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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 : )
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.
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!
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!