Now that you figured out where you want to go the trick is finding a sabbatical home. I can only imagine how daunting that task would have been before the internet. Even with it, it wasn’t trivial and I learned a few things worth sharing.
Hotel vs. Vacation Home
To us that was never even a question. Hotels have two distinctive disadvantages: they are more expensive and you get much less space for that money. They also don’t lend themselves to making them a true home away from home and are awkward when it comes to things like nap times and midday rests. You are also forced to eat out pretty much all of the time which adds a lot of cost.
Vacation homes, if chosen carefully, can be very comfortable and homey. After a long day of adventures it is nice to go home and prepare a simple meal or sandwiches rather than having to go out yet again (don’t just assume you can order in pizza everywhere you go).
For our sabbatical – before the advent of AirBnB and alike – I found every place either on Craigslist or by searching Google for an intuitive combination of terms like “Andalucia vacation rental”. Since Craigslist the world over seems to be mainly used by Americans, American expats and other people who have lived in the US for a while the language used to discuss the specifics and negotiate the price is generally English, which makes things easier. Also you have the advantage to be dealing with people who have the same frame of reference. If an American tells you that the house has 2 bedrooms then likely it will have 2 real bedrooms rather than a bedroom and an expandable couch in the living room.
More recently I have also used Wimdu, VBRO or Homeaway in addition to AirBnB to find vacation homes. On these sites you’ll find a lot information presented in a systematic fashion and many reviews of people who have stayed there.
It makes sense to start looking and deciding early so you can get the whole time you want to spend at a location uninterrupted, rather than having to move because somebody else has already booked a week right smack in the middle of your desired time.
Before you start looking, make a list of must haves, e.g. Wifi or 2 bathrooms or whatever it may be and then set the filters in the search function accordingly. From my own painful experience I know that one can spend countless hours browsing through options and still end up empty-handed because that one place would have been perfect if it only had that second bedroom but it doesn’t and so you end up searching for the exact same thing with a second bedroom and, of course, can’t find it.
Selecting a Sabbatical Home
This is probably the most important step in the whole planning process. The quality of your experience will be directly proportional to the quality or appropriateness of the place you choose. You need to be careful and critical but not paranoid.
Here is a list of things to keep in mind and get information on:
Number of bedrooms – that information is usually provided in the online description but it is worth digging a little deeper than the “2 rooms, sleeps 4” type descriptions, often these places have one real bedroom and a sleeper couch in the living room. This is most definitely not what you want unless you are prepared to share the room with your kid(s).
Type of beds – One question to ask especially if you are used to your spacious King at home, is what size the beds are? People in different countries have very different ideas of what a spacious bed is. I know from own experience that Italian and French double beds are a lot narrower than a King. A German “double bed” is plenty wide but has two mattresses. Easy to life with but good to know.
Location of bedrooms – I suggest to ask specifically about the location of the bedrooms especially when renting a house with garden or yard. Our first house had two bedrooms, the one with the twin bed for our son just happened to be on the first floor above the master bedroom. To get there one had to climb an outside spiral staircase that was so steep and perilous that I would not let him climb it alone in broad daylight, let alone at night. Knowing my son I was certain that he would get up at night to come to us at least occasionally and would probably get hurt in the process. So we dragged the mattress down into our thankfully spacious master bedroom, hung some blankets from a beam at the ceiling to create a secluded corner for him and thus solved the problem. Still, it would have been better to know. I should have asked the second time we spent a lot of time in Merida, because that time we ended up with the master bedroom in a separate garden house behind the pool in the yard – again a suboptimal arrangement.
People aren’t being deceptive by not mentioning such stuff, this is what they are used to and consider normal. So if you want to be sure ask for the floor plan and failing that for an exact description.
Location of house – Any place that is “conveniently located above/next to/adjacent to/right around the corner” from a nice restaurant/authentic local bar is out regardless of how great it sounds otherwise. That is a recipe for disaster, the noisy, can’t-fall-asleep-because of-strangers-singing-or-banging-car-doors kind of disaster. To be absolutely sure ask the landlord for the location of the next restaurant, bar, store, gas station, and public plaza. You are never guaranteed the quiet of an American suburb but at least you don’t want to find yourself on a major thoroughfare or right next to a nightclub.
Also keep in mind that “Close to the center of the city” means very different things to different people, just like an “easy ride by bus” which in case of another vacation home meant spending 30 minutes huffing and puffing on buses through the thicket of downtown streets. So do your homework and use Google Earth liberally!
Weather – A problem that I did not expect in places like Mexico, India and southern Spain was that it could get cold, “unseasonably cold” in the worst of cases. And not only me, but also the “I-love-snow-camping husband” of mine was cold. Especially if you travel during the winter season night temperatures can get chilly, and there are generally no heating systems in places like Kerala. So find out whether there are spare blankets, especially if you tend to get cold easily.
Bathrooms – can prove to be a real challenge. There seems to exist a rule that every bathroom in every single vacation home is to outfitted by a male who never shaves. I cannot otherwise explain the pervasive lack of adequate lighting, mirrors, or both in many of the bathrooms. A single 25 W bulb mounted so it illuminates your back is not light in my world, it is a grayish twilight that is not even enough put in contact lenses, let alone put on eye-liner or tweeze eye-brows. So you might want to inquire into the bathrooms and how they are appointed.
Kitchen – If you plan on having meals at home, the kitchen in your home away from home is just as important as in your real home. I have had the best and the worst of kitchens. Our Andalucian kitchen had everything including several colanders, a milk foam maker, and lemon slice squeezers. The one we rented in Guadalajara a couple of years later had not even a decent butter knife (I broke one buttering toast) and the only pan had a 25% incline so all the eggs would huddle up in one corner. Since you can hardly ask for a complete list of kitchen tools there might be some surprises and a trip to the next store. I recommend that you ask pointed questions about how functional the kitchen is and especially about the dishes, pots and pans. In a pinch you can go and buy a potato peeler or a small sharp knife but you don’t want to be buying pots and whole sets of silverware everywhere you go. As a rule vacation homes that are used regularly and for serious periods of time by their owners tend to be well appointed.
Internet connection – now that is a tricky one, in recent times places that advertised that they have wireless access actually did have it, esp. in larger cities. Was it always lightning fast? Maybe not.
Using online rental sites you can select for places with Wifi but even there it might be worth asking whether there is wireless Internet connection 24/7 or only during random hours or when sitting in one particular corner of the living room. Over the years we experienced our share of unusual definitions of what Internet access means.
Here is just one of the stories: Our home in Kerala was supposed to have Internet access and when we got there, there was no access in sight. Two hours after inquiring about it with the owners, who lived above, a few guys showed up, we heard drills going and eventually a cable was strung down from the apartment above over the balcony and into the living room. My husband, the IT guy, wisely had brought his own wireless router, which he connected and so we could both surf and write blogs.
Internet access will be all the more important in countries were you don’t speak the language as you can generally forget about TV. Even if you happen to speak the language of the place you are visiting well enough the tele novelas and Bollywood movies might get old after a while. So will American TV series dubbed in German, or French cooking shows. So Internet might be your main source of electronic entertainment and news.
Local Contact Person – Finally, it is important, that you have a local contact person in addition to the name and contact information of the landlord. Invariably light bulbs will burn out, there will be a plumbing issue or the fridge will die on you. Something always happens and then you want to be able to call up a local with local connections to get the job done quickly rather than relying on emailing somebody 9 time zones away to take care of it. People who rent out their second homes regularly will generally have local agents to meet you and help out with a problem relating to the house.
You should also take advantage of the knowledge these local agents have and ask them all sorts of questions about your new home town: places to visit, things to do, restaurants they go to, etc.
We fared well renting houses or apartments wherever we went. The only exception was Austria where we stayed with family part of the time and rented a place for the rest.
- If you rent a house ask pointed questions about the features of importance to you. Do not assume every place will have a microwave or a fancy coffee maker, etc. If you need this for your happiness, inquire before.
- As with your real house: location is important. Right next to a freeway is never a good idea and above a night club neither. Too far away from the city center makes transportation difficult. All this can be researched before.
- Get the name and full contact info of a local point person who can help with issues associated with the house/apartment but can also be a good source of other information.
The next section will have some tips on travel planning.