I've come to the conclusion that if you're doing the work-travel thing, you always need to have a reliable, quiet place nearby to retreat to. Most hostels just don't offer that level of privacy, while hotels are too expensive. Coworking spaces would be great, except they cost an extra $10-$30 per day. (Except the gratis Wix Lounge in New York, but there's no privacy there to speak of.)
Aside from finding rooms to rent or sublet (which can be tricky in a foreign country), the best solution I've been able to find so far is Airbnb. (Sign up with my referral link to earn us both credit, I think!) Per day, Airbnb listings tend to be roughly on par with hostels in terms of price; per month, they're more expensive than the local rental rate, but not astronomically.1 And for the extra cost, you get your own room (often with a window and desk), one or more locals to chat with, a fantastic communication and creditibility channel, and a neat little paper trail of all the places you've been to. Plus, you get to experience life in a foregin city as a local! If you've ever been to Europe, tell me you've never walked down the twisted cobblestone streets and wondered what life was like in those arborial, patchwork buildings...
Here are a few tips for finding great Airbnb rentals:
- Check the owner's profile first and foremost. Do they have reviews and references? Do they have photos of themselves out in the real world? Do they sound like an actual human being in their writing? Does their listing have personality?2
- This applies to you as well! The owner can reject your request for any reason, so get some good photos, write up a friendly description, and add as many verifications as possible.
- Does the owner have several places listed in different parts of the city? (That is, are they "playing landlord"?) Look for people renting out rooms in the same house they're living in. One, this tends to be more legal, and two, you can be sure that people who rent where they live care a whole lot more about the state of their accommodations.
- Are some of the listing photos labeled with "Airbnb.com Verified Photo"? Listings that have these photos have been visited by an official Airbnb photographer, which gives them a bit more credibility. Stay away from listings with lots of touristy photos: you want as many good photos of the interior as possible.
- Does the listing have House Rules? When I see House Rules, I feel more confident that I'm going to be living in an actual house with real people instead of some derelict tourist pad.
- Are there going to be other Airbnb guests in the house? Remember: Airbnb rentals usually don't have safes, so you have to trust the people you're staying with. On your end, hosts have a paper trail; other guests do not. (On the other hand, I had a very enjoyable time with two fellow Airbnb guests during my first booking. I imagine that, on average, they're a more interesting breed of traveller than hostel dwellers, at least for mid-twenties folks such as myself!)
- Some Airbnb listings are actually hostel listings, which becomes clear when you see a bunch of bunk beds in the photos. I highly recommend booking through an actual hostel site (HostelWorld, HostelBookers) if you want to go that route. It's not really what Airbnb is for.
- Instead of doing meticulous research and trying to reserve the one place you like, get a list of 2-10 places you think might work for you and send a message to each of the hosts via the "Contact Me" button. Ask them a few simple questions. Is the room available during this time? Do you get your own key? The reason you want to do this is that more often than not, even when you're just reaching out to to get some information, the hosts will pre-approve you for a short period of time to expedite the booking process. This means that after everyone responds to you, you'll get your pick of several places that are a guaranteed approval. (Warning: multiple guests can be pre-approved at once, so if you get pre-approaved for a listing you like, don't dawdle!) What's more, the calendars for many listings are hopelessly out of date: even when they're marked green, there's a good chance they'll be unavailable simply because the host never bothered to update their calendar.
- Airbnb has the ability to offer different pricing for weekly and monthly rentals, and monthly prices in particular can be drastically cheaper than daily rates. If you're traveling for a while, try moving the date slider forward a bit. Additionally, even when it looks like a city is all booked out, checking for monthly rentals might yield a few more results since those places tend to be more expensive on a daily basis. (Note that even if a place is available for monthly rental, it's by no means assured that the host will go for it. It's best to contact them and ask if the dates are available.)
- Airbnb offers a currency conversion option by default. Don't use this. If your credit card currency differs from the local currency, you'll be hit with a 3% surcharge. On the payment screen, there's a drop-down menu for your country right above the credit card picker. Select the country that you're currently in and make sure the pricing caption in the lower-right corner doesn't say anything about currency conversion or surcharges. (I don't think you can do this in the mobile app.)
- Although this happens rarely, hosts can cancel a reservation some days in advance. Make sure you're aware of your other options if this happens.
- It's not a huge issue, but it's worth Googling to see if the city you're travelling to has a problem with Airbnb rentals. For example, New York (until recently?) has been pretty strict about it. You don't want to risk getting evicted because the owner never bothered to read up on the local laws!
- Finally, be sure to leave reviews! Reviews are Airbnb's capital. It's what makes the whole thing tick. Unfortunately, judging by the number of reservations compared to the number of reviews for the average listing, it sure seems that most people don't bother. If you do it, not only will you help out your host in a big way, but you'll make it more likely for the host to leave a review for you as well.
- Airbnb has got me looking at rental prices in the places I'm travelling to. (Numbeo is a good site for this, though I can't speak to its accuracy.) Unfortunately, compared to local prices, daily Airbnb prices are still significantly pricier than rent. For example, in Barcelona, a cheap-ish room in a shared house can go for $35 a day, whereas if you're paying rent, you can get a flat all to yourself close to the center of town for just $30 a day, or $13 a day with roomates. (Plus utilities, internet, etc.)
- AKA, "how not to get scammed on Craigslist or eBay 101". Asking for hosts to show a little personality might seem a little... entitled?, but it's the most sure-fire way to tell the difference between a genuine person and someone out for a quick buck. I've always adhered to this principle when buying or selling on eBay and Craigslist and never had a problem.