Christmas in London + Our apartment rental (airbnb) experience

visiting london during christmas covent garden mistletoe lights
Burberry coat sz 2 // Covent Garden mistletoe lights literally right outside our apartment

Merry Christmas to you and your families! I've said this a few times now, but London is just magical during the holidays. From the splendid light displays twinkling above the main streets to the charming little nooks and corners, there was so much holiday spirit at every turn. There was also no shortage of crowds and revelry - apparently we just happened to visit during the UK's "Black Eye Friday" (notorious for party-goers indulging in too much to drink - I mean, the footwear in that third photo!). And then we obliviously went shopping on "Panic Saturday," during which last-minute shoppers jam up the main streets with crowds rivaling that of a packed bus in Beijing. Note to self: visit London at least 2 weeks before Christmas next time!
london ice skating rink natural history museum christmas
"penguins" waiting on the ice skating rink at the Natural History Museum

When traveling to other countries, we often have a hard time deciding whether to book a hotel or rent an apartment. On one hand, we love discovering unique hotels and all the amenities of a good one - room service (breakfast in bed while watching Fixer Upper episodes is my ultimate indulgence), luxe toiletries, comfy beds, and a helpful concierge. However, we also like the idea of experiencing a city and attempting to live like the locals, getting a feel for real apartments in other countries, and occasionally strolling to the grocery store for ingredients to cook a meal. The risk, though, is all apartment rentals are not created equal. And we've had some widely varied experiences ranging from horrific (our first rental, we couldn't even bear to stay the night and just walked out) to very comfortable, like a true home away from home.oxford street visiting london christmas travel guide
globe lights over Oxford Street - also beautiful at night

Our trip to London and Paris was last-minute and most hotels where we wanted to stay were booked. So we figured why not give apartment rental another try? There are several platforms out there, but the only one I've used and can speak to is Airbnb (referral). Here I wanted to share a few of my favorite photos from Christmas in London, along with some tips and lessons learned from our apartment rental experiences!
london englaned cartier christmas bow decorations bond street
the most bow-utiful present I ever did see, on Bond Street

First off, I always select the "rent entire home" option versus just a room in a home, so this post refers only to such rentals. The hosts list a price per night (which can vary on weekdays vs. weekends and seasonally), set a max occupancy, and have a calendar of availability. Airbnb takes a booking fee, and there is a cleaning fee set by the host so you arrive to a cleaned unit (allegedly) - both fees are listed on the side and included in your total price. Also, be sure to check the cancellation policy as every rental is different, unlike most hotels which usually just require 24 or 48 hours of notice for a full refund.

Types of Hosts/Units
This isn't something that's outlined in a listing, but from my experience, there are a few main hosting scenarios that can give you a better sense of the situation and what to expect. You can either decipher this through the rental description or host's profile, or by just asking the host via a message.

1. The unit is someone's actual primary home and gets rented out when they are not using it / out of town. Personally, I don't like the idea of living amongst someone else's personal belongings, thus avoid this type of rental.

2. The unit is a secondary / investment property just for renting out, owned by the host who also lives in the area. (This is what our London rental was.)

3. The unit is owned by someone who has moved away, thus he or she relies on a manager or friend to check guests in and oversee the cleaning of the unit. (The case with our Paris units.)

4. The unit is owned or managed by a management company, typically with an inventory of multiple rental units. This can usually be identified by the presence of multiple properties listed under the host's account. I've only encountered this once, and it was an impersonal experience with generic decor (like a bad hotel), but I won't write it off, since I'm sure the experience can vary greatly based on the quality of the individual management company.
wild at heart london belgravia florist shop
Charles David boots sz 5 (also here), Ann Taylor hat, Banana Republic scarf c/o
mini winter wonderland at this charming flower shop

Narrowing the Search
Vacation rental sites have a ton of search filters, and finding a place that suits you best will take some digging. What we look for when booking an apartment rental:

- A neighborhood central to what we want to do and see. We usually make a custom Google map before visiting somewhere, which helps visually pinpoint the proximity of the sights, restaurants and (of course) shopping that interests us most.

- Clear apartment photos and numerous reviews with an overall 4 to 5 star rating. Instead of just relying on the aggregated stars, be sure to actually read the reviews to see if past guests have the same interests or concerns. A comment like "No Starbucks within 10 blocks!" might be a con to one person but a pro for another!

- Very responsive hosts. After narrowing down potential rentals, I send a message to each host with a little info about our plans, and ask about their property plus confirm availability on XYZ dates. Sometimes I ask for the exact street location. Messages go to the hosts' cell phones like a text, so I always look for friendly and quick responses (but factor in the time zone differences). A host who's quick to respond might not seem like a big deal—until you're huddled in an apartment vestibule at 11 pm trying to remember the door code that you forgot to write down.
visiting london during holidays tiffany co bond street
pretty rings both inside and outside at this Tiffany's

Our London Flat
(Apartment link, Airbnb signup link with $35 off for new users)

While in London, we went with this rental in Covent Garden, and it was one of the best Airbnb experiences we've had. Our host Yanna lives in the city but owned this as a rental property. It's in a slightly touristy and bustling shopping area (the unit is located squarely above a Jo Malone, and across the street from Burberry and Sandro - such dreamy dresses!) so not for someone who seeks peace & quiet. But the building always felt safe and secure, though we did have to correct one confused shopper who thought our vestibule doorway WAS the Jo Malone : )
london airbnb apartment rental review
our Covent Garden flat, right above Jo Malone and right below holiday lights

The location was super convenient to the subway, shops, grocery stores, and walkable to much of what we wanted to do - steps from restaurants like Dishoom (recommended by several local readers), bustling Soho, Chinatown, and lots more. Our host surprised us with a fresh bouquet of flowers and toiletries, plus had stocked the apartment with champagne, good coffee (according to Nick), milk and other little things - all of which we don't expect with a rental. She was then out of our hair for the rest of the stay but very reachable in case issues or questions arose. The home was clean but not sterile, and we quickly settled in and made ourselves comfy.
london airbnb apartment rental covent garden review
check-in surprises from our London host

Our Paris Apartments
In Paris, we've now stayed at two Airbnbs in different neighborhoods over our visits in recent years. The experiences and the units themselves however were rather similar - both times the hosts were owners who had moved away and had a "manager" checking us in. The apartments were as expected, nothing more nothing less. They both had gorgeous Parisian windows but were older with very creaky wood floors and no elevator (which I'm sure may be typical of homes in the classic Haussmann-style buildings). Also there were also no provided toiletries and the towels/linens were a pretty eclectic mix. Our most recent Paris rental though was good for families with kids - I'll share the listing along with photos of it in an upcoming post!
Piccadilly Circus London travel guide Christmas Holiday Lights
angels over Piccadilly Circus

One notable downfall of apartment rentals vs hotels in my opinion is the check-in coordination. With Airbnb, usually someone has to meet you at a pre-determined time (unless there is a lockbox or something) whereas at a hotel the front desk is open 24/7. This can be inconvenient if you don't know your exact time of arrival or if your flight or train gets continuously delayed, like ours did. Which is just another reason to go with a host who responds quickly.

Our European rentals each gave us a unique perspective of both London and Paris that we wouldn't have gotten otherwise. And whether it's in a hotel or a rental, we can't wait to go back to both of these beautiful cities!


When traveling, do you prefer staying at hotels or apartment rentals? Or does it depend on the destination or type of vacation? I'd love to hear about some of your experiences or tips!

23 comments:

  1. Happy Holidays Jean! This post is very helpful! I haven't been to Europe yet and always make notes of travel tips like this. I also have not used Airbnb & usually prefer hotels but I can definitely see advantages of this type of rental depending on the travel plans. Thank you again for sharing!

    ~Jessica

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  2. Thanks for the guide. Really cleared some things up about AirBnB for me, even though I've used the site before. And beautiful photos!

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog
    http://charmainenyw.com

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  3. I plan to visit Paris with my family this summer so I would love to know where you stayed. In the past I stayed with family but since getting married and having 3 kids, my aunt's tiny Parisian apartment won't cut it. If I go with just my husband then I definitely prefer a boutique hotel but getting two rooms is quite pricey. I've looked on One Fine Stay and Paris Perfect, which are nice options too.

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  4. These photos are just stunning! I love that picture under the Covent Garden Mistletoe lights. London is on my bucket list for sure!
    Julia・Little Miss Haute Couture

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  5. We always prefer apartment rentals to hotels. So much more space and you're able to truly get a neighborhood experience. You make a lot of great points on how to find a good rental. My other suggestion is to stick with rentals that have at least a couple of verified reviews. And in turn we always leave very detailed reviews for the rental.

    When renting throughout Europe we have also had success with homeaway.com.

    Merry Christmas!!!

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  6. Happy Holidays to you!

    I have used Airbnb numerous times but it all depended on the destination. To save the most money and still have clean amenities, I highly recommend using Airbnb in Japan (I personally have used it in Kyoto only) and Seoul, South Korea. You tend to eat out and the food is cheap so no worries on how to get your meals while many of the same foods you get in the hotels tend to be overpriced. Especially when Japan is a place where they take pride in their cleanliness, Airbnb was such a great fit for our travels. Kyoto has limited hotel options, so it is something I would do again next year there.

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  7. La Bijoux Bella | by miaSaturday, December 24, 2016

    Simply beautiful ... Noel a Londres! :)
    Merry Christmas.

    ❤La Bijoux Bella❤| by mia | A Creative Lifestyle Blog

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  8. I love your tips about choosing an Airbnb, I've followed similar ones to great experiences! If I'm somewhere for an extremely short stay I like Airbnb because there's more options and offer at a better price and location. Especially in places with lots of visitors and a distinct tourist area, living like a local is always more fun and indicative of the area.
    If I'm just trying to get away like to beach-y vacations then a hotel with beach access/pool, spa and amenities are the most relaxing!

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  9. I have heard a lot about AIRBNB and I plan to use when traveling this summer.
    http://societyfix.blogspot.com.eg/

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  10. I wish I was there right now!

    Mireia from TGL
    https://thegoldlipstick.com/

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  11. Merry Christmas! Wish you all the best!

    http://MARTASFASHIONDIARY.com/burgundy-and-pink/

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  12. Thanks for sharing! I just came back from a 2-week long Europe trip and also booked a mixed of hotels and airbnb rentals. The only airbnb I ended up booking (out of the 5 countries I visited) was in Paris. We got a real good location near the LV Foundation, but the room was a bit too small. I've also found some hostels (with private room+bath just like a regular hotel) to be great options. A lot of them are new and they come with full room cleaning services. My only problem with airbnb is that the pictures are usually quite misleading... any tips on how to tell whether they are actually nice like the ones in the pictures or not?

    Merry Christmas!

    Julia || Closet de Jules

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  13. Merry Christmas dear!

    www.evdaily.blogspot.com

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  14. Thank you so much for this post, Jean! So helpful! My husband and I usually stay in hotels but we will definitely consider renting apartments next trip to Europe - such a good idea.

    Merry Christmas!

    xo, Leanne

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  15. Oh my gosh this is too adorable!! Makes me miss Christmas already!

    www.maggiealamode.com

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  16. We've had great luck with airnb and VRBO in Italy, Greece, Croatia, Slovenia and New Zealand. In one case in Croatia, i was sick and the owner, who lived nearby, was exceptionally kind and even went so far as to make me her homemade chicken soup. In Greece our AirNb was next door to a 5star hotel and we shared their private beach for pennies compared to the hotel expense. I rely heavily on listings with lots of positive user reviews and make sure I leave feedback as well.

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  17. I have enjoyed reading about your travels in Paris and London, especially having been in both places in early November. Your review of airbnb and how to select the right accommodations for you was spot on! Airbnb is such a good way to live like a local and see the difference in lifestyle/culture. Thanks for sharing!

    Becca
    www.lexiandlady.com

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  18. Wonderful informative post. Thank you Jean! London has been on my bucket list forever! Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and Nick! - Gwen

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  19. I love the festive pictures of London! I wish I can go back and stay longer. Even though I've been twice, it was only for two days, which was too rushed. I stayed at a boutique hotel in London and Airbnb in Paris. Luckily I was able to book a more modern flat in Paris for a low rate since the owner was pretty new on Airbnb, pretty good experience. However, I did have some bad experiences with Airbnb with other European countries, so I'm sticking to hotels in the future.

    Mei
    Pieces of Mei

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  20. Hi Jean -

    Great pics and thanks so much for the helpful AirBnB tips! As I have only stayed at an AirBnB once, here are some things I do/ have heard to save $ when booking a hotel - First, I ask if a discount is offered, e.g., AAA, government, military. Second, booking a room mid-week is much cheaper than booking it during the weekend as last-minute travelers tend to increase the demand. Another tip is if you tend to frequent a hotel, stating so while booking may increase your chances of getting a requested upgrade. Lastly, if you are booking a room online, make sure to clear the cookies on your computer after each search. If you don't, the price will tend to increase once you go back and perform another search.

    I hope these tips were helpful!

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  21. Beautiful photos! I'm about to leave for a semester abroad in London and you made it look so beautiful. Any more tips would be so appreciated.
    Happy new year!

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  22. We always stay in VRBO rentals in Europe. I find that you save a ton of money and really get to feel like a local. European hotels are just way too pricey in my opinion.

    Style by Joules

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