Friday, August 10, 2012

Live Like a Native on Vacation: Rent an Apartment

In a recent episode of Househunters International, a woman was hunting for a Paris flat that she and her husband could rent to tourists after using it for a long-term business stay. If you were wondering who would ever rent a property in another country and why, I will be glad to tell you.

View of pedestrian street and
Place Masséna from Ajoupa
apartment in Nice, France. 
I have rented four apartments in Paris when my stays lasted a week or more. For the same standard of living in hotels, I would have spent a lot more. My apartments offered amenities that a hotel did not, most notably a kitchen, which was a huge convenience at breakfast time or when I was too tired to eat out or just trying to save some money. It also gave me the opportunity to enjoy one of my favorite aspects of French life: wandering through the markets in search of fresh vegetables, cheese, baguettes and other goodies for meals. I didn’t even miss the maid service.

How to Find a Flat
You’re probably wondering where to find a list of apartments and how to avoid getting ripped off. I found my on the following websites:
  • HomeAway is a reputable site recommended by several travel magazines. Renters can search the site based on all sorts or criteria, even whether the property has Internet access. If you register, you can create a list of favorites, and the site records which properties you have contacted. Best of all, the site provides protection against Internet fraud.
  • HomeAway has some sister sites, including and While most of the properties are the same, it’s worth looking on them because you can sometimes find some additional ones.
  • New York Habitat offers properties in New York, Paris, London and the South of France. Unlike HomeAway, which is not involved in agreements between renters and property owners, New York Habitat is a leasing service, so you will deal with an English-speaking agent who can provide a list of apartments based on your criteria or simply facilitate a rental agreement for an apartment you find on the website. This company also handles long-term rentals.
How to Choose the Perfect Property
A reliable website will provide an ample amount of information about the property as well as plenty of pictures. Following are some of the most important factors to consider when making your choice:
  • Location: If you’re staying in a city, you don’t need to pay high rates to be in the tourist area. As long as you are close to public transportation, and it looks like a decent neighborhood, you should be fine. Beware that some listings show the center of town on the map rather than the property’s actual address. Be sure to verify the address and look it up on Google maps. You can also research the neighborhood on or other travel forums.
  • Language spoken by the owner: If you are not using an agent, check the listing for languages spoken by the owner. Many of them speak English, but you could run into problems if you don’t speak the local language and the owner doesn't speak English. If the owner speaks English, the contract could still be in his native language. In that case, use Google or a free translation website to translate to English.
  • Floor: Since many old buildings in Europe do not have elevators, I learned the hard way that you should always ask which floor the apartment is located on if the listing doesn't mention an elevator or indicates that it’s unsuitable for the elderly or infirm. Dragging a heavy suitcase to the fifth floor is one thing I will never do again. Also, what Europeans call the first floor, we call the second, so add one to the number you’re given.
  • Floor area: Space is limited in other countries, especially in the cities, so it’s important to check photos and floor area to make sure you’ll have enough space.
  • Beds: This is an important issue, especially if you are traveling with other people or a person who is not your significant other. If you’re looking at a studio, the bed may be a sofa bed. Again, check the photos closely.
  • Noise level: If you’re staying in the city, it’s convenient to be close to a lot of commercial activity, but it could also make for some sleepless nights. Find out if the double glazed windows (double vitrage in French). It could make or break your trip. I always bring ear plugs just in case. 
  • Air conditioning: While most American buildings are air-conditioned, this is not the case in other countries. Check the average temperatures for your destination and decide whether this amenity is necessary.
  • Payment form: Most rentals require a deposit of 25 to 50 percent. Before signing a contract, make sure you can pay in the form requested, typically PayPal or a bank wire. Some apartments accept credit cards. Note that some banks don’t offer wire services. If they do, they usually charge a fee of $30 to $45 and a currency conversion fee of one to three percent of the amount wired. Owners may charge an additional fee for PayPal or credit cards.
  • Security deposit. Most owners require a security deposit when you sign the lease. The amount will be mentioned in the listing. Be sure to find out how you will recover the deposit at the end of the trip. Typically the owner will give you cash when you leave. You’ll probably return to the United States after renting the apartment, and if you’re splitting the deposit among several people, it shouldn't be a big deal to spend the foreign currency on cab fare to the airport and last-minute souvenirs or to save it for a future trip. However, if you are footing the bill on your own, you’ll have to decide if it’s worth it to hang on to the cash or lose a bit of it when trading it for greenbacks.  Note that owners sometimes send a check to the renter a week after the rental, which is not convenient for foreigners.
  • Additional fees: Is there a cleaning fee? Are utilities included? Are sheets and towels included?
A Few Tips on Contacting the Owner
  • The best places go quickly, so find a place well in advance, especially if you are going during peak travel times, like summer, Christmas and local holidays.
  • Contact several owners because some places may have been recently booked for your preferred time although the schedule says they’re available. Also, some owners don’t respond if they are busy, or if  they have booked the property.
  • Don’t book with the first owner who responds if you’re not absolutely sure you want the property. It sometimes takes a few days for owners to respond. Allow at least a week for a response on a property you really want.
Another Option: Apart’hotels
If dealing with the foreign language, security deposit and payment to a stranger is too much for you, but you still want the apartment experience, try an apart’hotel, which is basically a hotel room with a kitchenette. Apart’hotels don’t offer the local charm of most privately owned apartments, but they usually accept credit card deposits, they don’t require a security deposit and there is usually someone on staff who speaks English. In addition, you can stay at most of them for a few days.

To find an apart’hotel, just do a Google search for apartment hotel in whatever city you want to visit.  If you are visiting Nice, I can recommend two:
  • StudiosFloreal: located next to the tram by the main train station in the middle of the main shopping area of Jean Médecin. It’s a very lively area, but double-glazed windows block the noise. 
  • Ajoupa Baie des Anglais: in an ideal location on a pedestrian street just off the beautiful Place Méssina. It’s very clean and reasonably priced, so book early because rooms go quickly.
Renting an apartment isn't for everyone. If you want to live like a native, though, it’s the best way to go. 

Where would you like to immerse yourself? 


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