I went on my first trip to New York City with a ragtag group of art students and other artsy types. We traveled by bus 10 hours from Toronto and stayed in a hostel, 10 to a room. Being a bona fide artsy type myself, as a writer who most often specializes in arts and culture, I fell in love with the city and couldn't wait to get back – but by plane and in a room of my own; no more frat lifestyle for me.
The Big Apple can be a daunting expense on a freelancer’s income. After freezing in a $200/night chain-hotel-room in January (and that's pretty much the minimum rate) where the windows leaked, and it took management a day and a half to get me a space heater, I vowed to find a better way to appreciate the city on my budget. I began a concerted Internet search and found that there is a booming market in short-term rentals or sublets all over New York City. I learned that you can stay in a New York apartment with a kitchen, bathroom, and other comforts of home for, sometimes, less than $100 a night (and up). If you don't mind sharing in a 2, 3 or more-bedroom apartment, the rate can be even less – ditto if you don't mind pet sitting while there. Along with saving on the accommodations, you don't have to eat out every meal, making your stay even more affordable.
As a solo traveler, I found the advantages go beyond price and affordability. I've made true friends and gotten to know how people really live in a place that's been so glamorized on TV and in films, along with dispelling some of the stereotypes and myths.
I've stayed in the Upper West Side in a townhouse where the owner runs an art gallery on the top floor, an ideal location for someone like me. I've stayed in East Harlem – or El Barrio – where Latin music blares on the street every weekend, and I was within walking distance of the Upper East Side with its tony Madison Avenue shopping and the Museum Mile. I've stayed in Harlem proper and listened to jazz jams without a cover charge – as opposed to a club downtown where you pay about fifty-cents a minute to hear a big name band and get hustled out the door unceremoniously after a single 90-minute set. Staying in Harlem was a unique opportunity to explore a neighborhood that is typically left out of the tourist guides.
Safety is a big concern when you travel alone, and I can honestly say I've felt safer in a residential apartment building than in a hotel. The front door of every apartment building in the city is locked, and many in my affordability range are multi-floor walk ups. As one of my apartment subletters told me, "What thief would bother to climb four floors up in El Barrio?"
In this city known for its hostile locals, people have been invariably friendly to me. On one trip, I was between laptops and using an Internet kiosk at a local Burger King when a kindly woman stopped and reminded me not to put my purse beside the door. She was typical; other tenants in the buildings I've stayed at have been equally helpful, and I've felt looked after and looked out for. Also on the safety and security front, police stations never seem far away – I've always made it my business to locate the nearest one, just in case.
I already mentioned that I've made real friends and connections, both personally and professionally as a writer. Those contacts can help get other and better arrangements for future trips; after three years of subletting, I now stay with my pals. Subletting has given me a real insight into the city that never sleeps. The glamour wears off once you've seen where they take out the garbage and the seedy back side of the buildings, but I find reality far more rewarding. In terms of arts and culture, I've moved beyond the touristy experience to the insider's knowledge of where to eat, shop, and play. Sublet and live like a local. What's cooler than that?
There are numerous online agencies and websites that connect home/apartment owners or renters and those who want to stay in them. You’ll notice these include locations all over the US and beyond, so you can extend the savings to other travel destinations. Here are two sites I've used for my visits to New York City:
Just a quick glance at any of these websites will give you loads of possibilities from the low end of the scale to penthouse apartments available for thousands of dollars per month, with photographs to give you an idea of what to expect. Individuals may rent out their own apartments while commercial property managers handle others. I haven’t found an advantage either way per se, although my personal preference is to deal with individuals.
So you've got a number of possibilities that look great from the pictures. How do you weed out the questionable from the great ones?
Reviews: The websites listed above will include user reviews where you can typically see a variety of different reactions to both the place and the subletter. If the subletter rents other properties, check the reviews on those, too.
Facebook: Some people who sublet have Facebook pages that will also include posts from people who've stayed in their apartments. Reviews can conceivably be faked, but multiple Facebook posts are hard to manufacture.
Google is your friend. Do a search on the subletter’s email address, name and/or phone number and see what comes up. Once you're on the web, it takes a concerted effort to hide all your tracks, especially if you're in the habit of making shady deals.
Contact: If you don’t get an answer to your inquiry within 48 hours of initial contact, go on to another option. Consider it a red flag if you still don't have a real name or phone number by the time you're considering sending a deposit.
Rates: The rates listed may change in low or high season, and some people even offer specials at different times. Weekly rates may also be lower pro rata than daily rates, so if you're staying for a week or more be sure to ask about a discount if it isn’t mentioned.
Payments Deposits are almost exclusively requested via PayPal, with the balance payable in cash upon arrival, not when you leave. There is usually a refundable security deposit that can vary wildly. Some people want up to $500 while others only ask for $100 or so, so make sure to check or ask if it's not listed. I've never had a problem with collecting it back on leaving.
Deposits: Without a credit card, be prepared to send a small initial deposit (typically the first night's stay) to secure the room.