I often ponder this question.
I know lots of people end up in a certain city because work sent them there. That is certainly the case here in Sydney. Probably the next most obvious reason people end up somewhere far from home is that they’ve followed their partner away. My husband ended up in Sydney because I grew up here.
When my grandmother was seeking to leave Communist China in the fifties, she sought advice from the various embassies in Harbin, and found that only Australia and Brazil were taking immigrants. She didn’t know a thing about either place, but she couldn’t stay in Harbin… so she did what anybody would do in her situation. She set out to find out as much as she could on both places. She didn’t have the luxury of time (or the internet) to help her. In the end, she often told me that she chose to come to Australia because they drank tea there. She’d heard that Brazilians preferred to drink coffee while Aussies prefer tea, so that was that. Decision made. I guess when you’re facing a lifetime of racism or marginalisation you’re not so picky about where you go.
But what if you’re not in those categories?
I avidly watch that British TV program called ‘A Place in the Sun, Home or Away’. The premise of the program is that they help a British couple that can’t decide whether to move abroad or to stay within England by showing them houses that fit their budget in both countries, so they can compare. Typically they’re chasing the sun or looking for a more relaxed lifestyle. Maybe they’ve been to their chosen destination a few times before on a holiday, in the middle of summer. They’ve almost never seen their chosen place in the middle of winter, or in autumn, when everything isn’t looking so rosy. Usually they’re swayed by the sun shining, and the possibility of buying a home far larger (and more ‘wow factor’) than they ever could afford at home. For most of them, learning the language is an afterthought. How can they contribute to the community if they can’t communicate? I constantly marvel at those few brave (or crazy!) people on that program who are so desperate for some sunshine that they would consider buying property and living in a foreign country that they have never even set foot in. But sometimes, occasionally, they take the plunge and move. Such courage!
Our next trip will probably be around this time next year, probably for about eight weeks or so, and I’m thinking to spend this next trip in Lazio. Lazio doesn’t attract the thousands of tourists that the rest of northern Italy attracts ~ but it is dotted with locations rich with Roman history. I’ve had a few places on my list for a while now; Viterbo, Montefiascone, Tarquinia, as well as Ariccia and Formia. I’ve never been to any of them. But I feel that I should give Lazio a try. Besides… I like the bread there.
Being married to an Englishman we’ve made the trip back to the UK quite a lot since we’ve been together. London has always had a special place in both our hearts because that’s the place where we met and fell in love. Yorkshire ~ where my husband grew up ~ is a lovely part of the country, but it’s not exactly a must-see yearly holiday destination, and even less so for someone who’s lived there. So each time we’ve gone over, if we could afford it, we’ve usually tried to incorporate a little side trip just for us. We’ve stopped over just about everywhere in Asia and done more day trips and side trips that I can even count over the almost 25 years of our marriage.
When we were younger and childless all our holiday funds would be spent paying for the long-haul flight, so we would regularly bunk down with family or friends. But as we’ve grown older and had our son travelling with us we’ve needed and relished having our own space. When he was smaller we could get away with him bunking in our room on a roll-away bed… But as he grew up I learnt that it made sense to book a larger room so that we would have room for our luggage and space to chill without falling all over each other. Once he grew over six foot tall we had to start booking him his own room and ensure he had a full-sized bed. That means paying for two rooms… making a hotel quite pricey.
Balancing his needs with our needs often comes down to where we’re going, and whether we’re having a ‘holiday’ (or a ‘vacation’ as the Americans call it) or ‘travelling’. If we’re going somewhere for a holiday (Bali, Phuket, or the Cinque Terre for instance) then we might choose a hotel resort so that all our needs can be taken care of. But if we’re travelling… experiencing a new city, exploring a new place then the choice has always been this: Do we stay in a centrally located hotel for just a few days, or stay in an apartment for longer? We almost always choose an apartment. Here’s why.
The advantage of staying in a hotel chain is the predictability of the rooms and the service. But even with that predictability, you can still end up in a room that looks nothing like what you saw in the brochure, particularly if you check-in late, and they know that you’re tired, and although you might complain, you’re unlikely to go elsewhere. Its true, the same can happen when renting an apartment. But in my experience, its in reverse. Apartment owners don’t usually engage a professional photographer to take the photos, they usually take the photos themselves ~ so in my experience the apartment usually looks better in reality than in the photos. Nice surprise, huh! In fact, I’m often a bit wary if I see professional photos.
It certainly is comforting to have the security of knowing that there’s someone at the front desk who will call an English speaking doctor for you any time day or night ~ specially if you have children. This is a very legitimate concern for people travelling with kids, or with elderly people, or for anyone with health issues. It makes really good sense if you’re worried to do a quick search on-line before departing to get the name(s) of one or two English-speaking medical centres nearby.
I also know plenty of people who are wary of interacting with local people and therefore won’t consider going anywhere where they might have to speak the local language. They like to have a city tour organised by the hotel that picks them off and drops them off again, so there’s no stress of having to rely on yourself to find your way around. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. If you’re one of those people, then an apartment is probably not for you. But having said that, with a little bit of effort, its really not difficult to find your nearest hotel and organise a tour from there. Or to organise a guide to pick you up from your apartment.
For us, if we’re planning on staying somewhere for more than a couple of nights, we always choose an apartment. We like the extra space. I love being able to try out local produce, and the flexibility of choosing what to eat and when. Yes, I’m one of those guests who really doesn’t like to rush down to breakfast at 9am only to find everything half picked over. My son and I don’t eat breakfast cereals, nor do I want to eat a cooked breakfast every day while I’m on holidays. In a hotel, that means paying for a breakfast that we don’t eat very much of.
Over the years we’ve rented some really great places. The two most memorable ones in Italy were in Verona and Lucca. The first apartment I ever rented online was in Lucca. I chose it for its location, close to the train station but inside the town walls. I had paid a deposit and been given the address and I’d checked it out on Google Maps, but I was still afraid that when we turned up it would be a construction site. I needn’t have worried.
It was gorgeous inside, spacious and comfortable and it had the loveliest views overlooking the walls of the town. Sure, it had no lift and unreliable wifi, but it was really reasonable, and we’d stay there again in an instant.
The other really memorable one was a little apartment we rented in Verona that had a balcony overlooking the river Adige. It was maybe an 8 minute walk from the town centre and from the nearest Bar but was comfortable, quiet, and had one of the loveliest views ever, and it was very reasonably priced. We stayed in that apartment for 3 weeks for less than the cost of a hotel in the centre of Verona for one week.
Over the years I’ve learnt a thing or two about choosing holiday apartments.
Use a reputable website. There are lots of websites out there ~ I’ve used VRBO, KnowItal, SlowTravel and Sawdays and a few others. I’ve used HomeAway many many times for Italy without a problem and I’ve only dealt with one person who didn’t seem trustworthy. I particularly like Homeaway because it notes how long a particular place has been listed with them. Be wary of a place that is newly listed, or with a calendar that shows its completely free or isn’t up-to-date. The longer its been listed, the more reviews there will be, and the less likely it’s a fraud.
If I have any doubts I always ask for additional photographs. If the apartment is a scam or fake place then its very difficult for a scammer to access & send extra photos. The one untrustworthy person I dealt with got quite angry with me when I questioned the photos he’d sent me ~ they looked nothing like the photos on the website. The floorboards were bare in one photo and carpeted in another! Needless to say I left that one well alone.
Always do a background check on the property, the name of the person you’re dealing with and their email address. Type their details into a search engine. Read anything that comes up. Read all the reviews. Including those on TripAdvisor ~ good and bad.
It seems obvious, but once you get the contract, ask for the address of the place and check it out on GoogleMaps. Ask for their phone number and call them. Do they sound like they know what they’re talking about? Trust your instincts.
If you have any reason to suspect the person you’re dealing with ~ or if it seems too good to be true ~ move on. There are always lots of places to choose from.
Never pay the full amount before you turn up. I’ve never been asked to pay the full amount before we arrive. The deposit can vary but in my experience is never more than 50%. Check that your insurance is in place before you book.
If the owner offers an airport pickup service we usually take it up. That means the driver will know where to go, and will usually call the owner to say that you’re on your way to ensure they’re there when you arrive, so you avoid standing outside some random address after a 24 hour flight in the cold and rain, wondering if you’ve got the right place.
If the owner offers a cleaning service we usually take that up too. After all, I’m on holidays too!
Finally… Before you go, check online for the name of a local English speaking doctor and dentist, and any tours you might want to do. Take printouts with you. Take printouts of the location, city guides, a packet of crackers, tea bags, DVDs… anything that will make your stay more comfortable. And enjoy!