In about a week, I’ll be celebrating my five-year anniversary of traveling the world full-time.
In that time, I’ve lived a little bit of everywhere. Guesthouses in Scotland. Tiny top-floor studios in Paris. Elegant boutique hotels in Sevilla. And even a hostel or two.
And one of the questions I commonly get is this: how do you find great places to live on the road?
Of course, not every place I’ve stayed in has been great. There was that nutty landlord in Slovenia and the dimly lit studio in Rome, the sexist roommate in San Diego and the too-loud hostel in Zagreb.
But overall, my accommodation experiences in Europe—and elsewhere abroad—have become mostly good. Mostly comfortable. Sometimes even amazing.
And so today I thought I’d talk you through how I find apartments, hotels, B&Bs, and other spaces to stay all over Europe and share a few of my favorites along the way.
Photo: 25Hours Hotel, Zurich, Switzerland.
Starting with Priorities
Before you book anything, of course, it’s important to know what matters to you. Do you like modern and sleek? Charming and ancient (though still well kept)? Does having a full kitchen matter? What about a bathtub? How about a balcony?
Over the years, I’ve realized that there are a few things that make a big difference in how I feel about the places I stay.
One is light. I feel infinitely more positive, creative, and happy in places with floor to ceiling windows, glass doors, natural light bouncing from wall to wall. In the last year, the places I’ve liked least have almost always been too dim.
Another thing that takes any place from good to great for me is a comfortable outdoor space. A patio to eat on. A balcony for our evening glasses of wine.
And, of course, being a full-time traveler, having a kitchen is almost always necessary for me and having good Wi-Fi is paramount.
Everyone’s priorities are different. A friend of mine needs blackout blinds, whereas I like to wake with the sunrise. Chad doesn’t care about bathtubs, but they bring me joy. So, the point is to take stock: what matters to you? Judge your accommodation options based on those things.
Photo: Ancient, beautifully renovated farmhouse on Gozo, Malta.
Hotel, Hostel, or Holiday Rental?
Are you a hotel person? A B&B aficionado? A holiday rental enthusiast?
Over the years, I’ve realized that my own tastes depend very much on the type of traveling I’m doing.
When we’re staying for a month or two, it’s much nicer to have an apartment. I may be traveling full-time, but I want to feel at home. To feel cozy. To live in local neighborhoods with butcher shops and bakeries around the corner and kids playing in the park across the street. I want to feel, even though I’m here only a short while, as if I’m part of it all.
In between longer stays, though, when it’s just an overnight or weekend trip, I adore B&Bs and boutique hotels. I love the pampered feeling that comes with having breakfast prepared for me. I love the opportunity to stay in artsy rooms or charming old converted mansions.
Think back on the times you’ve felt most comfortable while traveling. What kind of accommodations did you have? If all your favorite trips were in B&Bs with homemade breakfast included, it’s a good bet that that’s something that makes you feel cared for or relaxed. If your fondest memories are of rental houses, that’s a good place to start future accommodation searches.
Photo: Fun couch in an Airbnb rental in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
How I Find Our Rentals
So, how do I find the places we stay? For long stays (since we want full apartments for those), I start with Airbnb.
I love them for a couple big reasons: Firstly, because if you get in a bind, their customer service actually cares. I’ve heard horror stories about other holiday rental sites (namely VRBO and its sister sites), who charge a fee that’s supposed to protect renters but who, despite that fee, leave people in bad situations and don’t refund their money. No thanks, VRBO. So much No Thanks.
I also love Airbnb because of their monthly rental pricing. Other sites don’t have monthly prices, so you have to painstakingly contact person after person to ask about monthly discounts. On Airbnb, it’s often listed right up front. This makes constant travel planning much easier.
Edit: Someone made an excellent point in the comments that Airbnb (and any other big holiday rental site) does not verify that the host has the amenities they’ve listed. So it’s up to us to confirm things that are important to us.
If blackout blinds matter to you, look for them in the photos, read the reviews and see if any of the past guests mention them, and write to the host before booking to ask or confirm that they have them.
Since quiet and good natural light are priorities for Chad and I, when I’m doing my research, I read through the reviews looking specifically for mentions of natural light, brightness, or dimness, as well as quiet/noise. I also write to every single Airbnb and ask them to do an internet speed test and send us the results since we need fast, reliable Wi-Fi (and we’ve found that just asking if the Wi-Fi is good gets us vague assurances that don’t always turn out to be true).
Now, if I can’t find a good Airbnb option, I turn to Facebook groups (try expat groups for the city you want to visit) and Couchsurfing. Not to couchsurf, but to ask locals if they know of any sublets or short-term rentals available.
This is an easy way to bypass the big sites and their big fees and get more local pricing on things. The downside is that you don’t have the peace of mind that comes with a site like Airbnb, who will help you find a place to stay if you show up and your host flakes or the place isn’t as advertised. The upside is that it’s usually much cheaper to rent directly from local landlords.
Finally, if we’re only staying somewhere for a day or two, I start my search on Google.
“Best B&Bs in [city].” “Quirkiest hotels in [city].” “[city] blog.” These are just some of the searches I might do in my quest for quirky, cute hotels, guesthouses, and B&Bs.
I also often ask my Facebook friends, groups, and Twitter followers for suggestions.
And from there I do some research. What kind of reviews do these places get? If they’re getting negative comments, are those comments about things I actually care about (again, I don’t care about blackout blinds, but I do care a lot if the hotel isn’t clean or the rooms don’t get any natural light). After that, I look at prices and neighborhoods (is the place close to where I want to be?) and I usually make a spreadsheet comparing our top four or five options (with columns for all the things that are important to us–from outdoor spaces to natural light to Wi-Fi speeds).
Photo: Rooms in a farmhouse in Interlaken, Switzerland.
My Favorite Places In…
As for my favorite places I’ve stayed all over Europe, here are the top picks:
Photo: French countryside gite in the Loire Valley.
Photo: Glamping huts, Lake Bled, Slovenia.
What about you? What do you look for in travel accommodations? Where do you find places to stay? Any tips?