How I Secure Reasonable Accommodations on the Nomad Life (Hint: It’s Not Airbnb)

In one of my recent blogs, I shared how I’ve been able to stay under my ~$900 a month lodging budget during the last year and a half, ever since I’ve been nomadic outside of the U.S.

And while…

  • I’ve been fortunate to stay with friends or family during short periods of my travels…
  • I earn and cash-in credit card or hotel points for free or reduced stays, a few times a year…
  • Every month or two, I receive a few comped nights or a discounted stay, in exchange for social media promotion (one of the benefits to having an audience from my blog and social media)…

I am a solo person with a dog, who largely has to pay for the entirety of her own stays.

How, you ask? Well, I’ve been traveling full-time since 2020, and while I started out strong on the platform, I now use Airbnb as a last resort. My tried-and-true formula for best results (for me, a long-term, global nomad), in terms of reliability and cost savings? For long-term stays, I rent direct-to-owner, and for short-term stays, I use hotels. 

I’m a former Superhost, but I’ll use Airbnb as a last resort

In 2014, the year after I bought my house, my live-in boyfriend and I broke up. Now having to handle the mortgage on my own, I didn’t want to get a full-time roommate, because I would often have friends come to visit, and I already had a fully furnished house (and no room for somebody else’s furniture). I thought to myself: how can I dictate who comes to stay, when, and for how long? So I started hosting on Airbnb, when homeshares were a fairly new concept.

My friends thought I was crazy for letting complete strangers into my home (while I was there), and my new boyfriend was so concerned for me, he installed a lock on my bedroom door. But still, it was a fairly easy way to earn extra income, it paid a significant portion of my mortgage, and largely, I had positive experiences with my guests.

Letting someone stay in your house requires mutual trust: just as easily as I’m letting them into my space, they’re coming into mine. There’s a vulnerability on both sides, a promise, an expectation. 

But there was the male guest who complimented my appearance on several occasions, making me uncomfortable. I had several of my things damaged or stolen during guests’ stays. And later, I actually had a guest let out my cat (who wasn’t supposed to be let out) and she was never found again. (This was horrifying and devastating. Rest in peace, Zola. 2013-2017.) But I largely continued to use Airbnb, and continued to hone my guest vetting process — and I welcomed far more guests than I was a guest.

Then, I sold my house in 2020, and started out on the nomad life — and my first stay was in Boise, Idaho for a month. The host had strong recommendations from other units in his four-plex, but my unit was lacking. I gave him a list of things the unit required for a long-term guest, and he fulfilled them, plus a gift card for Starbucks for the inconvenience. 

Additionally, I started traveling with things to make my stays easier as I “nomad-ed” from September 2020 to October 2021 across the U.S.:

  • A french press, for when there isn’t a coffee maker, and a couple other odds and ends for the kitchen like a tupperware set and a decent can opener
  • Extension cords, for when there aren’t enough plugs or they aren’t placed conveniently.
  • Velvet hangers, because there are never any or never enough. (See how I pack with these on YouTube.)
  • Batteries, because remote controls need them (duh) to work.
  • Dish sponges, because it’s super gross when property owners expect you to use somebody else’s dirty dish sponge. 
  • A makeup mirror, because can you believe it, there are actually rentals without a conveniently placed mirror. 
  • Over-the-door hooks, because I need to hang things (hats, Penny’s leash, my purses, and other odds and ends.)

I typically travel by car, so it’s easier for me to bring some of these miscellaneous items. And on the odd times during the early months of nomad life when I stayed in a hotel rather than an Airbnb-style rental… I found it very refreshing to see some of these simple needs taken care of: hangers. Power outlets where you need them. An actual workspace, as promised. Mirrors, and usually a full-length one. Hooks aplenty. 

Then, I had some really bad Airbnbs, and very poor interactions with customer service: like the time I got served an eviction notice mid-stay on my apartment in Nashville in 2021 — because the host was breaking terms and conditions by subletting his place (Airbnb refused to refund me, if you can believe it). 

There was also the basement Airbnb in Wyoming that literally flooded — the owners were out of the country, and I had to deal with workmen and high-powered fans during the duration of my stay — and while they refunded me their cut of the reservation, I didn’t get the Airbnb service fees back. 

Then there was the Airbnb rental in Playa del Carmen in 2023 that didn’t exist — the code didn’t work, the key wasn’t there, and somebody’s things were in the supposed apartment — and I waited for five hours for Airbnb to come up with a solution. Eventually, I had to get a hotel because I needed a place to stay!

(The funny thing was, when I got to the hotel, they said — “Wait a minute! We just sold that room. But no worries, we can upgrade you to another!!” — what a stark contrast to an afternoon spent waiting to hear back from Airbnb on how they will help a stranded traveler?)

And while there are certainly legitimate Airbnbs and great, customer-oriented hosts, like I once was… why pay a buttload of service fees if I don’t have to?

My preference is hotels for short-term stays

So, why would I stay in a hotel over an Airbnb? Gee, let me count the ways. 

A consistent experience. In an Airbnb, you literally have no idea what you’re going to get: from different standards of service, to amenity expectations, to the experience of the host, to the inability of guests to leave honest reviews (sometimes due to host pressure!). Pair that with the inadequacy of Airbnb support to actually resolve a concern in real-time… and you may be SOL. More or less, a Hilton is a Hilton is a Hilton — in the U.S., Mexico, OR Bulgaria (true story)

Guest service. In far more cases than not, help is on-site if anything goes wrong. Not somebody far away, not somebody (the host) who may or may not pick up the phone, not somebody on the phone who has no control over anything (Airbnb support)… there is someone who can help, live, in real-time — in a hotel setting. 

Security. Hotels have security protocols and monitoring. I often feel safer in a hotel. 

Points, loyalty, and rewards. It’s kind of shocking to me that Airbnb doesn’t offer any kind of loyalty program, but I absolutely love how hotels (and booking engines) give you rewards or status for being loyal. Even if the price is the same, the value of a stay in a hotel is higher than an Airbnb — because I get points I can redeem for later use. 

Commission. This one is new to me as of 2023 (as part of my affiliation with Boutique Travel Advisors and my licensure as a travel advisor, I earn commission on my own hotel stays!). While a small percentage of my overall purchase, I basically consider this “cash back” — and it’s something that I don’t earn on Airbnbs. 

Kitchen amenities and pet-friendliness. I’m a person that typically makes 1-2 meals at home a day on the nomad life, and “Oh, but I need a kitchen!” — is a retort I hear often when people say they only stay in Airbnbs. Well, like I mentioned earlier, this section is about short-term stays; but also, lots of hotels now offer fridges, microwaves, or a kitchenette. (If not, I’ve been known to sometimes ask the hotel staff to store items for me in their main fridge, and they’ve been happy to oblige.) Also, maybe half of my hotel stays have offered free breakfast (an amazing way to try all the local specialties!) or have some sort of setup for guests to prepare and store (simple) food. 

Secondly, more and more hotels are dog-friendly, especially in Mexico — sometimes with an added fee, and sometimes not. In the last five years, hotels have risen up to meet the consumer demand to travel with their pets.

Price. It used to be that Airbnbs were cheaper, but I’ve often found that is no longer the case — tack on Airbnb service fees, cleaning fees, and taxes, and the cost of a hotel seems to be quite comparable or, in fact, better value, all things considered.

For long-term stays, I like to rent direct-to-owner

So, bye bye Airbnb… most of my long-term stays over the past year and a half abroad have been direct-to-owner. The main benefit, of course, is significant cost savings: but the main caution is SCAMS.

FINDING RENTALS: For rentals over a few weeks, I primarily turn to Facebook groups (search and join groups entitled something like, “Rentals or sublets in __”) and Facebook Marketplace, and either I will post what I’m looking for, or I will browse others’ posts. 

  • I typically will start looking for a sublet 2.5-4 weeks before I need it, which seems to be a reliable advance time frame for when sublets are listed
  • I ask the questions I need to ask: location, price, inclusions, availability, etc., and I ask for photos or the link to where I can find photos
  • I pay attention to how the person behaves in the interaction — if they seem professional, obliging when it comes to answering questions, and if they’re willing to let me view the apartment, in-person or virtual — and also, find out what they’re asking in order to secure the apartment

WORKING OUT A DEAL: Now, this is where it can get complicated, and again, trusting your gut (and whether you feel you can trust each other) plays a big role.

  • Sometimes, hosts ask for deposits in order to hold the place. If they’re asking for a deposit, I ask for a lease agreement — and the deposit should be reasonable (no more than 10-20%) of the cost of the stay.
  • For added protection, you can also ask for photos of IDs, and to share each other’s rental histories with each other (in my case, I’ve shared my Airbnb profile and all its reviews). 
  • I’ve also offered to book only the first week of my stay through Airbnb, if they’ll block the calendar for the rest of the duration of my stay. This gives me (and them) some protection until trust is established — even though there is an added cost for the first week — and then I pay them directly the cost of the room (minus taxes and fees, and sometimes with a discount) in cash. In this scenario, both parties benefit. I did this in Mexico City and Croatia last year. 
  • Once, I had a landlord ask for nothing in advance — this was a last-minute stay last year in Puerto Vallarta. I checked into my studio apartment via keypad, and it wasn’t until a few days later that the host came by to pick up the rent — now that’s trust!

I’m very wary if someone’s extra pushy, portraying unnecessary urgency, asking for something unreasonable (IE: a damage deposit equaling half the total cost of the stay), or is unwilling to do something that I’ve asked for (like viewing the apartment). Intuition is everything: how do you feel about this person’s communication and behavior?

AND A CAUTION: Even if you do everything right, direct-to-owner rentals are still a risk. But while it’s the American way to be untrusting, I do know this: most people are just trying to get through life and are not out to scam me. I take precautions where I can, and I keep my eyes open, but genuinely, I think the vast majority of people are reasonable and are just trying to work something out. 

And after these past few years at nomad life… I’d rather bet that most people are just trying to work something out — in exchange for paying an inflated price of 20-30% more just to close a small gap on being scammed.

Fellow nomads: how do you find affordable accommodations while long-term traveling?

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4 thoughts on “How I Secure Reasonable Accommodations on the Nomad Life (Hint: It’s Not Airbnb)

  1. Fascinating! I know some people who swear by Airbnb. I’ve never personally used it—I’ve always been more of a hotel person, for a lot of the reasons you mention (consistency, always having someone on duty to help [which is super useful when you get locked out of your room like I have before, LOL], earning points, etc). I wouldn’t be opposed to giving Airbnb a try. But dang, you’ve had some bad experiences! Especially that random Nashville eviction. There are SO many illegal Airbnbs here, ugh…

    1. I think for some, when they see they’re paying 20% over just to book through Airbnb, and then when their support fails them on more than one occasion… Airbnb loses some of its luster. For frequent users, I feel like it’s only a matter of time until you encounter something problematic, and in my experience, the probability of problems is just lower with hotels! When time is precious and limited, you don’t want to be spending hours on the phone with support to resolve something.

  2. Interesting experiences. I’ve been using Airbnb for over 10 years and I love it. The handful of awkward experiences are far outnumbered by the great experiences I’ve had. With that said, I never book an Airbnb that doesn’t already have a lot of reviews and at least a 4.5 rating or higher. I actually read through many reviews to get a feel for the place before booking. And when traveling internationally, if the majority of the reviews seem to be from people who live in that country, that’s a red flag for me (it may indicate that the reviews are from friends and family, not actual travelers).

    1. Thanks for your comment, Debbie! It’s definitely all in your risk level — I understand why many people find it worth it to pay more for Airbnb’s “protections” and relative ease of booking. I do advise everyone to be cognizant of tainted reviews and host pressure to leave good reviews — as a former host, I remember the pressure of maintaining a good review and have seen firsthand how hosts manipulate guests in this manner! And it’s definitely a good idea to read all the reviews even if it’s not a perfect science, and use your best judgment 🙂

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