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When you leave home you always need a place to stay. For this week's podcast, host David Lytle and Frommers.com online editor Jason Clampet share tips about finding money-saving alternatives to hotels. Whether it's a short-term apartment rental in Tokyo, a monastery in Tuscany, a villa in Thailand, or a couch in Cordoba, Lytle and Clampet will tell you how to plan ahead, what questions you need to ask, and how not to get burned.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

See transcript below for links to more information.

  • Options: Before booking a hotel, find out what other accommodations are available at your destination.
  • Websites to Try: VRBO.com, Couchsurfing.com, Craigslist.org.
  • Protection: Going with alternate accommodations may be cheaper, but you lose the protection from your credit cards.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

Male Announcer: Welcome to the Frommers.com Travel Podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.Frommers.com.
David Lytle: Hi, this is David Lytle. I'm the Editorial Director of Frommers.com. Today we're talking with Jason Clampet. He's the Online Editor for Frommers.com. Hey Jason, how's it going?
Jason Clampet: Pretty good. Hi, David.
David: Today we're going to talk about alternate accommodations. The idea is, you know, when you leave home, when you go anywhere, you have to stay somewhere--you're not going to sleep on the street--and if you don't want to choose a hotel, which can be really expensive, especially if you're looking at someplace like New York City or London, what are your other options for being able to stay in a location and get a better experience.

So Jason and I are going to have a little back-and-forth about that, today.
Jason: Yeah, first, with any destination, you have to ask the question: what's available there? You're going to have more things available in New York City than you will in, let's say, a small town in Italy. So that's the first question you ask yourself.

The second question is: why am I going on this trip? If it's business, you may not really have an option to do a small B&B, because you have to be in and out, but if you're going with a ton of family members and you need to worry about, well, how many beds we're going to have, can we prepare food because we don't want to eat out all the time? If we are meeting friends, do we want a space where the friends can meet. And also what the nature of your journey is. If you're going from kind of town to town to town, the convenience of a hotel is good because you don't have to meet with a rental agent or meet with the person you're doing a home stay with. But if you're staying in a place for a while, you're going to kind of want a home base, so in those situations hotels don't tend to work as well for everybody.
David: Something that people need to consider, you talked about going from town to town, and in someplace like Italy alternate accommodations may not work in that sense, because this isn't a hotel chain where they are fine renting a room for one night. These are people who have to pay for a maid service to come in, or they have to do the cleaning themselves, and they usually have maybe a three-night minimum stay to rent a place like this. So it also matters what sort of trip you're taking.
Jason: Right, exactly, and I think when we think of alternative accommodations, I try, I think of kind of three different things. I think of renting an apartment through an online rental agency like VRBO, which has stuff kind of around the world, or specific city web sites which have things maybe just for Paris and London, or for Rome and Berlin, or things like that. So a full...
David: Think Craigslist.
Jason: Craigslist, even, yeah. So an apartment rental or a home swap, where you go through a certain web site, Craigslist or other ones, and you find someone who wants to come to where you live, and you want to go to where they live, and you work out an agreement between the two of you.

Then the third thing is kind of something in the middle, which isn't quite a hotel, but it is set up a little more for even short-term stays, something like a Ryokan in Japan, a monastery, a hostel even, or Germany you can stay in castles for the equivalent of $20 a night. So in a way you get a different experience, but you can stay there for a shorter period of time.

So when you're doing any of this you have to, I think, start with a series of questions, as we were talking about earlier. What options exist in your destination? And for a place like New York City, where tons of visitors come, you kind of have just about everything. You can do a Craigslist swap; you can find an apartment rental through an organization like New York Habitats; or you can do a number of really, almost illegal sublets, but a lot of people put up their apartments for short-term stays for $50 a night or $70 a night.
David: Or more.
Jason: Or more.
David: Right. I have a couple of good friends who live on the Lower East Side of New York, and they're lucky enough that they bought this place very early on, and it's two floors with a loft space, and they rent out the basement part of it almost constantly. It supplements their income. So then the people need to understand as well, I mean, if you're choosing to go the apartment rental route, you need to find out if it's hosted or unhosted, because sometimes you're going to be renting a room from somebody who is also living in the space at the same time.
Jason: Right, and that can always make for an interesting thing, where some people want to come to a new location and have, in a way, a guide or a host.
David: Yes.
Jason: We've talked about, in previous podcast, web sites like Couchsurfing and similar sites like that, where it's basically staying with a friend you just met online, and they often will play host to the city you're in, which can be a wonderful experience, especially if you're traveling on your own. If you're traveling with family it might be a little different--you show up and somebody is using you as kind of their substitute children. It could be quite uncomfortable; and in those cases, like in any of these nontraditional stays, you can begin to avoid that by asking a lot of really good questions when you're doing your search.

I mentioned the Vacation Rentals By Owner--VRBO.com--a little earlier. On sites like that, they often act as a middleman, so that your job, as somebody who is looking for a great place to stay, is to ask a lot of questions of the person you're renting the apartment from. In my experience, in using places like that, you often aren't going to find the perfect space first time out. You'll do a series of questions between an owner, and you'll often realize that your interests don't synch up. They may want to be on-site there while you're there, you don't want that. Then again, other people do and it works for them, and it's perfect. But that really is the first step, asking questions of the person you are renting a place from.
David: Right. I mean, sometimes a hosted apartment, it's almost like a B&B experience.
Jason: Right.
David: Because the owner is there, and they have rules.
Jason: Right. And even if the owner isn't there, one of the fun things about alternative accommodations is, the owner's presence is always felt. I was talking to a friend recently who did an apartment rental through New York Habitats, Aris, and she stayed in a studio apartment in [xx], and the artwork the owner had was all over the place. Now, this owner did like a lot of "erotic art," so it was present everywhere, and there was a bust of a naked woman with her hands tied behind her head, up above the fireplace. Now that's not everybody's cup of tea, but the owner wasn't there, but it was in a perfect location. But the presence was felt. So sometimes you get a sense of that through the pictures, and then sometimes you don't.
David: Right. If you're going, like, the apartment route, you are a guest in somebody else's home, literally. You are just paying for the privilege of being there. The furnishings may not be to your taste, and the erotic art may not be to your taste as well.

Jason: Exactly. On our message boards, a lot of users exchange ideas about this stuff in the Lodgings section, and one exchange that I was reading from somebody who has done home exchanges, which I have never done before--this is where, let's say you live in Chicago and you want to go to London, and you find someone in London who wants to come to Chicago, and your times match up, and you go back and forth.

This person was asking, "Well, I've got a four bedroom house, and I want to go to this big city, and I can only get a two bedroom there. How do we fix the cost? Do they pay me a little more because they're getting an extra couple of bedrooms?"

All of these are negotiations between the people; but in home exchange one of the good things is, typically, no money changes hands. So it's a trust between the two people that, well, in Chicago, four bedrooms is a lot cheaper than four bedrooms in London, so you're not going to get the same thing. You have to be able to make these tradeoffs with one another.
David: Right, because what you're getting is, you're getting a space for a space.

Jason: Exactly, exactly, and so you have to be able to be very flexible with these things, and that's a flexibility you give up because you're not staying in a large chain hotel. In a chain hotel, everything is on them--or even in a non-chain hotel. You're paying them, and you expect a certain star quality of service or whatnot. You know what you're getting immediately, and because of that you end up paying a little more for it. But also, it can not be as good of an experience as staying in a home.
David: Right. You're also protected by your credit card if you stay in a hotel. If something goes wrong, you can always dispute a charge, because there are these protections that are built into using a credit card. But basically you're going off the grid when you don't stay in a hotel, because this is sort of a black market of space exchange.

When I was in Rome, my partner and I, we rented an apartment through sort of a non-mainstream web site, and we paid for it through Paypal, but it ended up being like 90 Euros a night.

Jason: Right.
David: We actually called it "the compartment, " because it was very small, but it really served our needs. We weren't in the space for very long; we'd take a shower, there was a great little grocery store down the street so we could get our food for breakfast or lunch, have yogurt in the refrigerator, make some coffee in the morning and not have to go someplace else and pay for it, and we could hear the voices of all the other tenants in the apartment building through the square, which added a whole different sense of where we were.

Jason: Right. My wife and I rented an apartment in Paris, recently, for about two months, and we had a schoolyard behind us. So the school bell would go off every day at 9:00 or 8:00 AM. It was very loud--think of, it was very old European. You know, the bell rang, I think it was a giant brass bell, and it clanked and clanked and clanked, and woke us up of course; and then you'd hear the laughter of schoolchildren and everything, and that's something you'd never hear in the Ritz or something like that. You'd hear traffic along the Champs Elysees or something like that. And it was a wonderful experience.

But back to your thing about kind of protecting yourself with the money. I think one of the things that you do when you decide to go with an alternate accommodation is, you do take a risk. You don't have the credit card to protect you. Some of the online agencies offer a modicum of safety, in that they kind of act as a middle person and you can appeal to that. I recently had an appeal process with an online web site, where we showed up at the apartment and it was terrible.

It was a student who was subletting her apartment so she could go to school somewhere else, and all the furniture had been dragged off the street, the stove didn't work, the lock didn't work, the bathtub didn't work. Just everything, and we ended up moving out. We ended up losing a bit of the deposit, but we had an online rental agency, which helped somewhat. But we ended up paying for it. On the other hand, it didn't keep us from renting a place immediately after that where everything was perfect.
David: Hopefully they took that property off of their listings.

Jason: Well, it depends from site to site. I mentioned VRBO earlier. They don't always allow you to have negative comments on there, so it is difficult to know what's a good place and what's a bad place. The site that I use was NewYorkHabitats. They actually did keep it on the site for a while, which I thought was innappropriate; but we had also had great experiences with them, and many people have good experiences with them, so it is kind of on a case-by-case basis.
David: Right. As you said, all this goes back, initially, to the destination that you're going to. So you first have to decide if you're going to a place that has lots of options for non-hotel stays, and then those cities are going to have a variety of web sites that you can go to. There's Good Morning Paris, there's AtHomeInLondon.co.uk, there's New York Habitat. I know Pauline Frommer and her series of guides, the Pauline Frommer Guides, there is always a chapter on alternate accommodations.

Jason: Right, and she talks a lot about monasteries or staying at other religious-affiliated organizations. I know there are places throughout Italy and Germany and Greece. Some of them have gender restrictions, men only or women only, but you can stay there for the equivalent of 15 euros a night and have a wonderful stay. It's so different than anything else you could possibly do, staying at the Grand Hyatt or whatnot.
David: There is at least one monastery here in San Francisco. They're not always in big towns, either.

Jason: Honestly, there's a place call Saint Meinrich's, in Southern Indiana, where you can go and stay, and I think it's about $25 a night. They have a large compound, it's gentle rolling hills, and there's a vow of silence there, so basically you go for this idea of retreat.
David: What about the idea of, not an apartment in the city, not a monastery, but what if you want to go a little more upscale as well. You're not renting a hotel. Let's say you're renting a house or a villa. How do you go about finding something like that?

Jason: Well, that also depends on the region of the world you're in. One of our writers recently wrote a piece about renting villas in Southeast Asia. He's had a lot of experience in Thailand. It all just can be similar in the Caribbean, too, where people have a villa which may have four rooms or six rooms; and if you're going with a group of friends, especially to the Caribbean, it can be an incredible savings. You end up having a whole home to yourself, each person pays, whether it's $100 a night or $150 a night, and you will often have a cook and a chauffeur, and somebody to clean, and you have a private pool and things like that. And in Southeast Asia it's even cheaper.

Those type of operations, you often do have to ask many, many questions, and you may have kind of payment experiences that you aren't very familiar with--so you have to be wiring money to somewhere in Southeast Asia, which probably isn't everybody's idea of a good time.

So in cases like that you really have to ask a lot of questions. You ask for references, follow up on the references. You troll message boards on different travel web sites to say, "Hey, have you had any experience with this?" You Google the names of people involved to see if there are any horror stories about them.
David: Right, and the names of the property, too. I mean, this is actually where the Internet becomes your friend, because it is a very valuable resource for playing detective.
Jason: Exactly.
David: People who are willing to do this, they have to be willing to invest some time into doing the research. It is not the Hyatt, it's not the Hilton. You can't just go, "I want a room for these nights, " and be done with it. You have to be willing to invest a little bit of time. And it is, as you said, asking questions. Suzanne, and I can't think of her last name, who is the president of Rent Villas--I've used that company before to rent a villa in Italy, which ended up costing us like $300 for a week, per couple--but asked her, I said, "Just as a point of reference, what should I be asking you?"

One of the things that I never would have considered was, she suggested that you should always ask what sort of construction might be going on around the property. Like, why are people renting this now? Sometimes it's because they're not willing to live there themselves at that time, because they're having an addition put on the house, or there's a building being put up across the street. So you might get a good deal, but it's not a good deal when the jackhammers start at 7:00 AM.
Jason: Right. You know, one of the users on our message board was recounting an experience with an online rental agency, and said that she had emailed a few people and got quotes of really good rates, but she just wasn't really believing it because it was half of what the rate on the web site was. She emailed one of the other people that didn't have photos updated on the site, and she said, "Well why don't you have updated photos?" And they said, "Well, a hurricane just hit and we're doing reconstruction." She found out that the hurricane really, all the photographs that she had seen of the other places that were great deals, well they didn't really have roofs anymore, they were covered with tarps.
David: Right, half-off for three walls.
Jason: Yeah, exactly: half off for half of a place. They ended up going with people who didn't have the photographs because they sent on-site photos, "This is the construction we just did." They had a great trip and it was half the cost, but they had to ask those questions.
David: Do you have a roof? Right, right, and you would never think to ask that question. We're not having this conversation to scare people out of doing this, we're actually encouraging people to do this. We just want them to do it intelligently.
Jason: Exactly. I have done a great deal of traveling in the last couple of years, and I have probably stayed in rentals 80, 90 percent of the time, because I stay in a place for a long time. Even when I go to a big city--I spent a lot of time in Tokyo, and I rented an apartment and had a place with a doorman and a pool and a kitchen, and paid the equivalent of $100 a night.
David: Well, wrapping it up, some of the basic questions that I would ask when I'm doing any rental, of the renter, is, "Why are you renting it? Is it a second home? Is it an investment property? Are you going away to school?"
Jason: Which in my experience was a bad things. Also, "How many people have you rented it to before? Have you done this a lot or am I your guinea pig on this? Are you trying to figure out, 'Hey, will I like doing this?' and am I the test person? I'd love to know that" And with that is then references, "I need to speak with people who have stayed with you before." And then maybe one of the last things, "What's the neighborhood like?" Often you can get a sense of it from the web site or from the photographs. You don't want to be staying in a suburb of Boston if you really want to be downtown. You don't want to be staying in the middle of Mexican jungle if you really wanted to be on the coast or the Mayan Riviera. So you really need to find out that stuff about the neighborhood.
David: Right, exactly. I mean, you want to make sure that it's in the location that suits your needs.
Jason: Exactly. And that... 'cause often people who have property will do it kind of near, near the largest metropolitan area, just by virtue of how the web sites work. So it's not that they're trying to be deceitful, but that's just, if you've got a place in Jersey City, there is no Jersey City rental site for frequent travelers, but there is one for New York City. So you want to ask stuff like that.

And then a good resource, also, for these questions, is the discussion boards on Frommers.com. Might as well listen to the articles that we've done. The articles are often specific about locations, whether it is Southeast Asia, parts of Europe, or parts of Central America.
David: Right, exactly. Well, I mean, we should point out to listeners that from the very beginning of this web site, more than two years ago now, we have always had a message board that is dedicated specifically to people doing home exchanges. So you can always go on there and say, "I live here, I want to go there, " and you hope that somebody finds you and wants to do the same swap.
Jason: Right.
David: Cool. Well, I hope that we've sort of inspired people to go outside of the usual box of travel and look for something like alternate accommodation, whether it is a castle stay where you can play king, or where you can just have an apartment to yourself and not have the discerning eye of the concierge eyeballing you when you walk in at 3:00 in the morning.
Jason: Exactly.
David: Great. Thanks for talking today, Jason.
Jason: Thanks for having me, David.
David: Sure. For more information on planning your trip, or to hear about the latest travel news and deals, visit us on the Web at www.Frommers.com. And, be sure to email us at editor@frommermedia.com with any comments or suggestions.