This seems like a good time to reflect on the housing we chose during our first year of nomadic life. We started these adventures in mid-January, 2022, almost one year ago. Other than choosing a city, finding a good place to stay seems like one of the most important decisions we make. Where you live affects your mood, your relationship, and your ability to do what you want where you are visiting. Recently, we've been choosing some places we'll stay in 2023. What factors do we consider when we choose lodging? What are our hits and misses this past year?
In 2022, we rented lodging in Lisbon, London, Paris, Helsinki, Seattle, Sydney, and Melbourne. In June & July we stayed with family or, in Paul's case during his Alaska road trip, stayed in hotels for one or two nights at a time. For most of August and September, we stayed in Paul's dad's house in Wisconsin. In October, we were on the ship. For the long-term/international lodging, we used Airbnb for 5 of the stays, VRBO for one and Hotels.com for one. In addition, we've recently booked stays in Wellington and Auckland in New Zealand and Suva, Fiji using Airbnb.
What are we aiming for? We want to feel like we are in our own home everywhere we go. Therefore, we are not looking for hotels (except for occasional nights), hostels, room shares or staying with a family (other than our own friends). We're city people for the most part, so we're not looking to travel by motor home or camp. For us, traveling is usually balanced by "settling down" for the short term in minimum one-month stays in apartments where we can relax and work on creative projects. We might consider house sitting at some point, but right now we're excited to visit cities we've wanted to live in for a long time and therefore we want more control over our itinerary without moving into multiple places in the same city.
How do we choose the hosting site?
The first question is where do we look for housing? The two major sites we have found are Airbnb and VRBO. In theory, we prefer VRBO. They tend to feature smaller, non-professional owners and only list entire homes, not rooms in homes. We had a bad experience a few years ago renting a room in someone's home, and would not do that again. However, other than in Lisbon, we have found almost no homes that meet our criteria in the other cities we have booked, although we always look. When we first booked Lisbon, VRBO offered lots of options there and had a very flexible cancellation policy. Given we booked our first place months in advance and were concerned about COVID, that was important to us. But in London, Paris, Helsinki, Seattle, Sydney, Melbourne, Wellington, Auckland, and Suva, we found VRBO listings almost non-existent given our parameters. We have also had Booking.com recommended to us. We've used it for short stays in hotels but from what we've seen, their selection of apartments has been very limited. You can only book for 30 days at a time, although I suppose you could book multiple stays at the same place for multi-month stays. Their cancellation policy is terrific, though, so we always look there and on Hotels.com. I saw a recommendation for apartments.com for U.S. apartments but the prices, at least in Seattle, were high and to get better prices you needed to sign long-term leases of at least six months. I've also recently read about a site called Furnished Finder that was originally for visiting nurses who travel and on a glance those prices seem pretty good but are in the U.S. only. Feel free to leave other sites in the comments if you know of others.
What factors do we take into account?
Price: Our first factor is price. We have a budget, and housing is a big cost in our budget. In 2022, our monthly budget was $3,000/month (roughly $100/night). We based this on the rent we paid for our 3-bedroom town house in Okemos, Michigan. Our 2022 locations were places with a pretty high cost of living, but we discovered this price allowed us to get many of our other factors, including good location, large space and good amenities. The only exception was London, where we had a small size and were slightly over budget (but in a good location). We recently adjusted our housing budget down to $2,000/month (roughly $67/night) when we saw how other expenses were higher than we anticipated. We are seeing fewer options and smaller spaces, but so far have been able to book decent-sized places in good locations. We plan to stay in some locations with a lower cost of living in 2023 (Fiji, Panang) to balance the higher cost of other locations (New Zealand, Japan). Most places offer significant discounts for longer-term stays, especially over a month, so the price listed when you click on the links below might be more per night than what we paid. Rookie mistake: I would filter for price, but didn't always take into account the cleaning fees, which post-COVID can be quite high. Below when I review each place, I will indicate what our actual cost per night was, including fees.
Location: We don't have a car, and value exploration, so our second most important factor is location. If we're booking a place in a city we've never lived in, we try to find something near places we want to visit, near places where we can buy food, near good restaurants, and near good public transportation. We know we will be walking and taking public transit most of the time. Usually this puts us nearer tourist spots if we are new to the place. If we're staying in a location where we've lived before, we feel more comfortable branching into other neighborhoods that are also good for walking, living, and public transit.
Size & space: We originally wanted to book places with 2 bedrooms so we could have extra room if people came to visit us, and to have extra "office" space for each of us to work on projects. We did have visitors in Lisbon, and the extra room was nice. In London, we couldn't afford a 2-bedroom anywhere near reasonable distance from the city, so we got a 1-bedroom with a sleeper sofa in the living room. It turned out the space was so small, though, our guests there opted to rent a different place after the first night. We had guests in Seattle, so we were happy for the extra space even though it had some limitations. Our two shorter-term stays were just for us, so we didn't need the extra room (Paris and Sydney). As for office space, we can make do with a 1-bedroom unit for some quiet space for work or music lessons, using the bedroom or living room. We find a studio difficult for a long-term stay, as it offers no privacy when we do things that make noise or need a lot of quiet. For example, if I am practicing voice exercises or Paul is programming it is nice to be able to shut the door. A good outdoor space is nice, especially if the weather cooperates. A good balcony with a view might be the difference in booking, all other things being equal.
Amenities: We have some basic things we need to have to feel like we are functioning in a home. We need a full kitchen, decently-fast internet, a washing machine and a space to put a computer (dedicated work space). We always filter for those. We would consider a washer in the building rather than the unit, and might stay in a place with stove top and microwave but no oven, but prefer otherwise. Other amenities are nice but not required: I'd always love a pool or a hot tub, but those don't often come at our price point. Paul likes a TV, which most places have, but not all. We'd prefer a coffee machine, but can always buy a french press and coffee grinder for a decent price and leave it with the unit when we depart.
Cancellation policy: We would always prefer a flexible cancellation policy. We prefer to book months in advance, but hesitate to do that when you lose 30 days' price after 48 hours of booking. Cancellation policies seem very location-dependent. In Lisbon, for example, (mid-January - mid-March, 2022) Airbnb properties all had very unforgiving cancellation while VRBO properties all had very flexible cancellation, a major reason we went with VRBO. But that has not always been the case. When booking New Zealand for 2023, most Airbnb locations had flexible cancellation. You can buy cancellation insurance to protect losses if you have to cancel for medical reasons (you, your travel partner, and family members who may be back home). We did that for our Suva booking, because there were so few properties and we were booking 6 months in advance. But for Auckland, we just waited closer to the time before booking. We also use a Chase Saphire card to book which comes with travel insurance for emergency cancellation.
Reviews: The first year or so that I used Airbnb (at that time, usually vacation or business travel) I always booked with a Super Host. I was nervous about using the site and had heard a few bad stories. Now, we're a bit more flexible. Super Host status is a big plus, for sure. But we're more willing to take a chance on a new listing, for example, if the price and location are really good (new listings don't have reviews). You try to read between the lines from the photos and descriptions. "Cozy" means small. "Quaint" or "unique" means there is something odd about how the rooms are configured. We always read the review, however. Red flags for us would be a host who failed to communicate, mold or musty odors, extra charges, attempts to circumvent the platform, an uncomfortable bed, or unclean premises. But, we also consider responses by the host, and sometimes find those explanations satisfy us. Some people are just overly picky. We pay close attention to information about how close transit, groceries, and restaurants are characterized by the guests in the reviews.
We also always leave a review. If we think something might improve a place, but there was nothing false about the advertising, we say that privately. If we think something is advertised deceptively, or not what we should have expected, we say that publicly. We try to be honest in our reviews. If a host responds quickly to our concerns we don't usually bring up the initial problem and we do give credit for quick response. If a place has nice amenities that we don't require but enjoy, we mention that.
A previous stay might be the main reason we book a place (or don't book a place). For example, we stayed in a studio/loft apartment in Wellington for a long weekend a few years ago. Location: perfect. Price: just at our 2022 budget (we booked before adjusting our budget). It is smaller than we would normally pick, but the host was so organized, and the place was so lovely, we wanted to stay there again.
Je ne sais quoi: You feel a certain way in certain spaces. The layout might make a place feel more spacious than the square footage (e.g., the place in Helsinki) or less spacious than the photos portrayed (e.g., the place in London); or, lack of sunlight might make a place feel a little less cheerful (e.g., the place in Lisbon). The french phrase, "Je ne sais quoi" which loosely translates into "a feeling you can't really put into words" captures this idea. These are hard to figure out in advance, although we're getting a little better at "reading" the photos when we search.
How did we do in our first year?
Lisbon: The price was great - under budget. The location was fantastic for a first-time visitor. It was in a centrally-located place, close to groceries, small shops, and public transit. It was walkable to many places of interest. We hope to go back to Lisbon and the only reason we will likely stay elsewhere is the location was pretty crowded with tourists and the second time we will have a better idea of other locales that would serve our needs. The amenities were terrific. The size was good - 2-br, 1 bath. It is in a very old building, so not as modern as other places we've stayed, but that was part of the charm, especially for our fist visit. Our host was fantastic. Responsive, nice, interesting and addressed any concerns that came up. We were not charged extra for guests (we always tell the host when we will have guests). Price per night: $78
London: The price was slightly over our budget, but was good for London and the location was terrific. We were a couple of blocks from the High Street in Camden Town, close to buses and underground and lots of groceries, shops, and restaurants. A nice neighborhood for walking. The host was very responsive. It was a 1-bedroom, but it felt even smaller than a typical 1-bedroom. Yes, there was a "dedicated workspace, but there wasn't a kitchen table. The hosts lived there when they weren't renting but had their stuff squeezed into every available space except some closet space for our clothes. It just felt really cramped. No fault of their own, but the electricity went out in the bathroom the day before we checked in - the host disclosed it and put in a temporary solar-powered light, but it was not fixed and we were there 6 weeks. Probably wouldn't stay again although it is tough to find housing in London. Price per night: $123
Paris: We stayed in a small French hotel that we booked on hotels.com. The room wasn't very big, and it was way over our budget, but we wanted to be near our family who were visiting in Paris and were staying in a pricey area. It was nice, but the room was very small. Price per night: $193
Helsinki: We loved this place. It was only 1 bedroom, but felt spacious. The layout was nice, the appliances were modern, the location was excellent - right downtown. We were close to transit and we could walk to many interesting places. The host was responsive. The amenities were excellent. The only downside was the price - it was over our budget. But it would have been hard to find anything in downtown Helsinki for less. We would stay there again. Price per night: $120
Seattle: This was an interesting place. The location was terrific. The views were beautiful, as you can see from my photos above, I didn't even take pictures of the inside. It was close to friends of ours in Seattle, a more residential neighborhood than other places we stayed. But it was walking distance to several groceries, restaurants, and shops, and close to major bus lines that took you to light rail. It was easy to get downtown and other places of interest. The space itself was quirky. For two people, it was great - billed as a 2-bedroom but really more like a 1-bedroom with bonus space. A loft room with a bed had no privacy and the other bedroom was also the main entrance so you walked through it to get into the apartment or from the main bedroom to the bathroom and kitchen. The outdoor balcony was wonderful with a great view. The kitchen was fine. There was a large jetted tub. The place advertised air conditioning but the units provided weren't really air conditioners. Seattle was experiencing an uncharacteristic heat wave so we were very hot. The host was very responsive and brought extra units (air coolers not air conditioners). She said she planned to install air conditioning and may have done so. The price was slightly over budget but good for Seattle. The host charged extra when my adult kids came to visit - she did so properly using Airbnb request for additional payment but she is the only host so far to do this for a long-term stay. We had to cancel due to a death in the family, and the host charged us the 30 days per the policy. Again, she had every right to do this but I asked if she rented the place during the 30 days would she discount the amount, given the circumstances, and she did not reply. The market in Seattle was peak season. Price per night: what it would have been had we not left early: $107/night. But, since we only stayed 24 nights instead of 78, and we had to forfeit the price of 30 days, we ended up paying $215/night.
Original listing removed from Airbnb (see note below)
Sydney: When our ship arrived in Sydney Harbor we wanted to stay there a week before traveling to Melbourne for 10 weeks. We booked a place and the host cancelled a few days before our arrival. Airbnb did help by providing us with alternatives, and we booked an apartment in Leichhardt, which is considered the Little Italy of Sydney. It was slightly over our budget (but less than the place that cancelled); because we were only there a week we didn't get any discounts. It was a new listing so no reviews. The place was nice - a 1 br with a decent kitchen and nice living room. A balcony overlooked a courtyard with a city view. The kitchen had almost nothing in it - no food staples of any kind - making it almost impossible to cook since we were only staying a week. The location was fantastic - so many nice restaurants, a grocery, and shops. It was on a bus line and there are lots of Ubers in Sydney. Maybe this is because it was a new listing, but there was almost no information provided - for any appliances, where to take the trash, etc. The worst part was that the bed was extremely uncomfortable (at least Kim thought so) and would preclude us from another stay there. Price per night: $115 Note: the original listing has been removed from Airbnb and is not listed under the original host's name (Likehome). There is a listing that looks identical from the photos & the name, listed as new with no reviews, with a different host. I cannot be sure, but it appears to me to be the same place with the same furniture. One BD Apt. with a City View in the Little Italy
Melbourne: This is where we're staying now, in an inner suburb called Carlton. We've lived for short stays several times in Melbourne, so we knew the territory. I think we got a really good deal on this one, at least under the old budget. We're paying slightly over (the 2022) budget, but not by much. This location is terrific - two blocks from a major tram line, and walking distances to more groceries, restaurants, and shops than I can count. We can walk to the CBD or take the tram in. We're a 30-minute walk, for example, from the Queen Victoria Market. We're ten minutes from the Melbourne Museum on foot. The area is pretty and residential but you can see tall buildings in the city. We're surrounded by Victorian terrace homes. We got a big monthly discount and another large ($1,000 off) discount for booking shortly after it was listed with no reviews. We have two big bedrooms and two full bathrooms (the latter a first during our travels). The kitchen is well stocked and the host provided lots of supplies. The furniture is comfortable. The host has been very responsive. There is a large patio and we're on the first floor. Price per night: $113
We'll be staying with friends for a couple of weeks in Hamilton, NZ then here in Wellington (we've stayed here before), here in Auckland and here in Suva, Fiji. We booked Wellington under the old budget but Auckland and Suva under the new budget.
No matter where we are, we've got each other and we've got small reminders of people and places that are important to us as we journey. As for finding the perfect housing, well, nothing's perfect, but it's all temporary so we can try again!