Several years ago our family of three embarked on a “living the dream,” three-week working vacation in Europe. We wanted to test out what it would be like to live abroad. It’s one thing to base a vacation out of a hotel and spend days touring museums, but what would Provence or Paris be like if we had our own apartment? What would it be like if we were there working our usual jobs but telecommuting from a different continent? What it would it be like to shop at the local grocery and cook dinner in another country? To have a neighborhood patisserie where the owner knew and expected us each morning? To let our daughter discover how to play at a park with a child who speaks a different language.
To make our trip affordable and allow us enough space to spread out, we opted for two-bedroom apartments in Copenhagen, Paris and Avignon, France. Airbnb seemed ideally designed to meet our needs due to its concept of offering apartment living while traveling.
The trip turned out to be 85 percent awesome. Some of our favorite memories include a visit to the Eiffel Tower on a not-too-hot blue sky, perfect Paris day (complete with a rainbow over the Eiffel Tower on Pride Day), a fish pedicure for our 6-year-old in Provence (yes, small fish nibbled dead skin off her feet for 15 minutes) and an afternoon at the world famous Tivoli old school amusement park in Copenhagen.
Out of the 15 percent that wasn’t wonderful, most issues stemmed from less-than-ideal Airbnb experiences. To those who are both deeply curious and highly skeptical about using Airbnb, here are some realities we discovered living in other people’s homes for three weeks.
- You probably won’t feel like a local. Instead, you’ll have the deeply unnerving sensation akin to breaking into a secure apartment building, but knowing that you won’t end up in jail. This was a shocking reality in Copenhagen where our apartment owner requested that we tell the neighbors that we were vacationing friends staying with them, not Airbnb renters.
After processing this through the jetlag filter of my mind, this request made a lot of sense. How comfortable would I feel if I knew a new set of strangers was getting access to my building code every week, or even every few days?
In our stays at three different apartments, we never once had a conversation with a neighboring apartment dweller. We were like ghosts drifting in and out of very large or very small apartments—not locals. In hotels you can at least talk to the front-desk staff.
- You might be inheriting other people’s maintenance issues. People will live with the damnedest inconveniences. During our stays, we discovered multiple leaking sinks and a broken washing machine handle. And this is not just in Europe. At one Colorado Airbnb last year, I stayed in a townhouse with a knocking radiator. When I told the owner about how it was disturbing my sleep, he replied, “Oh! Did that bother you too? Yes, it bothers me a lot.”
Most people could benefit from hiring a handyman for two hours.
Unlike a hotel, there is no front desk or property manager to call for help if your Airbnb apartment isn’t what you expected. When there’s an issue, like the fleas in our bedspread in Avignon, you can’t request a new room. When you’ve prepaid for your 10-day stay, and you love the apartment except for the bites you awake with each day, and the owners tell you they’re only mosquito bites, then spending three hours of your vacation at the French Walmart buying flea powder and large garbage bags to seal away the infested bedding to take care of the damn problem doesn’t seem crazy. And that’s what we did.
- Comfort levels vary greatly. We knew traveling to Europe in summer meant the risk of heat without air-conditioning, something our pampered American selves would just have to suck up and get used to. What we didn’t bank on is the lack of fans (not one in any apartment), and many of the windows didn’t have screens. The open windows let in hordes of mosquitos. Temps soared into the unusually-high-for-June 90s range. We slept with citronella bracelets on and showered in bug spray before bed.
After climbing six flights of stairs to our Paris apartment in 95-degree heat, a fan would have helped. A lot. There we had to resort to taking multiple showers a day. This proved problematic with the one towel they left us for our five-day stay. Of course, this was also the apartment with the broken washing machine handle.
Lesson learned: Staying in an apartment is necessary for a three week trip. We were always grateful to have two bedroom doors to shut, allowing us all a little space from one another and helping our daughter stick to an earlish bedtime. Free WiFi kept us connected to our home lives, and having a kitchen cut down the cost of excessive meals out.
There is a significant difference, though, between staying in someone’s actual home and in an apartment vacation rental with a manager you can call on when something needs fixing. Next time we head off for an extended European adventure, we’ll try the managed property route where the experience is treated more like a professional relationship similar to a hotel, and less like crashing at your friend’s pad while they’re away.
Bon voyage and never stop adventuring!