreter to tell him we needed an address. It costs us hours and a lot of confusion. We turned to a French speaking friend to talk to him and the problem was resolved. Another time we were told to meet the manager in a nearby park area “by the gate.” We got there one hour before our scheduled time but we had no idea who to look for. We waited by the gate for 2 hours only to discover there were 2 gates! He had been there waiting for us. A local police officer contacted him by phone to intervene on our behalf. A recent situation caused complications because we were given a contact phone number that was off by one digit. Booking.com will act as a back-up to the owner of the property and will intercede if there is a problem. They will not disclose personal information on owners, but will contact them for you. They answer quickly, and help to get things straight. Make no mistake, some owners on sites like Airbnb are conscientious, helpful and very considerate. We’ve simply found Booking to have the best infrastructure to help the traveler. Prior to arrival make sure that you have the owner’s contact information and establish that it works. Ask about transportation options to the property: some are in areas that can prove difficult to access. One great tip is to look up any property on Google Earth to find the topography, accessibility and location of any prospective property. Facilities:
Susan’s primary criterion to book any property is cleanliness and the state of the facilities. She looks for reviews that mention the housekeeping, washer-dryer, kitchen, and amenities like storage for toiletries. Me, I insist on good, fast wi-fi. These may not seem like deal breakers, but adequate, well stocked bathrooms and kitchens mean a lot to travelers who arrive tired and unaware of services in the area. We once booked in Tahiti on a beautiful hill overlooking the ocean. It was heaven except that the owner provided one day’s supply of soap, toilet paper, shampoo and other essentials, necessitating shopping trips instead of beach time. Susan looks for information on condition of the furniture, size of bathroom (pedestal sinks are a sign of tiny accommodations), quality of linens and towels, comfort of sofas, and size of living area. We look for whether there is air conditioning, or at least adequate fans, extra blankets and pillows. Kitchen space, appliances and cutlery are important to those who prepare meals in.
We’ve had our share of adventures with washing machines in Europe. They are small, underpowered and very slow. Have your owner demonstrate their use, or have English language documents handy. We once had our clothes held hostage for two days in an Edinburgh VRBO. We finally appealed to the manager, who himself had problems releasing our clothes from washing machine prison. Reviews:
We’ve learned to scour reviews for consistency, honest appraisals and photos of the property. We’ve had a couple of misses, even on properties that were well reviewed. Here’s what we’ve learned. Owners scrutinize reviews immediately after the renter leaves. In one instance, we posted a negative review on a place we thought was misrepresented. The owner immediately contacted us to express his displeasure. Didn’t we read his favorable reviews? Yes, we had, but found them to be misleading. He ultimately offered to refund our fees in lieu of a more favorable review. We didn’t bite, it would have been dishonest and unfair to the next renter. We suspect that some people may have taken the deal.
Scrutinize the photos and descriptions of the property. Susan has a rule of thumb: if the photos show everything but the bathroom, or you get a picture of a towel and a soap dish, don’t bother. If you see a number of exterior shots, but few interior, look elsewhere. Finally, check the dates of the reviews. If they are aren’t, current or dated more than a year old, this may not be the place for you.
Our best experiences have been in places where we see key words over and over: clean, spacious, good location, responsive, gracious host and expressions of appreciation for a nice visit. In San Sebastian, Spain, Susan became friends with the owner who was gracious and oh, so helpful. They hit it off like sisters, now they communicate regularly. Such are the delights of travel and good selections.
Put your reviews in the context of the place you rented. Don’t expect five star accommodations from a property rated with two stars. If your price point is low, you must seek out the best place for that money. It may not have all the amenities you want. It often will be in a location that is not the most optimal. You got what you paid for.
Remember, you are renting someone’s property, you are a paying guest. Treat the property with respect. After you leave you will be rated by the owner. That information helps other owners decide if they will rent to you.
Another consideration for the frequent traveler is that you may have to change dates. Booking.com
has been our go-to source, since we can book well in advance without penalty, (though the rent is a bit higher). Just recently, Air BnB charged us a fee to change a date, though the owner had no problem with the change and it wasn’t a problem to her. If you are rock solid on your date, use Booking and pay the lower rental fee. If you have any concerns about possible changes, pay a bit more and have the freedom to cancel without penalty.
While our history of rentals has been pretty good, we’ve found that if the owner neglects to fully depict the property with photo images, forget it. We know that the camera can do wonderful things. Some people capitalize on that to their advantage. Oh, look deep into the reviews to be sure you have a place you will be happy with. Read for content and interpret the words. We once found that the description of a closet was nothing more than a coat rack. That same place described a “kitchenette” that turned out to be as small as a sailboat galley. Our worst experience involved a property in Costa Rica that was totally misrepresented. When we arrived, we saw the room was substandard, dirty and not at all what was pictured. I offered to pay one night, but be released from the two other nights we booked. The owner said, “you knew what you were booking, you saw the reviews.” Well, we went into the archives and found a number of negative reviews we hadn’t seen before. In those cases - we’ve had three - when the property is substandard or down-right deceptive, Booking.com has backed us up and released us from our obligation, with their apologies.
Read the fine print. You will see a lot of photos, many of which are not part of the property you will eventually rent. Look, or ask to see, only photos of the property you want. Narrow your search criteria when looking for a place. The more precise you are, the more satisfied you will be. Location:
Travelers are always burdened with luggage, back packs, bags and limited time. Check the location using a maps app to be assured you are near attractions and facilities so you can be efficient with your precious time. When we travel, we pride ourselves on walking the town and getting to know the area and what it has to offer. Don’t be afraid to wander a bit: Google or Siri can get you back to your place, as long as you have noted the exact address. It is a good idea to immediately take a photo of the welcome documents when you arrive. We’ve found that the best locations carry a bit more charge, but your time is something you can’t get back.
On that note: decide how you want to do transport from place to place. We were faced with the decision to take an Uber private car from Edinburgh to St. Andrews or: drag our bags down a gravel road, up to a bus stop, put bags in bus, go to train station, go to bus depot in St. Andrews take bus into town and get cab to our apartment. Uber won. It cost us more, but we were in the hands of a licensed driver – who turned out to be great company – and we arrived at our door step in short order. We shopped the night before, piled in our food and were taken care of during a rain spell. Sometimes, its best to just spend the money.
We value the benefits of travel and the chance to spend leisurely time in cities that excite us. Using these services has allowed us to extend our time traveling and expand our world view. We wouldn’t trade it for any other type of travel.
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