Apartments in Europe: Easy and cheap ways to book short-term stays
If you are going to be doing any traveling in Europe anytime soon, you should really be aware of the expanding supply and popularity of apartment rentals in place of traditional hotel stays. These apartments are now found in every corner of Europe, and they almost always provide better value than a hotel you'd get for the same price.
Even if you are aware of this, you might not be aware of the different ways you can find and book these apartments. There are two main ways of booking, with one method being far easier and the other usually being cheaper. Depending on whether you have more time or more money, one of the methods below will be your best bet.
What are these short-term European apartments like?
Before we discuss the ways of finding and booking European apartments, let's first talk about what they really are. Unsurprisingly, they can range from tiny to huge, but it's more helpful to think of them as being small because at least 90% of them are. They will almost always be larger than a hotel room at a similar price, but still most of them have a bed in the living space, and at least a small kitchenette.
You can expect:
- A larger main room than a typical hotel room in the same city
- One or more separate bedrooms in some cases, although studio apartments tend to dominate
- At least a small kitchen with a sink, electric kettle, and often a microwave or stovetop
- Pots, pans, dishes, plates, and silverware to prepare and serve basic meals
- A small refrigerator, usually empty
- Bath towels, sheets, soap etc., just like in a hotel
- Usually a TV and free Wi-Fi
What not to expect:
- A central location very close to the main square
- A front desk and concierge to help answer questions (although you can often get help other ways)
- The ability to check-in or check-out at odd times of day (usually)
Important trend: Cheap and easy apartment stays in eastern Europe
If you are considering an apartment stay in one of the large and famous tourist cities in western Europe, like London, Paris, Rome, and Munich, then you'll usually be paying prices similar to what nearby hotels charge for a slightly larger room.
The reason has to do with the fact that owners of apartment buildings can get high rents from locals in the western cities, and are typically restricted in what they can do with their buildings. But in the eastern cities, many owners have refurbished old buildings by turning them into “apartment hotels.” Due to the increase in visitor numbers, they can make more profit with short-term apartments for tourists than renting out to locals for tiny monthly sums.
This increase in supply has kept per-night rates quite low for apartments in these areas, even for the larger ones with better locations.
Two fast & easy ways of finding short-term European apartments
Using the 2 methods below, you can get instant availability and booking confirmation, but prices are usually a bit higher than the complicated methods further down the page.
1 – Use filters on standard hotel-booking sites
You may not realize that all of the standard online travel agencies already list apartment hotels right along with the traditional hotels. You'll often struggle to find them in the listings, however, because they are rarely the absolute cheapest places, and they never pay to be one of the first few “recommended hotels” that booking sites steer you toward. For these reasons, they are rarely on the first page of results, so they are easy to miss.
- Go to your favorite European hotel-booking site
- Enter your city, arrival, and departure dates
- Check the filters to search just for “rentals” or “vacation rentals”
- You'll now be looking at apartments and similar properties
The best thing about this is that you can instantly see availability, check TripAdvisor reviews, and pay with a credit card for instant confirmation. You also usually get some sort of front desk at these places, which can be really handy for first-time visitors.
Hotels.com – Part of the Expedia family, Hotels.com has extensive coverage all over Europe and has some of the best rates of any site. They also list thousands of apartments in cities all over the continent.
2 – Check hostel sites for apartments and private rooms
Not only do hotel-booking sites now list a variety of short-term apartments, but hostel-booking sites do as well. It's usually a bit easier to search for them because there is an “apartments” check mark right on the main search area, so you can narrow down your search with fewer steps. You'll find that hostel-booking sites often list the exact same apartments that the hotel-booking sites do, usually at the same prices (more or less).
But there are private rooms in traditional hostels to consider as well. You can find increasing numbers of private rooms, including those for just 1 or 2 people, mixed in with the traditional dorm beds. Of course there are also private rooms for groups of between 3 and 16 people, so in most European cities you can find something very close to ideal for your group.
Unlike typical apartment hotels, a private room in a hostel will usually come with the shared common kitchen rather than a small private kitchenette. The rooms will usually be mostly filled with beds rather than sofas and tables, so they aren't as good for group socializing. But on the other hand, you usually get front-desk-service from hostels, and usually a more central location as well.
Hostelworld.com – This site dominates the hostel scene, and they make apartment hunting extremely easy. Another benefit is you can reserve with a small deposit (about 10%), and it's easy to cancel or change dates if you need to.
Cheaper and more complicated ways of booking European apartment stays
The methods below involve finding and renting apartments directly from owners or tenants. Prices are typically lower, although not always, but it can take days to get a confirmation. There are other potential complications as well, so they aren't ideal for those who like to be sure of everything.
By now there is a good chance that you've heard of Airbnb.com because it's been in the news for a variety of reasons in the last year or so. Part of this is because it has undergone monstrous growth in listings and bookings, so it's far and away the market leader for short-term rentals in place of apartments.
Once you find a place you might want to rent, you can usually check the availability calendar right on the listing, but you have to email the renter through the airbnb system in order to actually start the booking process. It's usually easy to find renters who respond quickly and get good feedback from past guests, thanks to a helpful rating system the site uses.
The site recommends you contact several hosts in order to be more certain you'll find availability, and this is one of the things that takes some effort. Unlike the methods above, you might send a dozen emails over a week or more before you find one that confirms for your dates. Frequent users say that booking is usually quite easy, especially if you try for places that are booked frequently.
Arranging to get the building key and door key is another complicating step because renters are rarely stationed nearby, and you might have a limited time window in order to check in as well.
Similar to airbnb except it's much smaller, 9flats.com is another one to consider if you don't like airbnb or you just like to be different.
Short for “vacation rentals by owner,” vrbo.com has abundant listings in Europe and it's a long-established player in this market. But they tend to specialize more in “vacation rentals” rather than short-term apartments. In other words, if you are looking for a larger place for at least a few days if not a full week, then this is a good one to try. They also have a great variety of beach homes and other posh places in resort areas rather than cities.
Not only is homeaway.com similar to vrbo.com, but this site actually bought that one not long ago.
There's a good chance that you've at least heard of craigslist, even if you don't use it regularly. It's a hugely popular classified-ads website with sub-locations all over the world. There is a “vacation rentals” tab for each of the hundreds of cities they cover, but there are many notable downsides to consider as well.
First off, craigslist is insanely popular in the US and Canada, but its use is very spotty everywhere else. You might find 40 vacation rental listings each day in one city, and few or none in another city of a similar size. You just have to check for yourself. Some countries have a more popular equivalent such as gumtree.com in the UK, while other countries have nothing like it at all (or at least nothing in English).
WARNING ABOUT CRAIGSLIST VACATION RENTALS!
Unlike all the other apartment-finding methods above, craigslist is virtually unregulated and unstaffed. This has made it a magnet for scammers of all kinds, and vacation rentals are one of its more vulnerable categories. You have no guarantee that the person who placed the ad is actually able to rent their apartment, and no real guarantee that an apartment even exists.
It's possible to find good deals on craigslist, even among vacation rentals, but you should be very cautious and skeptical of anything you see advertised. If you have a friend in the city who can go over and verify that it's all on the up and up, it could be a good deal. But for most of us, the risks outweigh any possible advantages.