The most frequent question I’m asked once people learn I am a permanent traveler is “How do you figure out where to go?” The first time someone asked this question, I hesitated. Seriously? How can you NOT figure out where to go?
I always have a list of potential homes swirling in my head. These ideas come from a myriad of places.
Perhaps a friend visited somewhere and loved it.
Maybe I read a book or blog or newspaper article about a spot that captivated me. I am a travel literature junkie. Pico Iyer, Jan Morris, Don George? I’ll have what they’re having.
If I meet anyone, anywhere with an accent, I ask them where they grew up. If they answer “In Portugal”–as the concierge did in a hotel in Manchester, England–my follow up question is, “If I move there, where should I live?” (His answer: Porto. It’s on the list.)
One of 2016s more unusual choices, for me at least, was Guatemala. Our daughter, Taylor, spent a few months in a Spanish immersion program in Antigua and loved it. I trusted her judgment when she suggested we would love it too and also when she recommended we stay on Lake Atitlan. It’s where I am living as I write this blog post.
Family and friends keep us sane. This May, we are meeting up with a wonderful couple in Budapest—an idea we baked sitting around their dining room table last spring in Colorado. In June, a bunch of family and friends are convening in Ireland to celebrate two milestone anniversaries–an idea finalized over brunch in Raleigh last September.
In July, we will attend the TBEX conference with fellow bloggers in Stockholm, and in August, I will attend a travel writer’s workshop with my writing friends near San Francisco.
Come December, we will always gather with our kids for Christmas. Most often this will be in the US, but who knows? South Africa anyone? (shark cage diving??)
Until our grandson, Jack, is big enough to come with us, (and yes, I DO envision that day) we will periodically return to live near him.
Add to this all of our favorites which are always in contention: Bratislava, Budapest, Courtmacsherry Ireland, and of course, Paris (aways Paris), and I have more locations than we can accommodate.
Several months in advance, I start playing with my working list–which is always way too big–and apply some filters.
First, can I envision staying at least one month in this place? Longer stays substantially reduce cost and logistics nightmares, two items that are very important to me.
Then, I look at the weather. Blizzard blowing up the east coast? No thanks. A hundred degrees with ninety percent humidity? I’ll pass. It is not serendipitous that we are spending winter in Guatemala and summer in Ireland.
Some places are compelling but once I get to work, they end up too challenging. Kyoto, Japan is very expensive and half way around the world. I would love to live in Kyoto, but it needs to be in the context of a larger trip where I could manage the total cost (offset the cost of an apartment in Kyoto with a month in Thailand or Vietnam) and break that huge journey into chunks (Hmm… a month in Hawaii?).
In 2016, Kyoto fell off the list. Perhaps an around-the-world trip will be our swan song before settling down. Until then, Kyoto is not going to happen.
As I cycle through these decisions, the schedule starts to come together. I finalized Guatemala nearly a year ago. Budapest, Bratislava, and Berlin I arranged one day last fall. At this point, everything until December 2016 is firm (and can be viewed on my blog). I am working on 2017 now.
All of this is the easy part.
Finding neighborhoods in cities I don’t know or towns in countries I’ve never visited is the most stressful and time consuming piece. As part of my research, I read and read and then read some more. I talk to people. I ask potential landlords about the neighborhood around the apartment. I notice neighborhood comments in Airbnb or VRBO reviews. And then, I trust my instincts.
Once I have the schedule, the fun begins. Most of you will not want the details. You can stop here.
For everyone who sends me an email on exactly how I build our itinerary, the rest is for you.
Finding an apartment:
Once I have selected the cities and neighborhoods, I use Airbnb and VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner–now integrated with HomeAway). Between these two sources, I always find an apartment. Since we need a place for one to three months, I start months (even a year) in advance of our rental dates. Sometimes people ask me to return to them closer to the rental time period. Generally, most people work with me given the duration of our stay. We have built up positive reviews on Airbnb, a service where both landlords AND tenants are reviewed. With a base of good reviews, landlords have became more willing to work with me.
Increasingly, I use Airbnb. Some people (both landlords and tenants) prefer that Airbnb acts as an intermediary to each transaction. I communicate with the apartment owner through Airbnb. Money is paid to Airbnb and only released to the owner the day AFTER I arrive at the unit. We have never had an issue where we required Airbnb’s intervention, but I have been told they will actively participate to find an alternative and refund the money if you call immediately and explain the issue (again, I have no personal experience with this).
If we are staying in one apartment for several months, as we often do, Airbnb collects one month of rent when the lease is agreed and collects the remainder month by month as the stay progresses (towards the end of the preceding month).
Airbnb is easy to use, has an awesome map function which allows you to isolate only those apartments available for your dates in certain neighborhoods, and keeps all your past and future stays readily available in a dashboard.
Yet in some cities, I prefer VRBO. VRBO is a web portal which contain listings by county, city, and neighborhood. It is easy to navigate through their web front end to create a list of viable apartments (with various filters to help narrow down the search).
As soon as I make an inquiry, the landlord and I are directly connected. The communication, money flow, etc. is directly between the property owner or manager and me. Payment terms are set by the owner. They always request a percent down payment to hold the apartment (often 30-50% of the total which I send via check, bank wire, or paypal). Sometimes, I am asked to pay the remainder in cash upon arrival. At times, I have been asked to pay the remainder 30 days or more before the arrival day. Everything is a direct negotiation. VRBO does NOT hold the money until you see the apartment like Airbnb does.
Some people (both landlords AND tenants) find this stressful and less secure, but we have never had an issue. Many of our favorite rentals have been secured thru VRBO. However, the back and forth communication between several properties as I narrow down the selection is more time consuming with VRBO than Airbnb. Watch this space. VRBO has merged with Homeaway which has now been purchased by Expedia. New functions are inevitable.
No matter which means I use to find a rental, for any apartment I am considering, I read every review. I considered ANY negative statement as a serious issue. Reviewers are notoriously positive. “Lovely apartment! Wonderful owner who left us a bottle of wine and loaf of bread!! Super comfy bed!!! The only TINY downside was the loud music blaring from the neighboring bar until 3AM.” WHAT? No. I will never rent that apartment.
Other reviewers are whiners. “The apartment was perfect. Down the street was a cozy coffee shop with fresh baguettes each morning. I could smell the oleander through the windows and hear the waves crashing on the shore as I drifted off to sleep on Egyptian cotton sheets. HOWEVER, the landlord was five minutes late to our meeting. They apologized, but still….” Seriously? I will very likely rent this place (fresh baguettes? that’s my mating call).
If someone indicates the apartment was lovely and well located but a bit dirty, I’ll take it. For a three month stay, I don’t mind tidying up a bit if the apartment is otherwise perfect.
After reading the reviews, I look at every picture closely. Are photos of any obvious rooms missing (bedroom, bathroom)? Are any pictures cropped unusually? Are there no pictures of the outside? Are there no pictures of the inside? What is the bed like? In our early days, I didn’t notice these things. Now, I only consider places with photos that are complete and have been sensibly cropped. Our surprises have dropped drastically from those early days.
Lastly, is everything included that I care about? An oven? A clothes washer? A bathtub? Wifi? A desk? An adequately sized bed? Given the duration of our stays, I require places with serviceable kitchens, a dedicated desk/workspace, a queen sized bed, and a clothes washer. In the winter, I like to take a bath. It’s not a deal breaker, but for me, it is a tie breaker.
If something seems wrong, I move on. If an owner is slow to respond to me, I move on. I always, always trust my gut.
I used to be extremely cost sensitive, but now I balance cost against hidden cost (the need to eat out because we didn’t have a kitchen was one recent example in Northern California).
I avoid nights in hotels. For us, they are expensive. That said, we probably spend twenty to thirty nights in hotels each year. I generally search for hotels through booking.com using their map feature which allows me to search the combination of cost, location, rating, and availability easily.
Once I find a hotel, I double check to see if a direct booking makes sense (google the hotel name and city to find their web site). Sometimes, hotels are cheaper if I book through their website. At times, breakfast is included if I book directly. Often, I book through booking.com because it is so easy to use and manage (cancellations through booking.com are simple).
Airbnb has rentals for less than a week, sometimes as little as a single night. More often than not, if we are stopping for a very short visit, I choose a hotel.
Putting it all together:
At this point, the fun ends. This fall, while we lived in Michigan, I spent two days finalizing 2016–hotels, flights, other logistics like how will we get from the Guatemala City airport to our hotel in Antigua. I captured everything–confirmation information, contact and address details, payment and cancellation terms–in a spreadsheet. I tried TripIt but found it cumbersome. I like the ease of a single, simple excel spreadsheet.
If we are staying anywhere in Europe or in a major US city, I figure out how to arrive via public transportation, and I note it in my spreadsheet. These types of details are easy to research online. I make sure I know when the train stops running if I arrive late at night (especially after arriving in Paris Orly after Orlyval stopped for the night). What are the options? (In the case of Orly, a bus. I rarely pay for a taxi).
As a final validation, I close my eyes and pretend I am taking the trip. I visualize it. We land in Guatemala City. I am walking through passport control (Do we have our passports? Yes!). Next, I need to get to the hotel. I arranged a driver from the hotel; he’ll be waiting where we exit passport control. I note that. I need to pay him, so I stop at the airport ATM.
What is the exchange rate in Guatemala? The ATM is not going to tell me this, and the withdrawal is in local currency. The rate doesn’t have to be up to the minute, but knowing that there are more or less 8 Guatemalan quetzals to the dollar is important! Otherwise, I may withdraw 200 Q and only have the equivalent of 25 dollars. I note it. What is the tipping policy in Guatemala, both for the driver and the porter? I note that also.
Step by step by step I ensure I have captured everything.I no longer trust my memory or procrastinate these details. It’s much less stressful to research all of this on a rainy day well before the trip.
At the last minute, I confirm our arrival with the hotel (the email address is in my spreadsheet, of course). Or reach out to my Airbnb or VRBO hosts to remind them of my arrival plans.
As tedious as this may sound, it works for me. I hate, hate unnecessary surprises in the logistics. When I plan well, they rarely happen.
Categories: How To