In our 30 months of full time travel, we have had times where we needed to find accommodations to fill in gaps between housesitting and time with family.
Arriving in an area with no accommodation booked freaks some people out. Rest assured that in all our years of travel, we have never had to sleep in the street. If we arrive later than planned, we may have to spend more than we would like for our first night. However, that inconvenience is offset by being able to find cheaper and better accommodation once on the ground.
Note: If you arrive late at night, perhaps book your first night at a hotel and then find something more suitable.
Vacation rentals or apartments are usually a better deal than a typical hotel room. They offer the same amenities as home, are less expensive, more spacious and you can cook for yourself saving on restaurant costs.
We seldom book online any more as we have had a few surprises.
When researching Utila, one of Honduras’s Bay Islands, we found an apartment online that sounded delightful with great reviews. We pre-booked, although only for a few days instead of the full month, as something did not ‘feel right’.
As usual, our gut instincts were correct. The apartment was filthy, the kitchen was poorly equipped and the owner blithely told us “the saucepans were rusty but would be OK after a good scrub, and we would need to buy our own toilet paper”. It was also a long hike out of town, with lots of biting bugs.
We spent the next day scouring the island for alternatives and although we did not find a suitable apartment immediately. We moved to The Lighthouse, a custom-built hotel, built over the water, with luxurious rooms, fridge, microwave and wonderful ocean views, all for a few more dollars than our current $50 a night pigsty.
After four blissful days in our ocean eerie, we moved to an oceanfront, fully equipped apartment with wraparound deck and gazebo. Our home for the next month cost $400 and we became lifelong friends with one of our neighbors.
The best way of locating accommodation is once you have arrived in the area and are able to do ‘on the ground’ research. This is what happened when we arrived in Playa Blanca, Panama in Dec 2013.
We rented a two-bedroom apartment for $1000 per month including all utilities and internet. By being on the ground, we could take advantage of the fact that an owner would rather receive some income, than have their apartment sit empty earning them nothing. Playa Blanca was a ghost town at that time with at most 25% occupancy. Knowing that gave us great bargaining power.
Here are some hard cold facts about advertised online rentals in that area.
Note: These are all similar type apartments in the same complex.
- Airbnb listed a two-bedroom apartment for $3733 per month all inclusive and a one-bedroom apartment in the Town Centre for $2354
- Flip Key quoted $150 to $175 per night for a two-bedroom apartment exactly like the one we rented, which is $750 to 850 per week or $3000 to $3400 a month
- VRBO listed an apartment in the same building for $2200 per month. The picture of the view was stale- there is now a HUGE RIU Hotel impeding the ocean view!
By being there we saved at least $1200, possibly $2400 per month and knew exactly what we were renting before we plonked our money down. With no nasty surprises like paying for an ocean view that no longer exists.
You do need to do a little footwork, both on the ground and in advance. Before you arrive, do some internet research. Visit Airbnb, Flipkey and Homeaway to research what is available and check weekly/monthly rates.
Do consider that:
- If there are many rentals available online, it means there are even more un-advertised, meaning more choice and more room for negotiation
- Prices are often negotiable, especially for immediate occupancy
- It can take four to five days on the ground to find a decent apartment
- Tourist areas in high season are more expensive due to high demand
- Holidays like Semana Santa (Easter) in Central America or Carnival in the Caribbean are busy. If travelling at these times even we book well in advance
Our top tips for finding great deals on rentals:
- Never pay sight unseen.
- If there is a college or university nearby, check there college website under student services to see if there are any housing resources
- Research and shortlist suitable apartment buildings and areas before you arrive
- Before you rent, view the place, check the bathroom, the kitchen and discuss what your rent includes
- Ask if there are any additional charges (cleaning charges are a favorite-often compulsory-add on and can be outrageous)
- Talk to strangers and ask if they know anyone with an apartment to rent (Taxi drivers are great sources)
- Hang out in Expat haunts and tell people what you are looking for
Note: Real estate agents or property management companies are often not very helpful at finding short-term bargains. There is a conflict of interest, they may have properties to rent but of course want to get the best rate possible for their clients.
Conversely, they are a great resource for finding longer-term rentals, although you may pay a little more than going directly to the owner.
An often-overlooked resource for finding long-term and short-term rentals is an online site called Sabbatical Homes. It is a directory of academic housesits, home rentals and house swaps in Europe, North America, Australia and a few in Central/South America.
You do not have to be an academic to use the site and most of the rentals have minimum terms of 2 weeks to 6 months.
The best way to find a great rental at a bargain price is to be there in person, ready to negotiate and willing to pay cash for the right deal.
Visit our resources page for links to the main long/short term rental and vacation property websites.