After a scary experience at a rental, Carol chats with travel blogger, Lori Helke, for advice.
Recently my family joined me on a weekend while I did an author festival. When we arrived at our destination, "Murder House," floated inside my mind. When we entered the house, it looked clean and reasonable, which calmed me a bit, until closer inspection. We realized there were many things left undone - windows did not have frames, no baseboards, broken dropped ceilings, a shower nozzle that didn't work - just to name a few.
Adding to the creepiness were other buildings connected to ours with doors everywhere. We couldn't get out of them but we wondered if people could get inside. There was cigarette smoke, despite the No Smoking sign in a window. We could hear the person living in one of the attached buildings next to our bedroom. The house stood next to working train tracks. Window views were not of the outside but other connected buildings. We had late night visitors looking for someone. What terrified me the most, however, were the flickering lights in both bedrooms. I wanted to leave that night but was too tired to travel. However, in that scary house, I couldn't sleep.
Clearly I didn't do a great job vetting the house and location. I told my family I'm not a travel agent but that didn't get me off the hook.
Since I rarely let any experience go without learning from it, I reached out to travel blogger, Lori Helke, who also owns
Next Voyage Press. Lori is also the author of the Beatrice Camper picture book series. She manages the Midlife Sisters Travel Facebook page. And, of course, she's always traveling. Fortunately she was around to offer travel tips to help find safe places to stay.
1. What travel sites do you use? (such as Trip Advisor?)
For hotels, I will check Google for options in an area. Sometimes I use Booking.com or Hotels.com.
2. Do you have a preference?
My preference is to book directly. Sometimes you can get the best deal that way, or call the hotel directly. I am a member of some hotel chains' rewards programs.
3. What is your favorite way to stay? Airbnb or VRBO or hotel? Why?
It is entirely based on circumstance. Budget usually rules my decision. I really love both options. For instance, on a recent trip to NYC, I checked hotels first since I was only there for 3 nights. They were all around $300 a night. I was traveling solo, so that is way out of my budget. I found a little apartment in a perfect location for $167 a night. If I am gone for more than a couple of nights, renting an apartment is a better option. Having access to a kitchen is important to me.
4. When you arrive at your destination, what are some reasonable expectations for travelers?
Definitely cleanliness and clean linens. That is the most important to me. Also privacy. I have rented rooms in a home through Airbnb that had a private entrance. Quiet is important. I'm not really talking about street noise. I don't like people talking loudly, loud TV. When I travel, I tend to not spend a lot of time in my accommodations, so I need to feel comfortable.
5. What might be asking too much?
Perfection. I'm really not sure any place is perfect, even a hotel. I will say if I am renting from Airbnb or VRBO, I expect the renter to disclose things that may be an issue. Again, the apartment I rented in NYC was in a brownstone and four flights of very narrow stairs, no elevator. That was made clear in the listing.
6. Do you think places should have a way for guests to know if they're in a relatively safe area? Why or why not?
This is where it is important to have communication with the potential renter. I feel it's your responsibility as a potential renter to ask this question if you are unsure before renting. The renter should be transparent. This is something you need to know, especially if you are traveling solo or with children.
You can also use street mode where you can literally walk down the streets in the area. It's an amazing research tool to use, and I use it for every trip I take.
7. When you and I were chatting before this interview, you had mentioned doing a Google search of the address. However, I don't think Airbnb gives the address until you book. How else might people be able to learn if the area is safe?
You are right; it doesn't, but it will give you an area bubble. I will spend some time on Google maps searching the area. Are there businesses and retail stores close by? What kind? You can also use street mode where you can literally walk down the streets in the area. It's an amazing research tool to use, and I use it for every trip I take. I can see how busy a street will be. I can see if it's a residential neighborhood and what houses are there. If it's a neighborhood with attractions, it's typically safe. Read all the reviews. Most times past guests will answer that question. Travel guides will often tell you which areas to avoid. If I stay in a city, I will stick with the center, where there's a lot going on. If you even have a question about safety, I would find another place. Your intuition is your best tool.
8. Is there a website you use to find crime in a neighborhood?
No, not really. I will say that I keep my ears open. If there is a trip I am thinking of taking, I will do a lot of research. I'm very curious and like to know everything about a place. I have a philosophy that things can happen no matter where you go. You have to be smart. I certainly wouldn't stay in an area that looks risky, and I usually don't walk around at night unless there are lots of other people out and about.
9. How reliable are reviews?
I think reviews on Airbnb and VRBO are reliable. I look for a Superhost who has a lot of reviews and I won't choose a new listing or one that doesn't have many reviews. I have had mostly positive experiences with all my rentals. I know at some point a bad experience will probably happen.
10. What is a reasonable amount to pay? I read somewhere that if you're paying a very low price, there might be a reason. However, there have been times we spent very little and found a great place. There were times we spent more and were disappointed.
Whew, that is a hard question to answer. It's so dependent on the property and what you are getting. I will say that if the rental is comparable with others and in the same area and the pictures look comparable and the price is extremely low, I would probably be suspicious.
11. Do you suggest having a backup plan in case you arrive and the place is terrifying? Could you give me an idea of how that would work? Am I being overly paranoid?
My feeling is you can always leave and find a hotel. I would first contact the renter. If it's late at night, you may have to deal with it until the next day. I believe you have options of filing a complaint with the company for a refund. Honestly, everyone has their own limits as to what they will tolerate. I've stayed in some pretty awful hotels in the past, so I may have a high tolerance, but usually it's just one night. Once, I did have to leave and find another hotel.
12. Any other thoughts or suggestions?
I know there are horror stories out there. Maybe I've been lucky. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, or how much research you do, you get an unpleasant experience. I recommend learning from it and trying again. There is way more good rentals out there than bad.
Great advice, Lori. Thank you!
And, thank you, readers for taking time to read this. It might be too late for your Thanksgiving travels, but Christmas is coming and might involve travel. I hope this helps! Please share.
Also, please check out this month's Talking to Myself-Writing Podcast. I chat with author Jannifer Powelson about author and book promotions.
Have a great Thanksgiving.