Finding apartments to camp in while abroad is the fun job that falls to me. I love it! Who wouldn’t love peeking into people’s homes in a foreign country? But I have learned much and am ready to pass it on to you, one step at a time:
- Pick some good neighborhoods in your target town. You don’t want to live in the middle of a gang war. Exchange email with someone who knows the town, read some travel stories online (I like the New York Times Travel Archive), read good travel magazine websites. Travel blogs can help, too. Most all bigger towns have expat communities; find their websites and ask questions on their forum.
- Make a list of what you ideally want in an apartment, and then cross off “dishwasher, ” ”bathtub,” and “clothes dryer.”
- Email everybody you know to see if someone knows someone who has a cousin with a chalet in Switzerland, or whatever. Don’t feel obliged to take it if it’s not what you want.
- Do an early recon of what’s out there to get a grip on what is possible on your budget. I always look at websites like AirBnB and HomeAway, but I find better deals in Europe using Venere and HolidayBookings. These sites have multiplied like bunnies since my first search, and are easy to find on Google. There is no one list that has all the available properties.
- After scouting out the prices, pause for a stiff drink and re-adjust your budget. Remember that some rents (in Europe at least) include all utilities, cable TV, and even housekeeping service. Don’t make the mistake of comparing all-inclusive rent like this with the rent you pay on Mulberry Street.
- Look up the property on Google Maps and examine the street view. Dog pound next door? Chalk outline of a body on the sidewalk? Reconsider.
- Read the objective reviews for each property of interest. (Use Trip Advisor, Yelp, or whatever sites apply to your neighborhood.) These will always include a small percentage of cranky customers who just can’t stop complaining. Ignore them. Look for clues in the positive reviews, such as “Though the apartment is a six-flight walk up…,” or “Despite the scorpions in the shower….”
- Start contacting likely prospects. Flirt a little bit, be charming, explain why you’re eager to visit the Auld Sod, claim you’re a distant cousin. All this will be helpful in negotiating later on. Ask some questions about the property. If it’s important, find out if there is Wi-Fi in the apartment. Sometimes “Wi-Fi available” means at the café two blocks away. If you’re going to be there for a month or more, ask if there is a special deal for a longer stay. Often, there is.
- Start a spreadsheet with the nicknames or property numbers of the dwellings down the left column, and across the top note the amenities you value: balcony, view, kitchen, air conditioning, square feet, price range, whatever. It’s very, very easy to forget which apartment is which when you get that return note in the mail.
- When the first responses come in, you may come up with nothing but teeny-tiny overpriced apartments. You may go open the window and scream. Or stop looking in France. This is the low-hanging fruit: the more marketing a property does, the more expensive it is.
- Abandon the project, and spend two sleepless nights obsessing. Then go back and look again. Maybe some new places have popped up! Maybe somebody canceled! Check the official city tourist sites or the Chamber of Commerce site. There you will find smaller lodgings whose owners don’t bother with the big-web listings. Many foreign cities also have a Craig’s List, where you may find a quaint little sublet or vacation house.
- Now some positive answers are coming in. You have chosen a number-one favorite, and your favorite accepts your offer. You write an effusive note of gratitude. Send a deposit via PayPal. Then open a bottle of champagne.
- Keep your communication going with your future hosts, so that they will love you in advance, and not forget you and rent the place to someone else. (Or, as one happened to us, SELL it to someone else.) Ask more questions, and become their online BFF, without being a pest. They just might meet you at the airport and plant a bottle of wine in your room, as three of our hosts did.
- Even with friendship in the air, expect surprises. One kitchen had such weak stovetop heat that we soaked pasta in warm water instead of boiling it. In Mexico, the Internet only worked outdoors. In one apartment, the upstairs neighbors had about nine children who spent the whole day running back and forth in wooden shoes. Adventure is all about the willingness to be surprised and not fall apart.
And finally, once you pay your deposit, stop looking. There’s no value in renter’s remorse. Yes, there will always be a better deal. But you only need the one you have.