Top Tips for Finding Really Good Self-Catered Accommodation
While I love hotels and resorts and cute B&Bs where the owners cook breakfast in front of you, my default choice for accommodation when travelling is self-catering accommodation. In the 20 months or so that we were completely nomadic, we had our best experiences in serviced apartments, holiday villas and well, other people's houses. Now we're a bit more "normal" (ha!) we still like to stay in holiday homes and apartments rather than hotels and we definitely consider this the best option for certain scenarios like group travel and also any stay longer than four or five days.
I'm no expert in self-catering accommodation, but I have learned a thing or two about choosing a place that will give your holiday a head start. So here are my tips.
Know What You Want
As with everything, having a clear understanding of what you want from a holiday or travel adventure is key to ensuring your chosen accommodation suits this. Before you fall down the rabbit hole of looking at beautiful photos of properties, be clear about the basic requirements (number of bedrooms, location, amenities etc) before you become distracted by jacuzzis and rooftop terraces. Do you need to be near public transport? How close do you want to be to a supermarket? Do you need parking? Do you need to make sure there's an elevator or no stairs? Do you need to make sure the kitchen has a microwave? If you have kids, you may need the bathroom to have a bath and not just a shower. Think about as many practical things as you can before you start swooning at how pretty houses look in their photos.
If travelling in a group, I would also recommend being open with others about what you want or need and encouraging them to do the same. For example, we run our companies on the road so we always need good Internet, that is our priority with a place. Likewise, we have friends who are very tall so when we stay in a place with them, we need to make sure the beds are big enough (sounds strange but you'd be surprised how many too-small beds are out there!). Don't assume that other people want the same thing as you and vice versa.
Know What You Don't Want
In the same vein be clear about what you don't want. For example, if you don't want to be on a main road or in a built up area there are ways to check this (thank you Google maps!). If you don't want to have to worry about cleaning the place at the end of the stay, then make sure you search for properties where you can pay an additional cleaning fee or have housekeeping during your stay.
Personally, we don't want to take on any responsibility when we stay somewhere (so we don't house sit) and we don't want to stay in really small places. For summer holidays, we would always prefer to have our own private pool rather than be close to a beach, but of course, others would rather the other way round.
Location, location, location
I find location is one of the hardest things to think about when you're trying to find a house or apartment in a completely foreign to you city or destination but a little research will go a long way in keeping your search focused and narrow. It will also help map out the rest of your holiday. Try searching for "safe residential area in XX" or if you want to avoid the crowds in a city, "tourist area of XX" and move your search away from these areas. Again Google Maps is your best friend in figuring out where transport links are in relation to potential properties. (We also use it to try and avoid staying on a main street or to not be close to late night bars - can you tell that we like quiet when we stay somewhere?!).
On a side note for travel advice, I find the Travelettes Facebook community really good at getting honest feedback about cities and places I've never been before from those who have, so maybe join that or find an alternative.
What's the goal of your stay?
Everybody has their own idea of what makes the perfect holiday. For some it's escaping it all and hiding away in a beautiful villa or converted chateau surrounded by nothing but countryside. For others it's staying in the thick of a city and having 1000 things to see and do on your doorstep. And of course it's possible you want a bit of both.
My best advice is if you're looking to relax and not see too much of the surrounding area then it's definitely worth spending a little extra money on your accommodation as it essentially becomes "the main event" of your holiday. That's often our approach! Alternatively, if you plan on just needing a place as a base and somewhere to sleep, then don't become preoccupied with it being the most luxurious place you've ever stayed as you'll hardly be there.
Look at reviews, ask questions and voice special requests
We rarely book any property without looking at reviews if they're available. This is the easiest way to get an honest opinion about a property. However, some places or websites don't offer reviews so you have to be more proactive about gathering feedback, i.e. you have to ASK!
While websites are excellent at giving you plenty of detail about the amenities available in a property, there is no harm in asking specific questions. Remember this is a business transaction and you are paying for a service. Just because the property is someone's home or has been previously, doesn't mean you can't take a little time to make an informed decision.
We always ask how fast the internet is, how secure parking is (if we need it) and how far the nearest supermarket/restaurants are. When we're going on holiday with friends we also ask if the property has a BBQ or any games like table tennis or foosball and you'd be surprised how often agents reply saying they'll happily organise that.
As questions based on your or your group's needs. If you're allergic to cats, check that the property hasn't previously been occupied by cat owners. If you don't like the smell of smoke, ask how long it has been a no-smoking property. If you are a group of seven girls and will need all the hot water that is required for those seven girls to shower then check that hot water is unlimited.
More tips for staying in self-catered accommodation
- Take some food essentials with you (if you can). I'm talking tea and coffee, Vegemite (it's essential to NewMan!) and your favourite snacks. They're a few less things to worry about buying when you get there.
- If you spot a supermarket at the airport, use it. If you've not done it before sourcing a place to buy groceries can be time-consuming and is likely the last thing you want to do when you've just checked in to a beautiful holiday house. Get enough groceries (including beer and wine of course!) for 24 hours from the first supermarket you see.
- Problems will happen, but they usually get fixed. We've stayed in well over 30 self-catering places in the last few years and only ever had two serious problems (a dead rat stinking out our apartment in Sydney - it was trapped in the kitchen wall - and the toilet ceiling caving in in a villa in Thailand) but we've occasionally had to flag up small problems to agents and owners and 90% of the time they've been grateful to us for doing so because sometimes they just don't know about it. Even in the most luxurious of places we've spotted smelly drains, strange noises, broken electrics and faulty kitchen equipment. By notifying the right person early on we've been able to get problems fixed rather than battling with them for the remainder of our holiday.
- Take ear plugs and an eye mask just in case. Thanks to living on a busy road in Shepherd's Bush for two years, I now can't sleep without ear plugs but you can't always be sure curtains are thick enough in new places so don't battle with a problem you can easily solve. (This of course is true for hotels too!)
What other tips and tricks do you have for choosing great self-catered accommodation? Is it also your favourite kind of holiday accommodation?
Disclosure: This post was written in collaboration with Oliver's Travels luxury villas who offer some of the most beautiful and special self-catering properties I've ever seen. If you're looking for a unique holiday villa for a luxury getaway, I'd definitely recommend checking them out. Thank you for supporting the brands who support As the Bird flies.
(Additional photos also provided by Oliver's Travels of some of their beautiful properties).
Frances M. Thompson
Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before putting down some roots with her Australian partner and having a baby boy in July 2015. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her son around Amsterdam.
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Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.