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Apartments and Hotels: Advice for Long Term Stays

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Our travel strategies have differed radically among countries. In Ecuador, Peru, England and most of southeast Asia, we hopped from hotel to hotel, never staying more than a week in any given place. In Argentina, Thailand and Morocco, on the other hand, we've rented apartments. (In New Zealand, we lived in the back of a van for a week.) There are advantages and drawbacks to both modes of travel, and a few things we've learned along the way that help with both.

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Another unanticipated advantage of apartments: sometimes you get unexpected co-tenants in the windowsills

Apartments

For long-term travel, I really prefer to live in apartments. There is a definite downside to this strategy: seeing a great deal of a country is hard on the budget if you rent an apartment, simply because every night away costs double. Nor have we found that we saved as much money as we expected by cooking in our rental apartments. The kitchen facilities in most short-term tourist lettings are tolerable but not ideal. More importantly, it takes a very long time to get the hang of cooking in a new location.

For instance, I thought that we'd do a lot more cooking in Marrakech than we actually have, because I didn't notice that while we have a great number of pots and pans, we lacked things like kitchen scissors, a knife block, or lids that will cover our saucepans. At the same time, staples that are part of my everyday cooking, such as sesame oil and limes, are nowhere to be found, and I don't know how to cook a tagine. We save on the occasional spaghetti lunch and make our own breakfast, but unless you're a real cooking hobbyist who can instantly adapt to your local culinary traditions, I think it's a real shame to pass up on the opportunity for new cuisine to save a few cents. [1] This is especially true in countries like Thailand and Indonesia, where really good food is so cheap that cooking yourself is a waste.

On the whole, however, I much prefer to slow down and stay in apartments. I find that apartment living provides both a better understanding of the area in which I'm living and the opportunity to stop being a tourist for a while. After a month on the road, the act of shopping for a can of soup can actually feel a bit zen. [2] And when you do decide to leave the city, you can leave most of your baggage in a secure location. The cost of road trips can be lessened by doing some smart apartment shopping to keep down costs.

The two largest vacation apartment sites, our first stops when looking for a new place, are VRBO.com (part of Homeaway.com) and Airbnb. Both try to make their user experience as much like hotel-shopping as possible. The general tips in this Lifehacker post are pretty good, but I would add the following bits of advice:

  • Haggle. We have never paid the list price for an apartment on either VRBO or Airbnb, even when the list price included a monthly rate. Perhaps when the economy comes roaring back, landlords will be inundated with offers, but for the moment any room that is available has probably been available for some time. This is especially true for monthly (or longer) rentals, which small landlords tend to prefer to the short stays.
  • Check out the local rental sites. VRBO and Airbnb have the best community of landlords and renters, with many landlords having been the subject of multiple reviews. You can easily search their offerings from an iPhone in an airport lounge. If you find something quickly at a reasonable price, I doubt it's worth spending days looking for other opportunities. I have rarely found either site to be the cheapest option, however, especially as they are very English-oriented and tend not to be frequented by landlords with other language skills. We found our apartment in Thailand through a bit of Googling and an expat's blog-post, and our Marrakech apartment was listed on a smaller site with better coverage of Morocco. Note that Craigslist has international sites as well.
  • If you have time, view the properties first. Even when we intend to stay in an apartment (as in Marrakech), we will often book a local hotel for the first few nights so that we have time to actually scope out the inventory. This is particularly useful if you don't know the city very well. For example, almost all of the Marrakech apartments that I viewed were in Gueliz, an upscale district full of foreign fashion boutiques and cocktai bars. On paper, that sounds like Recoleta, my favorite part of Buenos Aires. But I'm very happy that we took a bit of time to look around and landed right outside the Jamaa el-Fna, making it possible to take short nightly walks into the busiest market in the world.
  • Look for kitchen equipment. I was very fond of our Bangkok apartment, with furniture straight out of an episode of Married with Children, but I forgot to test the kitchen before we signed on the bottom line. Food is so cheap in Thailand that we didn't really miss the ability to cook, which is good because the markings on the electric hot plate had long ago rubbed off, making it impossible to tell if the burners were off or on. Still, I would have appreciated more than three forks, a pair of knives, three plates and an ashtray.

Hotels

When we've stayed in hotels, we generally see more of the host country, because packing up the suitcases and shipping off to a new city has little opportunity cost. When we want to see little parts of a large country--for instance, Agra, Goa and New Delhi in India--we use hotels. The downside, however, is that hotel travelers have a hard time breaking out of the tourist rut, especially since hotels will do everything possible to keep your spending within their walls.

When choosing a hotel in a new location, we've found that the first and best tool is TripAdvisor, which is probably the single best source of honest traveler reviews. A glance through the site provides an overview of available lodging options, an idea of typical price ranges, and most importantly, up-to-the-minute information. Wonder why, say, the Hilton in Quito is discounting its rooms so highly? On TripAdvisor you'll find out that it's because half the rooms are being remodelled. Indeed, the universal lament, every time we've been disappointed in a place, has been, "I wish we'd looked this place up on TripAdvisor first."

(However, be careful to read the reviews, and not just look at the average scores. It's not unheard of for a hotel owner (or their friend) to leave a kind but fraudulent review. In general, a reviewer with multiple contributions to his or her name is more trustworthy than someone who has only left a single comment, and a hotel that appears to have lots of reviews by Tripadvisor virgins may be manipulating its statistics.)

As for online booking, I've found that the best site varies considerably by region. For Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, Booking.com and Wotif.com vie for the top spot with Agoda.com. Agoda, however, ranks far ahead of the pack in Indonesia and most of Southeast Asia, while being competitive in Australasia. Its loyalty program also has pretty good returns. Hotels.com is an also-ran in almost every region, but had some very good prices in the UK and Europe, and frequently has hotels posting special rates. (Watch out for their specials--since they frequently don't qualify for the Welcome Rewards buy-10-get-1-night-free offer, you're implicitly losing 10% of the booking price.) Don't bother with Lastminute.com's secret specials, or anything other site with "hidden" offers. In my experience, there's a good reason that they don't tell you the name of the hotel.

[1] In countries like Thailand, there is also the option of visiting local grocery stores set up for expats, which will have all the comforts of home, including such luxuries as multi-grain Cheerios. These will almost never constitute a cost savings, however.

[2] Indeed, I strongly recommend going to a large grocery store at least once any time that you're in a foreign country: you can learn as much about a place by reviewing its checkout aisles as you can with a dozen guidebooks.

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