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Staying in a penthouse near the airport in Bangkok, Thailand with a big family
View from Roof of our Bangkok Apartment Rental

When we're planning a trip for our big family, we keep in mind that every potential home or apartment rental has its own unique surroundings of some sort, which can be a major factor in whether it's the right place for us to stay. Before booking a rental, it's wise to consider not just what the apartment or home has to offer on the inside, but what the neighborhood is like. Does the advertised "quiet neighborhood" mean it's a one-hour walk to the nearest restaurant? Does "fun area" mean that the downstairs nightclub's bass thumps will keep your children awake until 3am? Does "local residential area" mean it's against city laws for you to book a 2-night rental? In our travels we've discovered the secret ingredients to finding the perfect location for a big family to stay, and we'll share them with you here...

We focused on the essential apartment amenities and features (kitchen, washing machine, etc.) that a big family needs in our prior post, 12 Tips to Help You Find the Perfect Place to Stay with a Big Family (available here). That article covers what the rental itself should have on the inside.

In this post, we'll focus on the outside, and cover the specifics of where we believe that a perfect place to stay should be located, for an ideal stay with a big family.

Hotels Vs. Homes
Almost everywhere we've traveled with our big family, the best deal for our family has been to rent an apartment or a home, rather than a hotel room. Hotel rooms generally are too small, too cramped, lack the features we need, and often require us to rent too many rooms. When you're traveling with a big family, the cost of renting an entire house or large apartment (with multiple bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a kitchen, a living room!) compared to the cost of renting a couple of tiny hotel rooms is often a fantastic deal.

Staying with a big family in France near Basel, Switzerland
It's hard to find this kind of space in a hotel - so we choose homes and apartments when possible.
Our apartment rental in Saint-Louis, France

Our Tips
Once you've narrowed down the search to just houses and apartments (or any type of dwelling - anything other than a hotel), the location is another major decision. I think many people would say location is the single most important factor in choosing where to stay - I've read that advice many dozens of times - but "location" can have a lot of meanings. A great location for a family is often a completely different thing than a great location for a solo traveler, or a young couple, or a couple without children. What kind of neighborhood is best for a big family?  Here are our tips to help you choose:

#15:  Get the Neighborhood Name
With some rental platforms only giving you a vague idea of the location until after you've booked and prepaid, it can be difficult to pinpoint where exactly you'll be staying before you're fully committed with a nonrefundable advance payment. If the name of the neighborhood isn't mentioned, I ask before booking. For example, both of these apartments are somewhere in Athens: one is described as an "Athens Apartment" while the other is a "Monastiraki Apartment." But whereas the Monastiraki listing gives you a very good idea of where you'll be staying by mentioning a specific neighborhood (which is a 12-minute walk from the Acropolis), the other "Athens Apartment" could be anywhere:  it might be in Monastiraki, or it might be in Plaka, Syntagma, Omonia, Exarchia, Kolonaki, Pangrati, Thissio, Psirri, or even a 30-minute cab ride away from any of those neighborhoods!

Visiting the Petralona neighborhood of Athens with a big family with young children
The Petralona neighborhood where we stayed in Athens, Greece.
This is a half-block from Philopappos Hill.

I've seen hundreds of listings that call themselves by the name of a city that is really not where it is located at all - instead, it's the nearest city. A rental in the distant suburbs of Bangkok, way out in Sukhumvit or Ratchadaphisek, may call itself a "Bangkok home."  A rental located 30 minutes away from the French Quarter by car may call itself a "New Orleans apartment." A good rental platform will give you a map that narrows the location down to a few blocks, or a radius. If that info is missing, or if the area mentioned is a large area, we ask the host for a landmark or nearby street corner.

#14:  Distance to Attractions
Let's say we're visiting a city known for its museums and archaeological sites. It's somewhat important (but not necessarily a deal-breaker) to consider whether we'll be in the same exact neighborhood as those attractions, or 15 minutes away, or 60 minutes away. The rental listings for visitors to those attractions tend to do one of two things: they either give specifics like "Walk to the Acropolis in 10 minutes," or they don't mention the distance at all. A listing that just says "Athens Apartment," without mentioning the distance to the Acropolis, may mean it's an hour away from that area. Depending on how much sightseeing you're doing, and how many days of the visit will be devoted to those attractions, staying right on top of them - or within a few minutes' walk - can be pretty important. However, we only make this the key factor in our decision for extremely short stays, like one or two nights.

#13: Distance to Public Transportation
Rather than considering how close a rental is to the attractions we want to see, we are often more interested in how far it is to the nearest subway stop. Being willing to walk to the corner to hop on a metro for a 5 minute ride may mean we get a much better deal, for a dramatically better price, than staying within sight of the major tourist attractions. Distance to public transportation is very important to our style of traveling, since we do what we can to avoid driving in other countries (for several reasons, as explained in this prior post).

Staying near a metro stop in Hong Kong
Hong Kong MTR Map


#12: Will a Car be Needed?
For our international journeys, renting a car (to drive it ourselves) is all but out of the question. But if we're staying in an area that has no public metro or bus system, then before booking, we stop and figure out what forms of transportation will be available. As described in this prior post, sometimes your best bet is to book a private minivan transfer/taxi to get around with a big family. We have stayed in areas so remote that it requires a one-hour notice to arrange a vehicle, but still, we'd rather do that than take on all the risks of driving in another country. I've rejected some possible rentals based on them being too far from the metro system. If a suburb or neighborhood is a 30-minute walk to the nearest metro stop, and everything we want to do is in the city center, it's just too far away.

#11: Neighborhood's Defining Characteristic
Many home and apartment rentals are promoted with terms like "central location" or "in the heart of the tourist area."  However, being "central" or in the "tourist area" is not usually our idea of a good location for a rental for our big family. But then we're willing to take a metro or use a taxi service to get around, if it means being somewhere remote, quiet, and beautiful - or somewhere that gives a better idea of what it's like to live in that city, rather than what it's like to be a tourist in that city. It all depends on the destination, and what sorts of activities exist to cater to the tourists, and whether those are family activities...

#10: Nightlife
When traveling with our big family, we avoid renting a place to stay in any spot known for its nightlife. We wanted to stay somewhere on the large island of Phuket, Thailand. The first dozen advertisements we saw pointed the way to Patong. So we did a little online shopping for a rental in that area. But what we kept seeing was references to how close the apartment was to the nightlife. "Steps away from famous walking street!" was mentioned over and over. It turned out that Patong is famous due to its neon-lit streets full of go-go bars, nightclubs, cabarets, massage parlors, and various...ahem, related industries. We found a cozy spot to stay on the complete opposite side of the island.

Sometimes being in a "central location" is the
opposite of what a big family would want!

Image may be subject to copyright of original owner.

#9: Tourist Traps
Staying in a very touristy area can mean having to walk through a dozen hard sells every time you walk down the street. We try to avoid areas where the only restaurants are those catering to foreigners, like where they keep staff standing on the street, holding out menus, trying to stop passersby to wrangle them inside the restaurants by the shirt collar. We try to avoid areas that are full of the sorts of businesses created exclusively for tourists, like arcades, go-kart tracks, dino mini-golf courses, etc. Those sorts of areas seem to be recreating the American Tourist City experience but it's hard to understand the motivation behind traveling 9,000 miles to some gorgeous, exotic locale just to ride go-karts and eat twelve dollar hamburgers.

#8: See the Outside
Although some apartment and home listings show a view of the outside of the building, many do not show an outside view of any kind. I always look for photos in the rental listing that show the outside of the building, preferably one with a view of the street out front, or the neighborhood. This factor is very important for families. If a listing doesn't show any photos of the exterior, this can be a red flag for the structure's appearance and/or location.

The exterior's appearance is basic information that is pretty essential to our booking decision. If it is missing, then before booking I email the host to ask for a nearby landmark so I can check out the neighborhood online. For security reasons, the hosts very sensibly won't usually give out the actual address of the property until after a booking is made, but they are almost always willing to give you the name of a nearby street corner so that you can get an idea of what kind of neighborhood your family will be visiting.

#7: Beware of Stock Photos
I always think it's a little weird, a little off, when I see a rental that chooses to advertise itself with random pictures pulled from the internet, along with a few pics of the actual rental mixed in. I've seen hundreds of home and apartment listings where the pictures go like this:
  • Here's the living room
  • Here's the master bedroom
  • Here's a copy of a travel agency photo of strangers walking on the nearby beach at sunset 
  • Here's the kitchen
  • Here's a copy of a small, blurry picture of some dude parasailing five years ago
  • Here's the bathroom
  • Here's a copy of a random pic from the internet showing people enjoying nightlife nearby
  • Here's the second bedroom

To me those ads just don't seem credible, or reliable. If the beach is really that close and that fantastic, the host should be able to grab some decent, original pics of it on the same camera that took the interior shots.

Where to stay with a big family on vacation at the beach
A pic like this really doesn't belong in an apartment rental listing,
because...that's the ocean, not the apartment.
Image may be subject to copyright of original owner.
Cramming the photos in the listing with fluff pulled from tourism shots from the internet seems like a means of distracting renters from what the rental itself is actually like. Visitors already know why they are visiting that town, so there's no reason for a host to try to sell rentals with photos referring to nearby attractions. It just doesn't make sense, and for us it's often a red flag about the quality of the apartment or home, especially when there are several competitors nearby and only one of them uses up half its maximum photo space with pictures of things that don't even pertain to the actual rental.

Plus, I've seen stock photos used quite deceptively in rental listings. Rentals located on the beach almost always show you actual photos of what the beach looks like when you're standing on the rental property, and often they include pics of what the rentals looks like if you're standing at the water's edge. Apartments located 15 blocks from the beach tend to be the ones that show a stock photo, pulled from somewhere online, of a random couple strolling along the beach at sunset.

#6: Natural Landscape
It's easy to get overly focused on the features and amenities of a home or apartment, and to forget about what's just outside the front door. We looked at some very cool-looking treehouse rentals, before realizing that they were only accessible by boat, and that the surroundings were basically what we would call a swamp. (Can you imagine the mosquitoes in an open-air, three-walled treehouse located in the middle of a coastal swamp?)  So we always check out the natural environment of any potential rental - is it in the woods, settled among farmlands, up at a very high elevation, or inside the city?

This European apartment was a little more in the industrial zone than we would've liked - of course, they didn't show the smokestacks in the rental listing photos online

#5: Industrial Zones
Occasionally, an isolated apartment rental, way out in a neighborhood where you don't see any other rentals listed, may be a bad idea. We saw a few in various cities (at great prices!), and considered staying, until we researched it and realized that the area was an industrial zone which would be completely empty after dark, and on weekends. Industrial zones are polluted, noisy in the daytime, occupied only by workers, and then completely dead at night, and none of that makes for a great place to stay with a big family, no matter how low the price.

#4:  Proximity to Pool, Lake, or Beach
According to my son the single most important question to consider for any rental property is:  "Does it have a pool?!"  I sometimes have to manage the kids' expectations a little bit. I assure the children before trips that we definitely will try to swim on the trip, but that it won't happen every day or in every city. If we're staying in cities A, B, C, and D, we might arrange to have some swim time in cities B and D, for instance.

Then I choose the cities with the lowest average rental rates to be the ones where I try to get a place with a pool. In some cities, having a pool on the property will automatically add 100 to 300% to the price of the rental. For instance, in Hong Kong - where rental rates are high - having a shared pool included with an apartment rental meant paying three times as much for the same type and size of apartment, so we didn't have one there. In Siem Reap the price of an entire house with a private pool was less than the cost of two small hotel rooms with access to a shared pool, so we ended up renting a home with its own pool.

And, of course, if we're staying in a place with a beach, a pool isn't needed anyway.

Our rental in Krabi, Thailand was a 10-minute hike
from this quiet, empty beach
#3:  The View
We also look for photos showing views of the area from the apartment's windows or balcony.  If you can see a major monument, that might seem like a bonus, but it almost definitely adds 25 to 50% to the price of the rental. And we don't pick apartments based on that one image. I try to keep in mind that before taking that photo, the host may have zoomed in as much as the camera would allow. Objects in those photos may be much more distant than they appear!

View from a Bangkok-area apartment - two versions of the same photograph. On the left is the typical "view from the apartment" shot. On the right is what that looks like in person, without zooming in.  

If the area you want to reach is shown in a photo, but it is way, way off in the distance, consider how many times you're going to be making that trek. If you see the city of Bangkok in the distant skyline, then exactly where is the "Bangkok Apartment" you're considering really located?  You shouldn't be able to see the city in the far distance if you're actually staying in the city - a mistake we made, on the first of our four passes through Bangkok.

Still, the view from the bedroom or living room window or balcony can tell you a lot about the neighborhood. I study those pictures very closely. Can you see people? Hundreds of cars? Is it an area in which you can walk? Is it industrial, residential, or commercial?  I saw one listing in Asia where the entire view was obscured by a neon-lit, four-story shopping mall, reachable only by crossing a 6-lane highway full of speeding cars. Bleh.

Don't skip lightly past the rental listing photos captioned as "The view from..." These often tell you as much about the neighborhood as anything in the description.

#2:  Hidden Resorts
I've had several near-misses, where just before making a booking decision, I figured out that the rental was a very long drive from anywhere else. These sorts of places may not call themselves resorts. They have ordinary names like "rentals" or "apartments" or "homes," but in reality they operate like resorts. The only food available is what they sell you. The only transportation available is what they sell you. The only activities available are what they sell you.

These places often don't make it clear that this is how they operate. Only by reading the reviews can you tease out the details - guests mention using the same driver every day, or guests mention how they ate at the property's restaurant for every meal, or, they mention unexpected additional costs associated with transportation or food. I've never had a case where staying at an isolated resort worked out to be the best option for our big family. These places are too remote, too sheltered, and too exclusive for our style of travel. We want to be in and stay in a place we're visiting - not to be kept walled off from it.

#1:  Local Ordinances Against Short-Term Rentals
According to my wife, the single most important question to consider for any rental property is:  "Do we have to sneak in?"  We had a pretty uncomfortable experience in one of our apartment rentals. Apparently, in some cities around the world, there is a movement against short-term rentals. Some areas have been occupied solely by local residents for decades, or centuries. Some cities have passed multiple rounds of laws designed to restrict, regulate, or even to prevent tourists from booking homes or apartments by the night.

Booking a home in a city like that can lead to your family experiencing last minute cancellations, or having to sneak around, or worse. Some places even have posted signs threatening to turn you in to the police, if someone merely suspects you of staying as a traveler or backpacker in one of the units of a residential property! But, more on that in a future post. [Update: That post is here.]

More Soon!
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