Find a Great Apartment
An immersive travel experience is achieved by being there like a local. This means selecting an apartment in a residential neighborhood as our home for our stay. An apartment allows us to have a sense of how the locals live by joining them – and living like they do for the duration of our visit. Living like locals, and behaving like locals is the best opportunity for an immersive travel experience.
The right apartment in a good residential neighborhood, where most places we’d like to visit are accessible by foot, is what we’re after. Even for someone with years of experience in apartment hunting, this exercise can feel like looking for a unicorn. It can be difficult due to a low property inventory at our chosen destination, possibly because we’re travel planning too close to our departure date.
The photo gallery below is a showcase for the quality of apartment to be found if we follow the rules I lay down in this post. This apartment was the complete top floor in a historically significant palazzo, comprising 1,800 square feet in the Cannaregio neighborhood of Venice. It had large bedrooms, multiple terraces with grand views, and was tastefully decorated with vintage antiques. The photos are laid out sequentially from outside entrance, to courtyard, to apartment interior, then to the views from the various windows and balconies. This apartment was found on Homeaway.com and was booked one year in advance of the travel. We would never find anything like this without planning well in advance. We spent a wonderfully immersive six nights at this incredible apartment.
Rule #1 – Start Early
You need to plan your travel well in advance in order to find the best properties available. All of the good ones get picked off early, leaving the procrastinator with the inventory that didn’t sell – essentially, the least desirable properties. Nine months to a year in advance yields the best apartments, and the best selections are generally gone inside six months. The smaller the destination, the lower the property inventory, the more important it is to plan well in advance. The best properties at the most desirable locations with great amenities like large square footage, and beautiful views can only be found if we plan well in advance.
Rule #2 – Choose the Right Location
Now that we’re planning well ahead, and we have the best possible inventory of properties to choose from for our destination, we need to focus on location. The reason that location isn’t rule #1 is because the properties at prime locations are depleted first. There simply would be no prime location inventory for the last-minute planner.
The prime location for an immersive travel experience is in the center of the old town. We want the center because we want to walk to most of the places we need to visit. Walking is part of the immersive travel experience. If we’re dealing with a modern city, the prime location would still be in its center, close to the points of interest for our target destination. Often times it takes research to determine the best location, no matter the type of destination – historic or modern, Rome or London, for example.
Research comes in many forms, and can be as simple as using Google Maps, especially the Street View feature to get the lay of the land. A virtual walk around to assess a neighborhood to see if it’s clean, walkable, residential, has restaurants/cafes nearby, and is a characteristic representation of our chosen destination. TripAdvisor forums are a great resource, relying on the feedback of a community of fellow travelers, but you need to ask the right question if no existing posts are helpful in providing guidance. Word of mouth is an excellent source of research should we be fortunate enough to know people that have paved the way previously. The destinations listed from the main menu of ImmersiveTravel.net all specify the preferred part of town for each post, and is an excellent resource. Other travel bloggers and vloggers can be good resources as well.
Rule #3 – Use Trusted Resources
HomeAway.com is my first choice for hunting down unicorn apartments for an immersive travel experience. It has good filtering capabilities to narrow down the inventory, including location – but missing are selections for property amenities like a view or balcony. Some of the best immersive experiences happen when we have a great view right from our apartment. HomeAway allows us to do a Google Street View from the map associated with a property – no separate Google Maps tab need be opened on your browser. HomeAway also has a well formatted amenities section which usually includes the square footage of the property. Selecting an apartment with a comfortable size is really important because we’ll never have an immersive travel experience living in a closet or shoe box for the duration of our stay.
Booking.com is my second choice for apartment selection, although their property inventory is not exclusively apartments, it does allow filtering to narrow the results to just apartments. Their filtering capability is the most comprehensive, and allows the selection of view, terrace, neighborhood, customer rating, and a vast array of other property features. Booking.com includes square footage in their property amenities section as well. They do have a map view of their properties, but Google Maps Street View directly from their property map is not supported. It’s necessary to cut and paste the property address into a separate Google Maps tab on our browser. Booking.com typically doesn’t have as many apartment properties as HomeAway for the same destination.
Airbnb.com is my third and last choice for apartment hunting because it’s simply the most difficult to use to find an apartment worthy of an immersive travel experience. Airbnb has the poorest filtering capability of the three, so it’s difficult to narrow the selection easily, which means it’s more time consuming to narrow down the choices. They do not have a well-organized amenities section for each property – they specifically exclude the property square footage, instead allow the property owner to enter a free-form description intended to lure customers to their property. They do not disclose the specific location of the property, so it’s not possible to do a street view inspection of the neighborhood and the surrounding area.
It is possible to use Airbnb effectively, but it is cumbersome and much more time consuming than HomeAway, and Booking.com. You have to deduce the approximate location of the property from the description supplied, or from the property photos. Then you need to ask the property owner the street name of the property address. The street name is usually something the property owner will share in a pre-booking email exchange. Some will even share the actual property address pre-booking, but some will take umbrage at the question and not reply at all. With all sleuthing and communication with the owner, it is possible to identify the specific street location of an apartment, and confirm the neighborhood with Google Street View. But it’s much more time consuming, and can be frustrating as well.
The Airbnb equation is tilted toward the property owner, and away from the would-be consumer – from my personal experience. The topper to this tilting is the requirement to pay in full at booking time – which is not the case for the majority of properties listed on the other two services. And add to this the usual “strict” cancellation rule with the better properties – which means no more than 50% refund for cancellation, and you have the completion of the tilt towards the property owner. And so, I only use Airbnb when I can’t find something suitable otherwise. It’s caveat emptor all the way.
There are other apartment rental websites, and I have used a variety of them in the past, but the 3 suggested here have the majority of apartment inventory in most of the locations I’ve been to or want to visit. In the interest of saving time, I’ve reduced my apartment selection process to these three web sites, and it works very well for me.
Do your research, and do it early. Definitely use the Google Maps Street View function to assess potential apartments, to confirm they are suitable for your needs, and that they’re in good residential neighborhoods. Use this recommended approach and you will not be disappointed on arrival at your destination, and you will be in store for an immersive travel experience among the locals.
Happy apartment hunting!