One of the biggest travel stresses is figuring out where to stay – if you’re like us, over and over and over again. We’ve stayed at over 80 places in over four years of constant travel. Along the way, we’ve figured out a lot of things to both do and avoid doing when looking for a rental. In this article, we’ll outline how to find an apartment while traveling long-term (1-3 months).
Determine Your Expected Length of Stay
We’re going to assume you’ve already picked out a location you’d like to stay in for a while. The next question you should ask yourself is, “how long do I think I want to stay here?” It’s OK to not have an exact answer to this question. Most of the time, we don’t really know if we’ll like the town enough to max out our available time there. Just try to think of the minimum amount of time you’d be fine staying.
There are a few factors that can help you decide on your length of stay. Is the place a “tourist town” or more of a regular/big city? Often, big cities are more “livable” for longer periods of time, while tourist towns tend to become less interesting after you’ve seen all the sights. However, this is a matter of personal preference and some places excel in both the tourism and livability departments. Our general rule of thumb is a maximum of two weeks for tourist-only towns and a minimum of one month for big, cosmopolitan cities. Obviously, you’ll have to adjust if you have limited travel time.
Finally, if you are a really long term traveler, you have to consider how to handle tourist visa limits. Most countries only allow stays of up to 90 days on a tourist visa. You can extend this by applying for a working visa or residency, but chances are this isn’t worth it unless you really love a particular country. A select few nations allow tourist visa stays of longer than 90 days for certain citizens. For example, Albania and Georgia allow stays of up to 365 days for Americans.
Choose Your Platform(s)
Your length of stay has a large effect on which platform you use to book your accommodation. If you’re expecting to stay under four weeks, a certain subset of platforms is better suited for this. Booking.com, TripAdvisor Vacation Rentals, and Airbnb are all decent options. These sites will show hotels and hostels as well as private apartments. However, they are by far the most expensive per night and often won’t come equipped with many amenities.
If you are staying a minimum of four weeks, Airbnb is the undisputed king of this time segment. The reason is simple: monthly discounts. According to Airbnb, any stay 28 nights or longer qualifies for a monthly discount. Often the savings will be in the range of 30-50%. However, the amount of the discount is still up to the discretion of the host. The advantages of booking through Airbnb are numerous: it’s a trusted website with consumer protection, you generally have access to more amenities, and you can get some priceless local tips from hosts.
Once you get to the 2-3 month range, things get more interesting. Airbnb is still a good option, but you understandably may be hesitant to commit for that long without seeing the place in person. One strategy we’ve employed successfully is to book a hostel for a few nights (3-4 typically), then set out on foot to try to find a local deal. During these few days, go out and talk to locals, knock on doors, read newspaper classifieds, etc.
You can also find great leads by going through real estate agencies. These reps are typically easier to deal with and more available than the owners. Plus, they might have dozens of options readily available. And no matter who you’re dealing with, don’t be afraid to negotiate. The downside to setting out on foot is that it can be stressful, time-consuming, and risky if places are not available.
Another good option for 2-3 month stays is looking through local Facebook groups. Classifieds posted to Facebook are generally cheaper than Airbnb, but are more cumbersome to sort through. Start by searching for “city name rentals”, “city name expats”, and similar variations. This is really hit-or-miss depending on the city, but it can be a good way to score deals. One advantage is that you may be able to visit the unit before committing. However, you will most likely have to pay your host in cash (perhaps even with a security deposit) – so make sure they seem trustworthy!
Establish Your Budget
Like most things in life, you get what you pay for with long-term rentals. If you want to be close to the city center, you’re going to pay more. If you want tons of space and a modern apartment, you’re going to pay more still. New York City blows Chiang Mai out of the water, and so on.
You pay for the relative convenience of finding your place as well. Booking a hotel room at a Holiday Inn will take just minutes and you’ll know exactly what you’re getting. Finding the right Airbnb will take more time, and setting out on foot to find a place is the most time-consuming. Generally speaking, the more time you commit, the better the deal you can find. We’ve had to get scrappy over the years with our tight budget. Either way, it makes sense to pick a budget for rent you can afford and stick to it.
A great resource for establishing a baseline for particular locations is Numbeo. This cost-of-living index has average rent prices for thousands of cities all over the world. Just search for your destination city, change to your desired currency, and scroll down to “rent per month.” This will tell you roughly what locals pay per month for a 1-bedroom apartment either inside or outside the city center. Based on our personal data, we as foreigners generally pay about 180% of what locals pay for rent. If your rental has a much higher ratio than that, think twice – you may be getting ripped off.
One final tip: if you’re using Airbnb, install the Price Per Night Corrector Chrome extension. This tool will incorporate Airbnb’s various taxes and fees and show you the true price per night so you can determine if it fits your budget.
Pick the Right Location
Location, location, location. Chances are you’re not going to have a car with you when traveling internationally, so walkability/access to public transit is key. It can be tempting to simply locate the tourist landmarks in a town and concentrate your search in that area, but that doesn’t necessarily give the best results for long-term stays. Often the tourist center is more expensive while also being far from supermarkets, malls, and other daily conveniences.
On the other hand, living in the suburbs or some bland area devoid of culture really defeats the purpose of traveling in the first place. What we like to do is look up where the restaurants are concentrated on TripAdvisor‘s map view. Unlike Google Maps, TripAdvisor’s reviews are dominated by mostly English-speaking foreigners looking to enjoy the best food that a city has to offer. Therefore, run-of-the-mill restaurants in boring parts of town don’t even show up. This serves as a great (albeit indirect) clue for finding good neighborhoods for living.
It pays to ask around online in local Facebook groups or subreddits for advice on which neighborhoods are best for living. A lot of valuable information is locked away in people’s heads and is not easily searchable. Another good resource is NomadList‘s neighborhood maps. Just click on a city, then click on the “neighborhoods” link. Their color-coded maps are grouped into sections such as “tourist,” “hip,” “student,” “suits,” etc. Just be aware that the accuracy of these maps are much better for popular locations.
Google Maps is an excellent tool for figuring out public transit options as well. With this, we usually check a particular unit’s access to key locations after we determine we like it. Looking at the whole public transit network map ahead of time is usually too overwhelming to be useful.
Don’t Forget Amenities!
It’s easy to be dazzled by photos of an apartment’s cute decorations and gorgeous views while glossing over the fact that there’s no elevator in the building or the internet is shared with two neighbors.
Chances are that minor annoyances will become major frustrations when you’re spending 1-3 months somewhere rather than just 1-3 days. Of course, what matters to everyone is different and what’s standard in different countries varies. But here are just a few amenities that we’ve come to look out for after more than four years of travel:
- Fast internet (don’t just take the host’s word that it’s “fast”; ask them to do an actual speed test and look at the numbers).
- Private internet (i.e. not on a network shared with multiple neighbors).
- Heating & Cooling (depending on the location and season).
- Elevator (if the unit is high up).
- Actual bed (not simply a pull-out couch).
- Table that’s large enough for eating as well as using a laptop.
- Rack for drying laundry.
- Kitchen prep space and sufficient pots, pans, and utensils.
- Coffee machine (or another way to make coffee).
- Dish drying rack.
- Utilities and services paid for by the host.
All of these were missing from various places we’ve stayed at, and you don’t always realize it until you’re already there. You can’t always know in advance if something’s missing – but keep a mental checklist and ask your host about it when they show you around the first time. Most hosts are very accommodating and will do a lot to keep you and future guests happy.
Traveling long-term rewards you for cultivating a unique set of skills. High on that list is being able to quickly and efficiently find places to live that will meet your needs so you can focus on the fun stuff rather than frustrations and squabbles with hosts. The most important aspect of this is knowing what your non-negotiables are – and then being flexible with the rest. Spending lots of time and effort to find the “perfect” place is a fool’s errand that will always leave you unsatisfied.
It’s much better to search until you find a place that ticks all your boxes, then commit to it and spend your mental energy in other ways. The silver lining to any nomadic living situation is that you can always say, “at least I only have to put up with this for a few more weeks/months!” It’s a phrase we have muttered to ourselves many times over while learning these lessons the hard way.