We've been travelling the world for over two years on a normal living budget (ie. no five star hotels). Here are our tips on how to keep costs low across Asia, Australasia and even in European summer, and pick the ideal family-friendly location for a month-long stay.
By Grace Koelma | Dare List Mama
Isn't travel expensive?
"What you're doing sounds amazing, but how can you afford to have one big holiday all the time?"
We often get asked this question when we mention that we travel full time. I guess people assume we pay holiday rates and stay in resorts all the time, but the reality is quite different. (There's no way that kind of luxury resort lifestyle would be sustainable for us!)
We do slow travel
Here's the secret. We don't travel as if it's one big holiday.
We do something called slooow travel, which we define as staying in a location for 4-6 weeks at minimum, and living like a local. This means we can find longer-term rentals at discounted monthly prices and keep our costs down.
One of the most expensive parts of travelling are the transit costs (flights, trains and taxis), and the less you travel between major cities, the more you save.
Also, changing locations every week is exhausting with kids, so the rhythm of 4-6 week cycles means we have time to settle in and get a 'normal' routine going.
After we tell people we slow travel, the next question is almost always:
"How do you choose locations to stay in and find affordable accommodation? How much do you pay a night?"
If you're curious in finding out, then read on...
How we budget accommodation per night
Before we left on our trip, we did the maths on how much our mortgage and living costs in Australia totalled to (based on our property 1.5 hours north of Australia's most expensive city, Sydney.)
After we calculated our living expenses, we worked out that if we could pay $2000 maximum a month for accommodation, and still keep earning money as freelancers, we could keep full time travel sustainable. Sometimes we would pay much less than $2000/month. In Bali our accommodation came in at $600 a month (and that isn't even 'cheap' for Bali- we chose a very comfortable, modern bungalow with a fenced tropical garden for Leo.)
We've been travelling for over a year on this budget, so looks like it's worked! Read on for more tips on how to keep costs low (even in European summer!) and pick the ideal family-friendly location.
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Why we avoid famous, over-touristed cities
We mentioned that we stay 4-6 weeks in a city, and try to live like locals. This means we don't pick the tourist traps, instead preferring to travel to the big sites for a weekend or day trip.
Why we don't like living in big tourist cities (think Rome, Paris, London, New York):
- They're waaaaaay more expensive. Like 3-5 times more expensive than other cities in the same country.
- They're overcrowded, over-touristed and dirty.
- The internet is often not as fast (because of the increased population load on servers, though this depends on where you are, obviously).
- They don't feel as authentic as smaller towns. Eg. We found an incredible 'La Dolce Vita' Italian experience during our 3 weeks in Perugia, but didn't get that vibe when we visited Rome. Rome was impressive. Rome was vast. But it wasn't homely and friendly like Perugia.
- There are hawkers everywhere, which gets pretty annoying when you're living there and get pestered every day on your morning walk to get coffee/fresh produce.
- You get sick of the long lines to see all those amazing museums and cultural sites that were on your bucket list, so you start to avoid those places. And when it gets to that stage, you might as well be staying in another city not famous for the Eiffel Tower or Colosseum.
- Local people are more rude in famous cities. We think it's because (certain kinds of) tourists can be kind of annoying, entitled and culturally insensitive, and shopkeepers and tourist operators get sick of that attitude and assume we're like that too before we've even opened our mouths. It feels like we're swimming upstream.
- The pace of life is more hectic and busy, and people are rushed which makes it hard to practice language skills, something we try to learn if we can. I found it so much easier to get confidence speaking French when ordering my baguettes in Grenoble, than in the bustling Parisian bakeries where the women barked orders from behind the glass counters.
Our method for choosing a city to 'live' in
Our 'rule' is really quite simple and has meant we've lived in cities that aren't on the beaten tourist trail, and are actually a wonderful surprise and have been some of our most treasured and memorable experiences.
First, we choose a country to visit, often one that is close to other countries, fits in with our flight itinerary, or a place on our bucket list.
And then we open up Airbnb and start searching in the 5th-10th biggest city or metropolitan area.
(If you've never used Airbnb, you can get a $50 travel credit when you sign up first time here!)
We choose more built up areas because we prefer to use public transport, bicycles and walk, instead of hiring a car (something that reduces our travel costs drastically, and helps us keep fit and live like locals).
So what does choosing the 5-10th biggest town/city look like?
Eg. In Bali choose Canggu or Ubud (still quite touristy, but a more chilled-out vibe for long term travellers than the holiday towns), Avoid: Seminyak, Kuta and Nusa Dua. < This isn't to say don't visit those places, but choose to spend a week or weekend there, not make those touristy areas your base.
Eg. In France choose Nice, Montpellier, Grenoble - where we stayed, Bordeaux, Lille, Strasborg, Annecy. Avoid: Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse)
Eg. In Italy choose Perugia, Bologna, Fano, Messina or Genoa. Avoid tourist traps like Rome, Verona, Venice, Florence or Pisa.
*Note: Sometimes in countries with a lower tourist influx (eg. Iceland, Romania, Croatia) you can pick the biggest city, like we did in Zagreb, Croatia (and loved!). And sometimes it's not as simple as avoiding a city with a large population. A smaller town like Verona, Italy might still be over-touristed, and sometimes dangerously so compared to its modest infrastructure capacity, fragile natural environment, rare historical artefacts and limited public facilities.
Obviously, this '5th biggest city thing' is just our style, and it's not a hard and fast rule for us. We just love it as a starting point for research, because it means we consider towns we haven't heard much about, and end up being an awesome experience that we can share with others.
We stay in Airbnb holiday rentals
The next stage of our research process takes a LOT of time - often several hours of trawling through Airbnb listings, and opening tab after tab to compare features.
Why we only use Airbnb to book accommodation
While there are a ton of accommodation booking sites and similar websites cropping up to Airbnb, we've been using Airbnb for the past 3 years, and have had almost zero accommodation difficulties, misunderstandings or mishaps.
You don't have to use Airbnb though...
There are a few similar alternatives that allow you to book home rentals in a similar way, like VRBO, FlipKey, Home Away and HouseTrip. (<< If Airbnb ever gets too expensive, you know where we'll be heading for our accommodation research!).
We've written down ALL our best booking tips below, and you can easily apply the principles we use on Airbnb to those other sites I listed above.
We love home rentals as opposed to hotels and resorts because:
- We get to stay in a 'real life person's' house, not just one owned by a booking agent or big commercial hotel chain.
- House rentals will generally be much better equipped in terms of kitchen appliances and utilities, laundries, more aesthetic furniture and decor, and bonus books, children's toys and DVDs.
- They have a unique personal touch, and we've always received amazing hospitality from our hosts.
- It puts us in touch with locals who give us amazing local tips on where to eat and what to see and do.
- For our kind of travel, we feel it's more authentic than staying in a large hotel chain, but that's just our opinion! We love the occasional resort too (not going to say No to a child-free massage by the pool!)
Amazing Story! In Croatia I had a dental emergency, and my Airbnb host (who was an Ophthalmologist by day) phoned her Orthodontist friend from grad school and got me a last minute appointment. Talk about amazing service!
We think that while Airbnb prices have climbed since it first took off 5 years ago, it still offers excellent value for money per night -- ie. we've consistently found 2 bedroom houses in metropolitan cities (remember the 5th biggest rule!) for between $25 and $50USD a night. Using a home rental booking site like this means full time travel is sustainable for us.
How we choose the perfect family rental
When I'm comparing listings for longer-term stays, I'm looking for a few things (some of which can be filtered by using the advanced search options within the Airbnb website, so it turfs out the unsuitable stuff).
Communication with the host is so important
Many families avoid staying at brand new Airbnb listings (without any reviews as yet) and I completely understand their caution.
When booking on Airbnb (and similar sites), reviews are an essential part of the accommodation research. When I'm choosing a place to stay for a month, hearing about other people's experience there (bonus points if they are also travelling with a toddler!) is crucial - and I usually read every single review, and make notes -- did they mention an awesome cafe with a play area for kids? Was it in a quiet street away from main roads? Was everything spotless and clean?
Before booking, I always get in touch with a host, just to:
A) make sure they are an 'ordinary' person (as opposed to a stilted hotel manager) - small talk and little niceties in conversation will tell you that
B) ensure they care about their listing/property and will answer questions in detail before you book (if they care about answering your questions and are patient, they will likely care about their listing)
C) double check that they have hi-speed WiFi and explain that we're digital nomads and use a lot of internet
D) tell them that our toddler Leo is joining us, and is very well-behaved and has stayed in over 30 Airbnbs all around the world
E) most importantly, ask for a deal if it's a longer stay! Never assume the price on Airbnb is the final price! Asking doesn't hurt, they can only say no!
New listings can be great, but do your research
I've taken the risk on month-long bookings with four brand new listings now (in Ubud - Bali, Grenoble - France, Perugia - Italy and Zagreb - Croatia) and I've never regretted it. In fact, those places have been our favourites, perhaps because the host took extra measures to make sure we were comfortable during our stay.
Don't rule out new listings
I often take the risk on brand new listings with no reviews. Why?
Because they're often 50-80% off and are INCREDIBLE value for money IF they are as awesome as they look in the photos/description.
Here's how I mitigate the risk...
If I find an amazing listing (like this one in Grenoble) that looks too good to be true (like 3 bedrooms in a stylish, fully furnished and equipped central apartment for $25USD per night... ummm yes!) and has NO reviews yet, I double check when the host joined Airbnb on their profile -- if they've joined recently, you can assume it's a new listing.
Airbnb used to have a feature that allowed you to see how many views a listing had (and if it was low - around 20-50 views then I knew it was new), but that feature no longer exists unfortunately.
If unsure, I just ask the host if it's new. Since there are no reviews, I ask them lots of questions relating to the listing, about the neighbourhood, kid-friendly activities, what appliances are in the kitchen, the configuration of the rooms in the house, and always, always about the WiFi speed.
To be honest, the hosts whose apartments we've been the first to 'christen' have all turned out to be the most wonderful, kind people, and we've felt really good about helping them get a start and giving a rave review (which was deserved!) to help them get more bookings.
Using Google Maps Street View
The last thing I do is use the map provided on the Airbnb listing to guess where the accomodation is. This is a lot easier in Westernised, urban neighbourhoods with street numbers and houses that are only 10 metres from the kerb. It's trickier in country areas with long driveways and trees hiding the house from the road, or developing countries like Indonesia, where the traditional family dwellings (called compounds) don't have street numbers and are hidden behind walls.
I go to Google Street View and cyber stalk the streets until I find the accommodation. Then I look around at the neighbourhood and nearby playgrounds, cafes, public transport stops and shops. I did this with all the new listings we tried in France, Italy and Croatia, but it wasn't as easy in Bali.
I'm a classic over-planner, so walking around a suburb virtually via Google maps is my style of travel research, but it might not be yours! Some people prefer to travel more spontaneously, and have surprises when they get somewhere, but if I'm booking a non-reviewed apartment for 6 weeks with a toddler (and Airbnb has no refunds if you cancel on your end for long-term bookings) then I want to double and triple check I'm willing to fork out the $2000!
So there you go! A long list of tips to help you plan your long-term travel and book the best accommodation for your family. I hope it was helpful!
And now we'd love to hear from you! How do you choose cities and apartments/hotels when you travel? Comment below, we'd love to hear your tips and hacks.
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Grace is a writer, designer, digital nomad, mum (otherwise known as toddler chaser), slow traveller, wild things appreciator, culture immerser, coffee opportunist... She frequently uses big words (some of which are definitely made up), likes long walks and even longer books, and her focus on wellness in 2017 means she is learning to obey her FitBit. Except when she's glued to her computer!
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