Finding a good vacation rental overseas is always a little bit of a risk much like finding a good hotel. Overall, we’ve had some amazing vacation rental experiences overseas but we’ve also had a few really negative experiences. It’s hard to swallow the negative experiences, but they’re a part of the package if you’re hoping to get out beyond the resorts and actually interact with the culture you’re visiting without doing a homestay.
We booked our first vacation rental in Progreso, Mexico in 2012 before the advent of AirBnB and we had one successful booking and one that was not-so-successful. We went through www.VacationRentals.com to rent a one-bedroom apartment with a pull-out couch for Lydian in the living room. The apartment was owned by an extended family made up of two young married couples, one from Canada and the other from the UK. The complex had a pool in a small courtyard and a nice common area with plenty of hammocks. It was within walking distance to our Spanish language school, the Centro de Idiomas.
We paid about $30 per night for six weeks in that apartment, which was reasonable, considering the cost of a hotel with similar accommodations would easily be over $150 per night. Everything was included in the vacation rental cost: electricity, Internet, trash, cable TV. We bought all our food locally from fruit and vegetable vendors which was crazy-affordable and we cooked our own food which kept our expenses within a very reasonable range. Though we still had to shoulder the cost of our plane tickets, by renting a vacation rental for our time abroad, we were able to keep our expenses at a level very similar to our cost-of-living at home since winter is an expensive month for us heating-wise in our giant public school building that we bought and renovated in 2008.
The vacation rental was clean and just big enough for our family at that time. We adopted a stray kitten off the street and all the families who were staying in the complex with us took turns babysitting him. I’m pretty sure he had a tapeworm (we named him “Bones”), but he was easy to love nonetheless.
When an evangelist came to Progreso between Christmas and New Years and set up a tent in town with a loudspeaker that boomed through our complex for hours and hours for three nights in a row, we laughed with our neighbors with solidarity. Latin Americans are addicted to noise.
But we also hated our neighbors. The owners were there for part of the time that we were in that rental and they hogged the common area greedily because…well, they were the owners and they were on vacation. The other Canadian couple was a little too friendly. They would pop outside every time we walked through the courtyard.
“Where ya goin’?” They’d say.
Our protocol was to just keep walking and always, always say we were late getting to some important meeting to avoid being delayed for sometimes hours by them.
But this is part of the vacation rental experience. While hotels are very corporate vacation rentals are very human and inevitably, we intersect with people through the rental. It’s almost always a mixed affair, with both positives and negatives, but we like that better than the sterility of a hotel. Often, the vacation rental owners are a first-line resource that we use to find our way into the communities where we settle. They help us with things that go wrong and they help us connect with and understand other people where we live.
The second vacation rental that we rented in Cancun that year, unfortunately didn’t pan out as well. It was owned by an expat German fellow named Mattias and as we readied to move into it, sight-unseen (which is usually the case), we found out that he had rented it out to another family. We would be “sharing” the home which had 3 bedrooms upstairs and everything else downstairs. The situation sounded shady, if not scary, and so we forfeited our substantial deposit and instead, changed our flight to an earlier date and went home in late January rather than late February. We were left with that icky, awful feeling of having been ripped off, but we learned something important from that experience: always ALWAYS follow your gut when booking a vacation rental! We’d been worried about Mattias from our first interaction with him. Something hadn’t seemed right and if we’d followed our intuition on it, we would’ve been able to find something different.
Before we book rentals through AirBnB, we always ask the owner a question (any question) just to interact with him (or her) even if the question is trivial. I prefer to have at least one short interaction with vacation rental owners before booking something because their response to my questions tell me all kinds of things about them. If they don’t respond right away, I know that their vacation rental properties are probably not that important to them. If they act irritated by my question, I can expect for them to be irritated when I
call them up after our arrival to tell them the hot water has stopped working. They might be evasive. Or they might send a message back to me that’s purposefully unclear. I’ve learned to spurn these properties (and their owners) and go for something else without batting an eyelid mostly because there are usually other options available these days. But back in 2012, the options were far less prolific. And back then, we learned some hard lessons.
When we’re planning to be in a rental for a month or longer, I look closely at a few important things when studying the photographs of the property. First of all, how many pictures are there? Is the entire property on display or are there parts that aren’t being displayed (or perhaps purposefully hidden—like a horrible kitchen or an ugly bathroom)? If there are “missing” photos of certain, important rooms (like the kitchen) we contact the owner and ask for photos of those rooms. And how cluttered is the property? (Is someone actually living there…permanently?) Do the beds look okay? Is there soft, clean-looking furniture in the living room? And is the Internet speed adequate for John’s and my work? If the living room photos show only hardwood furniture sans cushions, then you can expect to find that when you arrive, which is fine if you’re staying for a week, less fine if you’re staying for a month. If the bedroom photos show a bed with flattened pillows, it’s likely this is what will be there when you arrive. But pillows are cheap. If you’re staying for a month or more, go buy yourself some pillows after you arrive. It’ll be a fun adventure.
And John and I have learned to bring along some extras to make life easier and healthier in our
vacation rentals. For example, we own a 220v hot plate that also functions as a slow-cooker when the vacation rental only has an old-style gas stove, for example. And on this trip, we brought along a portable reverse osmosis water purifier too, which has so far been a real boon for us. We don’t travel to a lot of places in the world where the water is safe to drink, so the portable water-purifier makes it so that we don’t have to carry water bottles to our apartment or house every day. This is a big deal. For example, in Guanajuato, Mexico, we lived at the top of 100+ stairs at an altitude of 6000 feet and
every day John had to go down the stairs and get a 5 gallon jug of water and carry it up to our house. He didn’t always mind, but he caught a cold while we were there and carrying the water jug was harder to do with a fever and a sinus infection. The thing weighed about half as much as I do and though I could’ve carried it in stages, he never made me do it. A water-purifier would’ve de-obligated John from his daily ritual of procuring water. Small things like a knife sharpener, a cutting board, and a can opener are also helpful items to bring along to a vacation rental abroad.
Inevitably, there will be cockroaches, especially in city vacation rentals. And inevitably, we find cockroach spray and other tools-of-the-trade in the grocery stores nearby. We always assume that there will be cockroaches that roam the kitchen at night instead of pretending that our place will be cockroach-free because these disgusting creatures can easily infect us with things like typhoid or salmonella. It’s best to rinse the dishes before using them even if they look clean. And it’s good to store the silverware in plastic bags or some other container to keep them clean and isolated.
It’s good for a rental to be near public transportation systems. Sometimes, the little description offered at places like www.HomeAway.com or TripAdvisor say that there’s bus service or taxi service “nearby” or that the city “is only 10 minutes away”. It’s good to look at these things closely ona map because if the city is 10 minutes away by taxi and getting a taxi is a super-challenging thing to do in English (you may or may not know whether this is the case until after you arrive), you might be really unhappy with your predicament once you get there. In Costa Rica, for example, there are no street names, buses don’t run on a schedule and the bus stops and buses aren’t marked. When you get on one for the first time, unless you speak Spanish or you have a Tico friend to counsel you through the experience, you have no idea where it will take you. Supposedly, there was a bus that stopped right outside our house (near a faded yellow line on the pavement know as the “bus stop”), but I only saw this bus two times over a period of six weeks. Instead, we had to walk a mile and a half one way to a different bus stop to get into town every day along a terrifying stretch of wreckless drivers on a steep hill.
But don’t let this scare you in regard to vacation rentals. If you can roll with the punches and adapt to the vacation rental, the negatives will be some of the most memorable (and humorous) parts of your travel experience (later). We know that within 30 days of living in any vacation rental, the honeymoon phase will end. If we like the rental, we’ll find something about it that irritates us: it’s too far from something, it’s too cramped, the walls are too pink or too green, or the Internet is too unreliable. If we hate the rental, our hatred will grow exponentially starting on Day 31. I think it’s usually a combination of culture-shock mixed with the frustration of not being able to make changes to the rental or the furnishings or really settle into our lives in a foreign country. On our current trip to Egypt, I’m gearing up to deal with the Second Month Blues in our Cairo vacation rental by booking some outbound trips on the weekends to places like the White Desert.
When we book a vacation rental for a longer trip, I try to station us in a place that will act as a hub of exploration. We’ll leave our heavy luggage behind on outbound trips which frees us up to be more mobile in sketchier areas. We can easily catch taxis and get on buses and just hold our luggage on our laps. We have to pay for a second vacation rental in outbound locations when we go, but typically, (as long as we go to the right places, which are usually more rural), the cost doesn’t exceed $60/night, which is still cheaper than a hotel in the United States. For example, we’ll leave our luggage behind at our vacation rental in Cairo when we go to the White Desert. And we’ll book another, different vacation rental in the White Desert while we’re gone (UPDATE 2016: Actually, we did a day-trip to the White Desert). But an outbound trip within a country like Egypt or Nepal or Thailand is much cheaper than taking a weekend vacation in the United States. So even when we’re renting a second vacation rental in a country, we still don’t spend anywhere near the same amount that we would on a comparable trip within the U.S. that begins and ends at our permanent home. The cost of traveling for one three-night weekend to Denver from our home on the Colorado/Nebraska border would be no less than $1000 (if we didn’t do anything but eat and sit in our hotel room). In contrast, I can fly to Mexico for $1000, spend a month there at $30/night (for our whole family) and do things like travel to Palenque on a day-trip or rent a car (for a few bucks a day) and drive into little towns that don’t even get postal service yet for a fun and fascinating outing. And all the while, we can be living our lives much as we do at home; working during the week (remotely, in our case) and relaxing on the weekend (so-to-speak, if baja-ing through a series of strange landforms in the Sahara Desert sounds relaxing to you).
Travel overseas can be exorbitantly expensive if you go to the wrong places and you stay for only a short period of time. But if you choose the right destinations (someplace other than Western Europe, Australia, Russia, or Sub-Saharan Africa) and if you can book a longer stay (at least two weeks, but a month is better because vacation rental prices are almost always cheaper per night when booked for a month), the cost of travel becomes comparable to the cost of living almost anywhere in the U.S. And the entertainment rewards are much higher. It’s a challenge to travel within the United States and experience immersion in a different culture. You could go to China Town in San Francisco or New York. Or you could visit a nude beach for a culturally enriching experience. But otherwise, the U.S. is just too homogenous to be culturally diverse. And it’s expensive.
But travel can be affordable. It’s cheaper to visit Morocco for a month than to go to Disneyworld for four days and five nights, but to keep the price low on a Maghrebi trip, you’d have to make wise choices about where you’re staying in Morocco (psst…book a vacation rental) and you’d have to take some risks (which could mean losing money on a shady deal). But Morocco isn’t Disneyworld. And that’s what makes it worthwhile to go to Morocco. You may not know what’s going to happen to you in Fez or Marrakech, but chances are it will be remarkable, unique, and strange and nothing like the experiences your friends had at Disneyworld.