One of the things we've been able to experience more and more on our trips is staying in vacation homes/apartments instead of hotels. I love a good hotel and enjoy the little perks (I am enamored with different tiny toiletries--the more unique, the better!). Having someone make up my bed every day is a nice little luxury, but there are definite advantages to staying in apartments instead. I think we will stick with hotels for one or two night stays and otherwise seek out apartments or homes in the future.
Staying in an apartment gives you a feeling of home and a small taste of living in the place as a local, even if only for a few days. Of course, the space is nice and being able to cook meals can help the budget. Dining is one of the best ways to experience a culture, so we still eat out for many meals but even being able to grab a quick breakfast or coffee at home each day can save a lot of money and make the day feel less hectic. It is nice to have a refrigerator for drinks at a minimum.
Apartments may be in neighborhoods where you find few, if any, hotels, so they give you the chance to explore different areas and get to know neighborhoods that a typical tourist would not likely explore. This was true of our stay in London's Forest Hill area. It was a quick, easy train ride in to all the sights of central London (10 minutes to London Bridge) but a quieter neighborhood with nice parks and local residents. The Forest Hill apartment was a lovely little studio set within this commuter neighborhood. I especially loved the bookshelves full of books on every subject and enjoyed getting cozy with some good reads.
We visited the Horniman Museum and Dulwich Picture Gallery, two spots we never would have discovered if not for staying in this area. The Horniman has a unique collection of items from around the world, gathered by this tea magnate on his travels. Dulwich was a cute little village with a beautiful park and the gallery had an impressive collection of Rubens and some visiting works of El Greco. We also enjoyed the local pub's Saturday comedy show on a rainy evening.
When we visited Barcelona, we chose an apartment via HomeAwayUK, a website I had become familiar with by following a couple on Twitter (@ gran_tourismo) who traveled for a year staying at various HomeAway properties. The "Magic Fountain" apartment, so named for its proximity to the Mountjuic fountain with evening light show, was an ideal spot for us and our friends to explore the city. The neighborhood was more removed from the tourist bustle (and pickpocketing hassle) of other areas, but located a few blocks from Plaza Espana with easy train access to all points.
The apartment was super modern, with a great kitchen that allowed us to cook a couple of meals at home, even though Spanish restaurant food is hard to beat. The owner had some tourist information and pamphlets handy, as we found at all the places where we have stayed. Having internet access at the apartments not only allowed me to do my work, but also makes it easy to do some quick research and find places to go. You feel more like a local visiting neighborhood spots and navigating public transportation (so handy most anywhere in Europe).
The spot where we spent the most time was our apartment in Denia, Spain, found through the wonderful SabbaticalHomes website. You can see our previous posts and pictures on our time in Denia and the warmest welcome we received from our hostess there. We fell in love with Denia and enjoyed being there in the off-season when there were few tourist crowds. We got to know the local markets, walk everywhere in town, discover hidden gem restaurants and slowly fall head over heels for the place. As someone who is fortunate to be able to travel while working, staying in apartments is the only way to really accommodate both leisure and work time comfortably for longer periods.
Some other great finds we have discovered on our journeys, besides the HomeAwayUK and Sabbatical Homes websites, are two different options for traveling. One is home exchanging, which we have explored but not done yet. We have traded emails with many lovely families and hope to plan an exchange soon. From everything we read, it is another great way to travel and feel at home in a place...as well as a cost-effective means to do so. By trading, you get the added advantage of a local's advice and experience and might just get to know some great people as well. We have been using the site HomeForExchange.com which seems to have a great number of participants and we are so excited to travel to some of the wonderful places we have been offered. Check us out on the site if you want to come to a great place in sunny Florida!
The other experience we have had is housesitting. This can be a great thing to do for people in situations like ours with a lot of flexibility. It gives you a way to see a new place, but of course there are responsibilities that go along with it. Each listing is different, some require a lot of pet or lawn care, while others simply involve bringing in the mail and watering a few plants. Generally, these are not paid jobs and you would not be expected to pay anything either. However, you will see some jobs that mention you covering some costs and generally housesitters don't feel this is fair considering you are providing a service that can be costly otherwise. If you can travel freely and afford to front your travel costs, this can be a great way to see new places and help someone at the same time. It can be fun to get to know some sweet pets too!
A site I recommend is Housecarers.com, which has jobs all over the world. It is an Australian company, so you will see a lot of Australian area listings, but there's a wide variety from the U.S. and elsewhere too. It seems there are quite a number of people looking for housesits as the listings seem to get bombarded with responses. People may be more likely to have someone housesit within the same country or if you are already visiting the country, as they worry about reliability and travel (and Visa) issues. If this is something you wish to pursue on a more regular basis, you may want to list with a couple sites or consider other ways to get the word out about your availability.
With any of these options, use standard caution that you should when conducting business via the internet. Ask for information, pictures, references and have good conversations beforehand. We have been quite pleased with all of our experiences, but it is essential to do your homework. Safe travels!