Bird’s-Eye Snapshots Of Hong Kong’s Most Claustrophobic Apartments

If you’ve ever wished you had more space in your home, just wait until you see these startling images of abysmally tiny apartments in Hong Kong.

The livings spaces are so small that the bed, TV, kitchen and office are all within arm’s reach, and belongings are stacked precariously high along the walls.

According to human rights group The Society for Community Organization (SoCO), nearly 100,000 people in Hong Kong live in these tiny spaces known as “cubicle apartments.”But it’s not just bachelors living in these cramped quarters – entire families are crammed into the 40-square-foot apartments, which are the result of illegal subdivisions.

The series of images show the living spaces as viewed from above, and the perspective makes the already claustrophobic apartments seem even more dizzying.

SoCO commissioned the photos in order to raise awareness of the atrocious living conditions. The QR code you see in the corner of each image links to a petition urging Hong Kong’s government to do something about the inadequate housing.

Take a look at the photos below.

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[Photo credit: Society for Community Organization/Publicis Hong Kong]

Top ten alternative lodging options

When it comes to lodging, most people automatically look for a hotel. And if you want room service, a business center, gym, and all the other perks that come with a hotel, that may be your best bet. But if you’re looking for a more unique place to stay, if you want to save money, or if you want to experience a destination in an entirely new way, you have a whole range of options outside the sphere of Marriotts, Hiltons, and Four Seasons. Here are the top ten alternative lodging options.
Bed and Breakfasts/Guesthouses
A bed and breakfast (which in some countries, goes by the name guesthouse) is always my first choice for accommodation. Do I have a deep-seeded fetish for doilies, furniture that looks like it belongs in my grandma’s house, and forced interaction over tea and scones? Definitely not. Luckily, not all B&Bs fit that stereotype. Many offer chic, modern décor and accommodations that are just as luxurious and stylish as their hotel counterparts.

The reason I choose these types of bed and breakfasts is this: generally, as it’s a small business, the owners are very hands on and present. You don’t feel so much like another anonymous customer as a welcomed guest. At bed and breakfasts I’ve stayed at, the hosts have been more than happy to sit down and give me personalized recommendations for the city I was visiting, to offer champagne toasts on New Year’s Eve, and even to provide me with a ride to the airport when my cab didn’t show up on time.

Bed and breakfasts tend to be located in more residential areas of a city, which means that you can better imagine what life is like for those who live here, you see a different side of the city, and best of all, rates are often much lower than the average hotel. Plus, the included breakfast means you save even more.

Boutique Hotel/Inn

Boutique hotels and inns are often very similar to a bed and breakfast. They may not go by the name because they don’t want to be associated with the stuffy Victorian image of other B&Bs or perhaps they aren’t truly a B&B if they don’t serve breakfast. Many are more of a hybrid between B&B and hotel. Thanks to their small size, they may offer the personalized service of a bed and breakfast, but with some of the amenities that you’d find in a hotel. Every boutique hotel I have ever stayed in has offered free wi-fi and many have had small lounges for afternoon drinks or snacks.

Hostel
Maybe your days of sleeping in bunk accommodations with young, unwashed travelers are long gone. You’d never even think about staying in a hostel again. But if you are a budget traveler, you may want to reconsider that position. Many hostels offer private double rooms (with shared or private baths) in addition to dorm style accommodations. Actually, several that I have stayed at in the last year have only had private rooms and the shared bathrooms, while located next door to the room, were only shared between 2-3 rooms and were single-stall locking bathrooms. Sure, you still have to go down the hall to use the loo, but for a traveler on a budget, saving $10-$20 per night in exchange for doing so may be worth it.

At every hostel I have stayed at, I never had to wait for the bathroom, the other travelers were older budget travelers like myself, internet was free, and every few rooms shared a small kitchenette, which meant I could save even more money by cooking lunch or dinner in the hostel a few times. And again, the hostel prices were significantly cheaper than comparable hotels.

Apartments/Cabins
If you’re planning an extended stay in one location, or are traveling with kids or a few friends, an apartment or cabin rental can really make financial sense. It may cost a bit more than a hotel, but the money you’ll save being able to cook your own meals, enjoy a few drinks in your living room, or wash your clothes in your own laundry machine, may offset any extra expensive. And if you have a few friends to split the cost with, you can save big.

Camping
When I think of camping, I think of packing a tent and a cooler and heading “up north” with friends. Or at least, that’s what I used to think of. Now I’ve learned that you can camp just about anywhere – in the US, Asia, Africa, and even just outside of Europe’s biggest cities.
Camping doesn’t have to mean roughing it either. Many European campsites, for example, are located 15-20 minutes by bus outside of the city center and offer dining halls, internet access, swimming pools, and modern bathrooms. In Africa, if you can’t quite afford a $500 per night luxury lodge, just buy a tent when you arrive, drive to the game park, and pick one of the many available camps where you can score a spot for about $20 per night, eating in the camp’s dining hall and relaxing in the communal swimming pool.

Agritourismos/Farm Stays
When visiting a city, I generally like to stay in the city. I want to be able to step outside of my lodging directly into the fray. I want to wander all day down cobble stones streets, and then be able to totter home after a few drinks to fall asleep to the sounds of the city. But in some areas, the way of life is more rural. In these places, I want to get the full experience. Here, I want to look out my window and see rolling fields. I want to see how the people live off the land, and I want to retire each night to watch the sunset from my deck while eating food produced just a few steps from where I’m standing. In these places, I want to stay at an agritourismo.

Like a bed and breakfast, and agritourismo is family run and generally offers breakfast included in the accommodation. But an agritourismo or farm stay also offers much more. Guest will get an education in farming while immersing themselves in nature – horseback riding, wandering through fields, and learning about (or even helping with) the operations of the property.
Servas
Servas is an “international, nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for personal contact between people of diverse backgrounds. Members need to apply and pay a membership fee so there is a bit more investment required that with CouchSurfing, and the emphasis on cultural connection is even higher. Both hosts and travelers need to be interviews by a local coordinator in order to be accepted, and have a certain degree of responsibility once they become members.
Hosts welcome guests for one or two nights, and offer some kind of cultural exchange during the process. They are expected to spend time with guests and invite them to share an evening meal. Guests are expected to view the host site as more than just a place to stay. Then interview process and application fees for joining may help set some hesitant members’ minds at ease and people who aren’t quite comfortable with CouchSurfing may be more inclined to try Servas.
AirBNB
A cross between CouchSurfing and a guesthouse, AirBNB is a service that connects hosts – those with a space room or sometimes just a spare couch – with a guest in need of a place to stay. The catch is that unlike CouchSurfing, guests have to pay for rooms booked through AirBNB. Where CouchSurfing is more about community and cultural exchange, AirBNB is more about commerce.

But, many of the AirBNB listings are more than just offers for a couch. Dozens are listings for entire apartments, often at rates much lower than what you would pay for a hotel. The site has more comprehensive offering for big cities than small towns, especially in the US, so while you might score a pretty great deal for someone’s pied a terre in NYC or Chicago, you may have a harder time finding an apartment rental in Tuscany or Bavaria.
Homeswaps
Homeswapping requires a degree of flexibility, but the rewards can be great. Here’s how it works. You sign up on a homeswapping website like Home Exchange, pay your annual fee (usually under $50) and then list your house or apartment. You can wait for the requests to come in and respond according to your schedule, or you can approach others for a swap based on your travel plans.

Say you’re looking to plan a trip to Paris this summer. You check out the available houses in the city and begin sending inquiries to the owners asking about your preferred week. One couple may have a house available, and have an interest in coming to visit the city where you live, but they might not be able to travel on that exact week, so you work together and come up with dates that are convenient for both of you.

Most successful homeswappers live in a city that is more popular. For example, it might be harder to find someone from Paris who is interested in traveling to Cincinnati, Ohio, than New York City.
CouchSurfing
The most famous of all free accommodation, CouchSurfing is a million-member strong community of travelers. Some are offering places to stay, others are looking for a host to take them in on their travels. You post a profile and it’s up to you to decide who to host (or if you want to host at all) and who you feel comfortable staying with. Members span all walks of life, but they all seem to have one thing in common – a desire to see the world and travel cheaply, and to connect with other like-minded people while they do so.

Many hosts and surfers make a point to get together during the hosting period. When I stayed with a couple in Austin, Texas, last year, we all went out for dinner one night. We had a great time and they ended dup showing me a side of the city I never would have discovered on my own. Some people are uncomfortable with the idea of staying in a stranger’s house. And if you’re looking just to relax and escape this might not be the ideal situation. But if you want to connect with another culture and see a place from an insider’s point of view, give CouchSurfing a try.

Pay to sleep on a stranger’s couch with AirBnB

I recently came across the website AirBnb.com, which promises to connect “adventurous travelers” with “nice folks” willing to let strangers stay in their apartment, spare room, or even on their couch – for a fee. Basically, if VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) and CouchSurfing had a love child, this would be it.

At first I thought it was just a way to get money out of people who (somehow) still haven’t heard of CouchSurfing. Some of the offerings are downright laughable – why would people pay $70 to sleep on a couch when they can get their very own room at a major hotel chain for $10-$20 more? And if someone really wanted to stay with locals and make new friends, wouldn’t they just CouchSurf?

Despite some of the clearly deluded potential hosts offering to allow you to squat in their apartment for a ridiculous fee, I still wouldn’t write the site off completely. A few of the options listed are actually pretty great, like an entire apartment to yourself in Chicago, tastefully decorated and ideally located, for just $80 a night. There are even established B&Bs and pensions using AirBnB as another outlet for advertising their available rooms. Luckily the site does allow you to set search parameters like “private room” and “entire place” so you can easily find what you want. You can also look at reviews from previous guests and see plenty of photos of the place before you book. You’ll take on more risk than if you book with a traditional hotel, but you could score a great deal.

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Budget Travel: Renting a vacation apartment

Pssst. I’ve got a secret. Did you know you can stay in some the world’s most beautiful and unique accommodations, located in the best neighborhoods and do it all for rock-bottom prices? Surprisingly enough, it’s not some hidden boutique hotel chain or Priceline deal. I’m talking about vacation apartment rentals.

The beauty (and the hassle) of renting an apartment when traveling is you get to do it yourself. Sure, you have to scour the web for a place you like, make the arrangements with the owner and then clean up after yourself when you leave. But for the independent, budget-minded traveler, there’s no better way to go. Not only does your money go further on nicer accommodations, you often get a great sense of what it “feels” like to be a local. That’s not to mention the perks of staying places with beautiful balconies, giant floor-through lofts with 20 foot ceilings and bottles of free champagne waiting for you when you arrive (I’ve experienced all three).

And in 2009, renting your own apartment has never been easier. Sites like Homeaway, VRBO and Craigslist put a worldwide database of vacation rentals right at your fingertips. But how do you go about your search to find a good place? And how do you make sure the owner you’re dealing with won’t just take the money and run?

We’ll take a look in Gadling’s Budget Travel guide to vacation apartments…
Where to Look
As we mentioned before, the three best sources for finding a vacation rental are Homeaway, VRBO and Craigslist. All have their respective advantages and drawbacks. Interestingly enough, VRBO was purchased by Homeaway in 2006, so the two are basically an extension of the same site, though slightly different. So which is best for arranging your trip? Let’s take a detailed look at each site.

VRBO
Vacation Rentals by Owner, or VRBO for short, was among the first sites on the ‘net to offer property owners a resource to promote and advertise their rental properties worldwide.

  • Benefits: VRBO has one of the widest selections of vacation properties of any site on the web, covering everything from major urban areas like Chicago and Barcelona to quiet countryside retreats. VRBO also recently began to note properties/owners that accept credit cards, meaning you can leave a deposit or pay in advance for many properties without the hassle of sending cash. Each listing offers a series of pictures of the apartment along with its amenities and anticipated price per night or week. Considering a multitude of good experiences we’ve had with the site in countries from Spain to Italy to Japan, we would have to recommend the site’s enthusiastic and friendly property owners as one of the biggest advantages.
  • Disadvantages: Although VRBO has an extensive database, in some cases it doesn’t offer nearly as many units. A search of rentals in Barcelona, a popular vacation rental city, turns up around 100 properties, whereas Homeaway lists nearly twice as many in the city center. The site’s layout can also be a bit confusing. Although you can sort rentals within a respective area or city by the number of beds and how many people it sleeps, it can be difficult to navigate.

Homeaway
Homeaway, along with VRBO, is among the biggest and most extensive vacation rental sites on the web, covering 120,000 rentals across 118 countries. In addition to purchasing VRBO in 2006, Homeaway also owns a number of other properties including VacationRentals.com.

  • Benefits: much like VRBO, Homeway has an extensive, searchable database of properties worldwide. However, Homeaway really sets itself apart from VRBO in the search features, which are much easier to navigate. Users can select properties by categories such as number of bathrooms, type of property (villa, apartment, house, etc) as well as location type (near the beach, mountains, ocean). We’re also big fans of the clean layout and easy to read pricing options, something VRBO doesn’t always get right.
  • Disadvantages: as far as we can tell, Homeaway provides no information about whether owners accept credit cards, which can be a real drag to discover when you arrive but certainly not a dealbreaker (PayPal is always a good backup).

Craigslist
In addition to being one of the world’s leading places to sell your couch, pick up a date and scalp your tickets, Craiglist is also a good backup resource for urban-minded vacation renters. To take a look for yourself, click on the “Vacation Rentals” link under the “Housing” section.

  • Benefits: Craigslist really shines for urban areas. If your trip will bring you to one of the world’s bigger cities, you can bet Craiglist will have a couple vacation rental listings that might suit your style. The less stringent screening requirements mean you’ll also find temporary and more fun/unusual properties that are not always listed on bigger sites like Homeaway or VRBO. Take that as a good thing or bad thing as you will.
  • Disadvantages: the constantly updating information and postings on Craigslist also make for one of its biggest negatives. Though you can occasionally strike the jackpot, rentals on Craiglist can be hit or miss, especially if you’re looking to find something in less developed/touristy country. The site also doesn’t really screen its posters, so you’ll sometimes have to be careful of the odd scam. It’s also a bit annoying to realize that “Vacation Rentals” in Craigslist terms sometimes means those living in the city (not visitors) causing some confusion.

The Process
So how exactly do you go about renting one of these apartments anyway? And how do you know you’re not just wiring funds to some shady guy waiting to take your money and run? Here’s a few tips to ensure you find the vacation apartment of your dreams:

  • The initial search – part of the fun (some would say annoyance) of vacation apartments is you can find a place that matches your style of travel. If there’s a particular neighborhood you’ve heard you would prefer or you have specific requirements, run through a search to see what’s available and average prices. Want to find a bohemian pad in Barcelona’s Barrio Gotico? Perhaps something off Las Ramblas is more your style? Use the search filters to narrow to apartments in your preferred area. Don’t forget to ensure you find a place that’s big enough to fit your group, or somebody might end up on the couch (not that it’s a bad thing).
  • Check the calendar – rentals on both Homeaway and VRBO include an availability calendar (not always current) listing the dates the place has already been booked. Check your required dates to see if the place is free – if it looks booked up, best keep looking.
  • Make contact – all three sites will offer a contact form to get in touch with the property’s owner if you’re interested. VRBO and Homeaway have extensive submission forms where you can add details on the length of your stay and number of guests. One of the keys of making contact is also to remember you’re dealing direct with the owners. Make sure to be courteous and even if you have a wild kegger planned, don’t mention it in the note, it’s not going to help your case for the rental. Finally, contact multiple properties at once – you’ll have a better chance of hearing from someone and locking something down.
  • The deposit – Congrats, you found a place and it’s free for your trip! Now you need to reserve. It’s fairly standard to put some portion of your bill down in advance as a deposit, typically by a money service like PayPal or in some cases by credit card. Don’t be afraid of passing along money – both Homeaway and VRBO extensively screen their owners and offer guarantees up to $5,000 if it turns out your deal was a scam. If you’re really concerned, consider using a credit card, as you’ll have better luck disputing charges if something goes awry.
  • The arrival and stay – your trip is here and you’ve arrived at your destination. If possible, try to arrange a meetup in advance. Whenever possble I try to get the owner’s mobile phone number and have a backup plan – it can be a real hassle to show up in a strange place and discover you missed your meetup and can’t get in touch. Try and look the place up on a map beforehand as well – apartments in Europe are notorious for hidden entranceways and strange side door entrances.
  • Be respectful – one of the keys to any successful relationship is trust. Consider it as if the owner has given you a key to their own home (sometimes they literally have) and treat the property with respect – this isn’t a hotel room. And unlike a hotel, don’t forget your rental will frequently come with neighbors as part of the deal – get too noisy and you might just get a complaint or two, so take the rabble rousing down the street to the bar.

Vacation Apartment Booking Strategies 101

Yes, that's the front door to an apartment.As our good friend Martha pointed out last month, renting an apartment while abroad is a great way to defer egregious hotel prices, experience some culture and cultivate a little bit of adventure in a normally mundane itinerary.

A great idea on paper, but many people are still hesitant to do the research and book an apartment. In my numerous conversations with people attempting to sell the idea to them, I think it distills down to comfort. Not relative comfort of the hotel, mind you, comfort in the booking and security of a hotel room. It’s easy for one to amble up to hilton.com, plug in your destination and know that you’ll have a minbus and driver waiting for you once you exit the arrivals gate at BCN.

Yes, I’m afraid you’re going to have to work a little harder to find, book, locate and get to an apartment at your destination. But you have to concede that the benefits of this work create a more genuine, less expensive result. And while you do assume some risk in working with a private party, common sense and careful planning should guarantee you never have any problems. I’ve booked apartments in Morocco, Spain, Puerto Rico, China, Russia and the Czech Republic all in the last two years — never, not once have I had a problem.

To get you kickstarted, here are my three favorite sites for apartment hunting:

vrbo.com
Vacation Rental by Owner is a library of vacation rentals across the globe. While they don’t have a wealth of properties in third world countries, I’ve still been able to book a half dozen units through them. They also have the option to send the same message out to several properties, so if you find several candidate properties you can get business done quickly. The above apartment was booked on VRBO.

craigslist.org
Go to yourfavoritecity.craigslist.org and search under vacation rentals for classified listings of vacation rentals. Good for cities that aren’t thoroughly covered by vrbo.com

homeaway.com
Home away is a similar animal to vrbo.com with many of the same links. Some people prefer their soft friendly graphics and niceness though.