Saturday, May 17, 2014

Decoding AirBNB's Paris Locations

Now that you know why I'm so in love with AirBNB, here's a practical guide to using the up-and-coming apartment rental site in one of the world's most popular tourist destinations. That's right, Paris.

If you've started looking for an AirBNB apartment or room rental in Paris, you might have noticed that it's not exactly difficult to find a place to stay in the City of Lights. Rentals range from the most luxurious -- like this 1300- sq. foot luxury apartment with a view of the Eiffel Tower -- to the most unique -- like this Parisian houseboat, which is just one of an impressively large selection of water-based accommodations. The large range of options means that what is tricky about navigating AirBNB in Paris is not finding an apartment, but CHOOSING one. Do you want the bright studio in central Paris? Or the quirky townhouse in Montmartre? What about the peaceful apartment overlooking the canal?

Fortunately, it pays to be a cash-strapped college student. (Well, not literally. Although that would be ideal, wouldn't it?) As you slide that little "price" slider further and further left, the number of rentals starts to shrink. Goodbye, overwhelming selection of bright beautiful apartments. Hello, slightly-less-overwhelming list of dingy spare bedrooms! Still, it's to AirBNB's credit that there are an incredible number of reasonably-priced properties. A search for rentals under $130 a night (which is already way less than you'll be paying for any decent hotel) yields over 1000 results!

So where to go from here? If you know what you want, or at least where you want it, it's easy to further narrow down the search. In addition to price, you can add size, location, and amenities-based restrictions. Prefer an English-speaking host? Looking for a non-smoking rental with a washer and dryer? Want breakfast prepared for you in the morning? No problem ... just click on "More Filters" and click to your heart's desire! (However, it is important to note that too many restrictions can cause you to miss out on a great opportunity ... the lack of free parking might not be a dealbreaker for an otherwise perfect rental, but if you apply restrictions, you'll never even see it!)

Once you've narrowed down your selection and established your price point, things get tricky. Decoding Parisian AirBNB advertisements is more complicated that navigating the Parisian metro without looking at your map. (Total tourist move.) If you've already begun looking at Parisian rentals, you might have noticed that it seems like every other apartment is the same! However, being able to understand and decode the lingo used by Parisian AirBNB hosts can help you filter through underwhelming properties and find a diamond in the rough.

So without further ado, I present my Guide to Decoding AirBNBS.
  • "COZY." Small. Small. Small.
  • "CHARMANT." Like cozy, but perhaps with a bigger window?
  • "FONCTIONNEL." If "functional" is the best way you can think to describe your home, we might have a problem. This apartment has a floor and, God willing, four walls ... but not much else. If it's done well, the effect might be charmingly minimalist. (I fell in love with this sixth-floor chambre de service.) However, chances are that the result is a little more on the depressing/spartan side.
  • "HAS CHARACTER." This one is tricky, as there is nothing that fits the Parisian ideal more than a beautiful flat complete with winding stairs, parquet floors, and cast-iron window railings. However, the adjective can easily be applied by a more deceptive landlord to excuse a space that is cluttered, tired, and even falling-down!
  • "IN A LIVELY AREA." This type of situation is ideal for those looking for nearby nightlife. But it also tends to mean that it's loud out there. If you don't sleep a wink, don't try and say they didn't warn you!
  • "IN THE HEART OF PARIS." Let's just say that everyone seems to have very different ideas about what neighborhoods qualify as "the heart" of Paris.
  • "SOUS LES TOITS..." This expression -- which means "under the rooftops" -- is romantic in the extreme, until you realize that it's actually just a euphemism for a sixth-floor apartment (sans ascenseur, or without elevator) with a severely sloping roof. Could be a dealbreaker for older travelers ... or anyone above 5'10".
As always, there are a couple of other things to keep in mind. These pieces of advice apply to any apartment rental ... not just those in the City of Lights!
  • Start looking early! There are some absolutely amazing properties available in Paris -- beautiful apartments in safe, central locations with incredibly low price tags and a series of five-star reviews. Unsurprisingly, these places go FAST. If you're looking to snatch up one of these dream rentals, you'll need to plan several weeks or even months in advance.
  • ... but be aware of last-minute deals! Some hosts, especially those who might be renting out a spare bedroom in their home, don't update their availability very far in advance. If you're having trouble booking an apartment for a last-minute trip, be patient. You might notice a couple of great options open up in the week or two before your trip to Paris!
  • Beware of properties without reviews -- or, even worse, with bad reviews. (That being said; take what is written with a grain of salt. Sometimes the problem can be with the guests, not the hosts! One bad review amongst a sea of five-star ratings isn't necessarily a dealbreaker.)
  • Look for a cooperative and helpful host. Hosts should be willing to answer all of your questions about the rental, no matter how specific they may be, and to reply to your messages in a reasonable time frame. A significant lack of cooperation is probably indicative of the type of treatment you'll receive during your stay.
  • Get to know the city. Paris is a beautiful city whose various arrondissements each possess their own special charm. That being said, like any city, it definitely has areas that tourists might do well to avoid. While these areas might be safe to wander through during the day, they can become a little seedy or even downright dangerous after dark. Although hotel and apartment prices might be less expensive in these areas, it's best to avoid them. If you're worried about staying on the 'right' side of town, do your research. Talk to friends who have visited the city and check out one of my all-time favorite blog posts, A Breakdown of the Paris Arrondissements by a Sassy New Yorker, for a guide to Paris' varied neighborhoods.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Update: May ... and the Rest of Spring Semester!

Thursday, May 15.

Remember when I used to update this blog every few days? Well, it turns out that life back in the States just isn't as conducive to frequent blog-writing!

Part of me still misses the lax schedule of Paul-Valéry, where classes met once or twice a week (if there were no student grèves) and where 'homework' could be completed in a couple minutes while sitting on my bed. The retour to the academic rigor of William & Mary was, unsurprisingly, tough. Although my 15-credit load wasn't necessarily any more difficult than it has been in the past, I found myself working harder than I ever have before. A full week after finishing my last final exam, I can tell you that it was worth it. (Although I can't promise that I would have said the same thing a few weeks ago.) I was really passionate about everything that I was doing, from my classes to my internship to my new extracurricular activities, and although I thought I'd be ready to see the end of what has definitely been my busiest and most challenging semester at W&M, I was sad to see it go.

I've done a lot this semester. Some of it, I was expecting -- I signed up for (most of) my classes and applied for my Admissions Office internship before I even left France. But most of it was unexpected, even accidental -- I had no plans to run for Honor Council, no idea that I would wind up taking a 400-level English class about Shakespeare, and certainly no intention to spend the majority of my evenings in Swem Library! I'm proud of what I have accomplished and while I know that next semester will be an even bigger adventure, I'm excited.

Looking back on the past four months (four months?!), I can't believe that they went as quickly as they did. It feels like yesterday that I was boarding the plane to come home for Christmas! Because there's simply no way to explain everything that happened this semester in the detail I would like, I'll give you the second half of Spring 2014 in photos. If it all seems a little jumbled and confusing, that's because it was!

Elizabeth Suzanne meets Willa Francis for the first time.

Volunteering with some furry friends at W&M Greek Life's philanthropy event, the ARC Carnival.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Newsflash: Hotels are Out; Apartment Rentals are In

One of the biggest draws of spending time studying abroad -- especially in European countries -- is TRAVEL. For many students, a semester or year abroad is their first introduction to international travel; understandably, they want to take advantage of their time and see as many of the sites as possible! Unfortunately, this type of adventure can come with a pretty hefty price tag. Students can maximize their budget by taking advantage or free museum admission and discounted plane tickets (thanks, Ryan Air!), but the cost of a hotel room -- even for one night -- can be a tough pill to swallow. That's why I recommend alternate accommodations. Although a little less orthodox than a typical hotel, these options -- from courchsurfing to hostels to apartment rentals -- allow students and other travelers on a budget the chance to save their cash for the things that really matter. (Food.)

I know that not everybody is a fan of alternative travel accommodations ... one Google search for "AirBNB horror stories" is enough to convince anybody to look skeptically at apartment rentals! But my own experiences with alternative accommodations have been, overall, extremely positive. I've found them to be both fun and practical: even a young traveler on a budget can benefit from the current popularity of apartment rentals!

Types of Alternative Accommodations

The list of different types of alternative accommodations is as long as the list of reasons why you should use them! There are a wide variety of alternative accommodations that span a wide degree of price and privacy.

First up, there's Couchsurfing, the website that the tattooed guy you met in Amsterdam couldn't stop talking about. The site is a "hospitality exchange" that allows travelers to stay for free with hosts; although no money changes hands, guests are encouraged to share their own cultural expertise with their hosts. Or something like that. I have never "couch-surfed" ... and if we're being honest, I don't think I ever will. The idea requires a certain type of recklessness confidence that I just don't possess. Bottom line: although the site comes with its fair share of safety concerns, people who use it tend to swear by it.

Another hugely popular alternative accommodation among young travelers and backpackers is the youth hostel, or auberge de jeunesse. Guests rent a bed in either single, double, or dormitory-style rooms and usually have access to a communal bathroom and kitchen. (Single rooms offer the highest degree of safety and privacy, but dormitory-style rooms are the least expensive.) Hostels range in price, depending on location, quality, and amenities, but tend to be much less expensive than traditional hotels. While some hostels offer an inclusive package, the average hostel tends to be a little more spartan ... unwitting guests can wind up being charged for everything from breakfast to bedding! To ensure safety and quality, it's generally recommended that potential guests stick to certified hostels (like those on Hostel World or Hostelling International). Bottom line: a hostel can be a great alternative accommodation option, but only if you do your research.

If you're travelling with your family or a sizable group of friends, an apartment rental might be the way to go. While many home rental sites cater to an exclusive clientele, there are many websites that offer an affordable apartment rental experience. Two of the most popular rental sites on the web right now are HomeAway and AirBNB.

After a successful first experience in Paris last October, I used AirBNB for almost all of my travels, including stops in Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany. I've never used HomeAway, but my impression is that it is a slightly more hands-on service that provides its customers with a certain degree of security. (The sample case that tends to be used in comparisons is a booking that falls through at the last minute: while AirBNB will refund your money, HomeAway will take the additional step of arranging a replacement.) Additionally, while AirBNB offers both apartment and private room rentals, HomeAway deals exclusively in entire properties.

Things to Remember

It's important to remain realistic.
Along with the high price tag of a hotel comes the assurance of at least some degree of customary service; this is a perk that you might not always find with alternative accommodations.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Check out reviews and don't be afraid to ask hosts specific questions in order to make sure that you know exactly what you're getting yourself into.

Are you interested in signing up for an account with AirBNB? (You'll need one if you want to travel or rent out your own space.) Go to If you register for an account with this link, you'll get $25 off your first qualifying rental and -- full disclosure -- I'll become eligible for a discount on an upcoming trip!

Have you used AirBNB or any of the other alternative accommodations discussed in this post? Comment and tell me about your experience!