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.

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, 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).

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.

Budget Travel: Why and how to hostel

Call me crazy, but if I were ever given the option between staying in an expensive hotel, a mediocre one for half the price, or a hostel for one-tenth of the price, unless I were bedding down in a really hot guy, I would take the hostel any night of the week. The reason: hostels are the most affordable option, allowing you to spend more on what really matters – the experience of traveling and exploring the world.

Let’s face it: with the economy as it is and our wallets thinning as they are, it’s easy to see the advantages of staying in a hostel, but it might be harder to actually follow through. As a single, independent young woman, I have no problem sleeping in a dorm – or even a cheap room of my own so long as I save myself the dough to spend on other travel expenditures. However, if you’re attached or have a family, there is little to no appeal to stay at a hostel, right?
Wrong. I’ve traveled long and far across the globe and pretty much only stayed in hostels, and I have met the most committed couples and families in these places who have made it work. They too understand the end value of cheaply bedding down for a night or two. Depending where you are in the world, you can save between $10-100 per night per person if you opt to stay in a hostel. You may be sacrificing 50% of comfort during the 8 hours you stay there, but imagine what you could do with the money you saved! My cousins often stay in dingy places and then dine in the best restaurants on the same vacation. Their philosophy: who cares where they put their heads at night so long as it’s in a (preferably safe and quiet enough) room? They’re still getting the same experience when the sun is up.

So hopefully I’ve tackled the “why” (why stay in a hostel) sufficiently. Let’s move on to “how.” There are so many different options available to travelers nowadays, so how do you find the best hostel for your needs wherever you are in the globe? In some parts of the world, searching for a hostel is as simple as a Google search. It’s the 21st century, the world is flat, and even if you’re traveling to the middle of nowhere, a good hostel will have some sort of information available to you somewhere on the world wide web. If you’re looking in a hostel in an urban center, if a hostel doesn’t have a website, it’s not savvy enough and it’s not worth your time. Opt for a place where you can see some photos and seasonal (if not specific) rates. Some hostel website even allow to reserve a room (for a minimal 10-20% processing fee) through the internet.

As for searching for hostels in certain parts of the world, like Latin America, it’s even easier with hostel networks like Hostel Trail, which provides photos and unbiased but honest reviews of hundreds of hostels scattered about Mexico, Central and South America, as well as some of the Caribbean. Hostelling International, Hostels.com, Hostel World, and Hostel Bookers are the best worldwide hostel networks, and are perfectly good places to start your search if you’re at a loss.

Perhaps the best way to find a great hostel in your travel destination is by word of mouth – gathering information from people who have recently traveled to where you are going. Some of my best experiences came straight from a friend who had just been to where I was going. If you get a good tip, ask for as many specifics as you can – even ask for names of people who work there or for worthwhile excursions.

In fact, many of the best hostels have a guestbook where travelers offer helpful tips for where to stay in nearby cities or where to eat or what to see in the town you’re in. The greatest thing about hostel living, is just how personalized travel can be. There are, of course, some pretty bad places, but others can really make your trip a memorable experience.

Unless you’re traveling during prime tourist times or in a big group, you will usually find a bed/room available for you. If there’s a contact number or email, feel free to use it. In third world countries hostels range between $5-10 a night (sometimes less!), while in first world countries you should expect to pay between $12-30 per night. Dorms are not half so bad either, just bring some earplugs, as your bunkmate may have a serious case of sleep apnea. Otherwise, have fun, and let me know if I missed any important tips!

Budget Travel: Hotel deals at Hotwire

How well do you handle the unknown? If you don’t have the stomach for it, avoid Hotwire. Now, if you don’t mind taking a bit of risk, you can save a fortune by using this website to book your next hotel in the United States (or a limited list of international destinations). I’ve used Hotwire several times, and the vast majority of my experiences have been great. The one that wasn’t (only one) had nothing to do with Hotwire; I was just disappointed with the hotel.

Hotwire is one of the many bargain travel websites that is fighting to carve out some turf on the web. Unlike the others, it delivers some amazing prices. You just don’t know where you’re going to stay until you pay for the rooms. Using Hotwire, you enter the city where you want to stay, proximity to neighborhoods or local attractions and the caliber of hotel you prefer. Star ratings are assigned to each property to help you judge quality, and they are based on Hotwire user feedback. As a reference point, the website does tell you the types of property that are commensurate with a particular rating. So, the process isn’t completely blind, but you still don’t know where you’ll hang your hat.

I used Hotwire three times last year to book hotels in Washington, D.C. I stayed at Capital Hilton, Hilton Washington and the Hotel Helix. My experiences were generally positive with all three.

At the Washington Hilton, I had to walk a lot farther than I expected from the subway station, which is apparently a common problem. The staff at the front desk saw my tired, sweaty face and said, “Yeah, most of the websites make the hotel seem a lot closer.” Immediately after that, he ran to get me some moist paper towels to help me cool off. The hotel itself was excellent, particularly at a discount of more than 70 percent. I also booked the Capital Hilton through Hotwire and had no surprises at all. Again, I saved more than 70 percent and was thrilled.

The Hotel Helix was a bit disappointing. In my opinion, it should have been rated a full star lower than it was, and I left feedback on Hotwire to caution future users. Hotwire itself wasn’t the problem. The rate was fantastic, and I was able to save some money on a trip with little lead time. But, I just didn’t like the hotel. Why do I say this? It happens, and you need to know that flexibility is necessary. Sometimes, you won’t be thrilled with your room. That’s just the risk involved with Hotwire.

Now that you know the good and the bad, let’s talk about money. It’s routine to save more than 50 percent of a hotel’s regular rate using this website (at least in my experience). Hotwire is able to do this by finding the unsold inventory at hotels around the country and bargaining for deep discounts. In the hotel industry, a room-night is a perishable commodity. If you don’t fill Room 437 on March 16, you can’t save it for later. Sometimes, it’s better to get something than nothing. Also, the hotels don’t can avoid implicitly devaluing their rooms through the blind process. This is the service that Hotwire provides to hotels … and to you.

The deals vary. If you are looking for a great room during peak season, you’ll probably be disappointed. But, if you have reasonable expectations, they’ll probably be exceeded. On a recent search, I found hotel rooms for under $150 in downtown Boston for mid-March (at a property given 4 ½ stars). I also found sub-$100 rates in Paris (four stars) and London (four stars, as well) for the same period.

After you book one of these great deals, don’t forget that you have an obligation when you get home. Just as you read the reviews before taking your step into the unknown, many will follow you. Help them out as others helped you. Hotwire will send you an e-mail asking for your feedback on your stay. All you have to do is click the link and complete a brief survey.

Do it.

You can go as long or short as you like, but people will read – and rely on – your review. If you have booked a room using Hotwire, you probably will again, and you’ll read the reviews. So, participate in the process. It’s what you want everyone else to do.


Budget travel – mastering the art of Priceline hotel deals

You have probably seen the commercials – poor traveler needs a hot deal, and in jumps William Shatner, “The Priceline Negotiator”.

Priceline has been around for almost 10 years, and in those 10 years they have helped me (along with millions of others) snag a hotel room where I need it, when I need it, for the price I want.

I know it sounds like I’m being paid by Shatner himself, but when you can book a room for $50 when all other sites are still selling them for $200, you’ll learn to appreciate how handy Priceline can be.

Sadly, the whole process of “naming your own price” can be a tad daunting, I can still remember the first time I submitted a request to their site. There is something amazingly scary about handing over your credit card to a booking site and telling them to go ahead and just book you “something”.

It’s like haggling at the market – you never know when you’ll get a good deal, or when you’ll walk away with your trinket with the sad realization that you overpaid.

Thankfully, there are some handy tricks to becoming a master of Priceline – and ways you can be sure you’ll get the best value for your money.
But first, a little bit about Priceline and how they operate.

Priceline does a lot more than just “name your price”, they also operate as a regular travel booking site, with hotel, air, cruise and car rental rates pretty much on par with most of their competitors.

For the sake of this article I’ll only focus on the name your own price feature, as that is the one that makes them stand out from most others, plus it’s the best option out there for budget minded travelers.

Your first step in making a bid for a hotel room is to pick your destination and required dates. Once you have selected this, you are presented with a map of the area, and the various Priceline “zones”.


Before you do anything else, you’ll want to stop for a minute. Sure, you may know where you want to stay, and how much cash you have available for the dates you require, but what if you bid $50 for a hotel you could actually get for less? Or what if you bid $40 when Priceline only has rooms available for $90?

This is where the Internet can help you. You are not alone – many people just like you use Priceline, and take advantage of a weakness in the Priceline system – sharing information.

See, the whole name your own price system only really works in their advantage if everyone overbids. Sure, plenty of people will blindly enter $75 and get a room that costs Priceline $50, but the real pro’s only pay $50.

So, head on over to betterbidding.com and spend some time checking out the various winning bids from fellow Priceline customers. You’ll get a much better idea what kind of deal you can get, and which hotels are currently being offered on the site.

Betterbidding.com uses a fixed format for all submitted deals, and in each post you’ll find all the information you need to snag yourself a similar bargain.

Once you locate a date/area that matches what you need, open up the post to see exactly how they managed to place a winning bid.

You’ll see that most of these users base their initial bid on previous deals scored by others ,and that they take the information provided on the site and use it to their advantage.

The free rebid – your best friend on Priceline

William Shatner may pretend to be your best friend on TV, but in reality Priceline doesn’t really like it when you try and get too smart. The free rebid is one of those tricks that will help not only get a good deal, but get a good deal for the price you want, often even in the hotel you want.

If you make a bid for a hotel, but the bid is not accepted, Priceline will allow you to bid again, with a higher amount – BUT, only if you change at least one of the requirements for your reservation. This means you’ll either have to change the star rating of your desired room, or change/add a Priceline zone.

Here is an example – lets say you need a room in Chicago. You entered the dates you want, picked a 4 star hotel, and bid $60. You go through the booking process, and Priceline denies your bid.

At this point you raise your bid to $63, but in order to get a free rebid, you need to change one of the requirements on your request. Of course, if you add a different zone, you run the risk of being stuck with a hotel miles away from where you need to be. Unless of course, you add a zone with no hotels with the star rating you requested!

Here is how that works – you go back to Betterbidding.com, and select their Illinois hotel list. You’ll see that plenty of Chicago suburbs lack a 4 star hotel. So, pick one of those poor zones, and hey presto – you can successfully submit your free rebid.

Now, simply rinse and repeat until you find the price Priceline is willing to accept.

Sounds too complicated? Check out this real life example from someone at Betterbidding. In that example, you’ll see that they wanted a 4 star hotel in the downtown area. Their initial bid was declined, so they added a new zone (one without any 4 star hotels), denied again, added another zone (once again, a zone with no 4 star hotels), denied again, added yet another zone (once again, no 4 stars in that zone), and bingo – they got what they wanted.

$57/night for a downtown Chicago hotel is a steal. Just how much of a steal? Check out the going rate for rooms on those specific dates, at that hotel:

Thats right – Priceline got them 2 nights for less than the price of one night when booked through Hyatt.com.

If it sounds too simple, then it’s probably time to post a couple of warnings – the hotel lists posted by sites like Betterbidding.com are not guaranteed to be correct. Priceline is not stupid, and they can upgrade or downgrade hotels whenever they feel like it.

This means that playing the free rebid game may come with some risks, and the worst that could happen is that you end up 20 miles away from where you wanted to be – not a nice way to spend your time.

If you don’t want to run that risk, and you have some time to spare, then you can make a rebid 24 hours after the previous bid, without the requirement of changing things.

Another thing to be careful of, is doing free rebids and using a zone with no hotels with the rating your want, but if it DOES have a higher available hotel.

For example – if you want a 3 star hotel and get declined, you decided to play the rebid game and add a zone with no 3 star hotels (but one or more 4 star hotels), Priceline may decide to “upgrade” you to the 4 star hotel in the zone you really did not want to stay in – oops.

If you really want to master the art of getting what you want from Priceline, I recommend reading the successful bookings posted at Betterbidding. You’ll learn in a short amount of time what kind of tricks work, and of cour
se, which tricks do not work.

Once you are confident enough to click the “book now” button, you’ll be surprised just how often you can score a fantastic deal.

Will the hotel know I’m a Priceline customer?

One question I often hear is “will the hotel know I’m a Priceline customer”. The simple answer is yes, the hotel will almost always know you are a guest arriving on a Priceline reservation.

In most cases, this won’t matter, but I’ve occasionally come across a hotel that did not treat me as well as a “regular paying” guest. Unless they are spitting in your face and calling you names, I’d suggest ignoring it and enjoying the money you saved.

If you are a member of the hotel frequent guest program, try calling them in advance with your membership number, and make sure to call the hotel directly with any specific requests (smoking, non smoking etc). I’ve regularly been upgraded to a suite on my Priceline stay, all because I added my hotel elite status to my $40 reservation.

Priceline rooms are generally booked as non smoking, but if a hotel has nothing else available, they usually won’t have a problem sticking you in a stuffy smoking room, so as with all hotels, bring some Febreze.

Anything else to keep in mind?

Yes – when you name your own price, any accepted bid is locked in stone. There are no changes, no cancellations, no refunds and the reservation is not transferable. Priceline is pretty well known for being strict about this rule. If you are a regular Priceline customer, they may make a once in a lifetime exception for you, but it’ll require a lot of begging. If all else fails, try contacting the hotel directly, often their reservations department may be able to help you out.

Bottom line is – book with caution. Check and double check your dates, check and double check your zones before bidding. Yes, if you start using Priceline regularly, you may end up with a couple of reservations you messed up, and it will result in a waste of money when you can’t use them.

So there you have it – a couple of tips that should help you become a real pro at booking cheaper rooms. Got any tips of your own? Share them in the comments section below!