On the Dollar

How I Saved $10,000 in Rent by Living in Cheap Airbnbs Around the World

saving money by living in cheap airbnbs around the world
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

Back in September 2015, I took the leap and quit my editor job to travel to Japan and turn full-time freelancer. Yet it wasn't until I'd arrived in the Land Responsible for My Nerdy Childhood and piled up enough dollar sushi plates to astonish the locals that it dawned on me: I could build a career while traveling anywhere in the world.

I had the means and the chutzpah to do it. Better yet, I had 21st-century technology on my side.

As long as I have internet, my laptop, a phone, and a meticulously planned out Google calendar, I can work with my clients online and, of course, set up temporary homes anywhere through Airbnb. I was able to sleep, work, and Netflix-binge in a dozen temporary homes in eight different countries -- France, South Korea, Japan, wherever.

I love the freedom of making makeshift homes wherever I go, without being tied down by rental agreements. For almost a year, the heaviest things holding me down were a backpack and a rolling suitcase.

Sometimes the home would feel truly like a home, where I'd sit in blissful silence at the dinner table with a sweet, straight-out-of-a-Korean-drama grandma who spoke no English but prepared nightly dinners and made sure to give me ample helpings of kkakdugi (my favorite). Or the time my host in Taipei brought me to a basketball game with his friends, but not before we had stopped by a store to score a bag of Taiwanese weiners on wooden skewers.

There was that one time in Barcelona I booked a place for my mom's visit and the Airbnb host turned out to be a pot-smoking health freak who'd spend 20 minutes cutting his apples into 2-millimeter-wide slices. Thankfully, my mom couldn't identify the lingering, pervasive scent from the ganj, or if she did, she never said anything to me. (It wasn't long before we were out of there anyway.) Some hosts were so blasé about the arrangement they walked around in their underwear. But other than a few "wow, I'm glad this is temporary" moments, my experience was positive.

Mostly, I was surprised at how cheap it all was.

I actually saved a bundle living in Airbnbs

It turned out to be a lot cheaper for me to be a laptop-hauling nomad, bouncing from Airbnb to Airbnb around different countries and cities, than setting up camp in one set location. For me, that would've been Los Angeles, where the average one-bedroom apartment, without utilities, costs between $1,700 and $2,300 (depending on which part of the city, of course). And don't even get me started on the pricey car insurance (or traffic).

So let's say that I had stayed in Los Angeles, lucked out, and found a rad place for $1,700. I'd have signed a one-year lease and, over that term, paid $20,400 for rent alone. By contrast, my stay at each Airbnb lasted a couple of days at times, but it was mostly weeks and up to a month. I've lived in a countryside surfer dude's townhouse in sleepy North Shore, Oahu for $52/night; a 180sqft Parisian studio -- where the bathroom, I'm convinced, was actually made for Stuart Little -- for $47/night; and a lavish flat in Hong Kong that cost $48/night, but overlooked the famed harbor and was so high that I thought, This must be what Godzilla sees when he terrorizes cities.

I pulled up my credit card statements and crunched the numbers. In 2016, I paid $10,584 for my living accommodations. Most of this already includes utilities, and there were weeks here and there where I stayed with friends and family. Of course, there are costs you don't see, such as my flights, but those certainly did not cost me even half of the $9,816 I saved.

I'm frugal, which is not to be confused with being a cheapskate.

I'm not the only one who has saved money living outside the United States. A friend of mine, Slyvon Blanco, shared on Facebook that he had spent $11,226 living out of Airbnbs and hotels in 10 countries. Blanco's friend, Jason Lengstorf, spent $1,666.88 a month. They lived in drastically different places than I, too.

Beyond the starkly different standards of living among the different cities and countries and the currency exchanges, you must be wondering: What did I do exactly to save money on living expenses?

living in cheap airbnbs
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

To save, book based on your needs, not your wants

I'm frugal, which is not to be confused with being a cheapskate, so I prioritize where to put my money. If spending more money on something makes sense, then I happily pay for value. Value in Airbnb meant my long-term comfort, safety, and convenience with my living situation. I definitely didn't shy away from ponying up an extra $40 per night to live in the center of one of the liveliest foodie destinations in Paris: Le Marais. The quaint, dog shit-filled streets here were dotted with restaurants and bakeries; a gym was a hop and a skip away; and I felt safe going in and out at any time.

Some of the questions I asked myself included: Can I access everything I need based on where I am? Will I be able to feel at peace living here? Is the internet fast and reliable? Is it possible to cook a lot of meals at home?

For almost a year, the heaviest things holding me down were a backpack and a rolling suitcase.

When choosing your Airbnb, the options are myriad: You can rent a shared room (where you and the host sleep in the same room), a private bedroom, and a whole apartment or house. I could rent out a whole studio or one-bedroom apartment for privacy near some of the most popular tourist spots. But as someone who travels solo 90% of the time, I value having some company and, as long as I can get to said tourist spots, there's no need to live in and eat around high-priced areas designed for tourists. Typically I rented a private room and hung out with the host.

The longer you commit to a place, too, the less you'll likely pay. Many hosts offer a monthly or weekly discount, but that discount looks different from place to place and host to host. All you have to do is ask, which means that you can negotiate the price with your host.

It doesn't hurt to negotiate

Every Airbnb is run by someone who just wants to make side cash, although you do run into folks who have turned it into a lucrative business. In either case, this opens the opportunity for negotiation.

Because I have the flexibility to stay someplace for longer, I typically ask if the host can do better than even their monthly or weekly rate. Some hosts have kindly obliged, some have not -- it just doesn't hurt to ask. It's worth noting that experienced hosts tend to scoff at negotiations because it's a sign the guest could be trouble, so the key is to stay cordial and friendly in negotiations no matter where they lead.

Keep in mind that even on Airbnb rates are subject to the ebb and flow of tourist season. Some months will be hot and have higher rates, while others will be as quiet as death itself. If you happen to swoop in when business is slow, there's a greater chance your negotiations will go well. After all, an occupied room is better than nothing. I wouldn't try to nickel-and-dime everything, especially if you plan to stay with the host, because that would just make things awkward.

Airbnb lets you test drive new neighborhoods

A huge underrated benefit to staying at an Airbnb elsewhere is that you get a more authentic feel for the neighborhood and living standard, rather than the beer-goggled enamorment you feel when you visit a place only for a day or two.

The Airbnb host turned out to be a pot-smoking health freak.

If you're thinking about moving somewhere, why not actually try living there for a month to see if it actually lives up to your expectations?

living in cheap airbnbs
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

It will alter your definition of "home"

Currently, I'm a professional nomad. I've chosen to eschew pesky rental agreements and mortgages for the sole purpose of being able to pick up and just go with the wind, wherever in the world it may take me. Therefore, I am homeless, but obviously not in the tattered-shoes-and-huddling-under-a-lean-to sense. I use my parents' home as a thoroughfare between returning from my last destination to the next thing.

Certainly, I recognize my privilege of being able to make such a choice. It does mean that my definition of home has changed in a liberating way that also brings a mental struggle. Knowing you have some place that you can always come back to, kick off your sneakers, and climb into a bed whose sheets you know have been properly washed is especially comforting. But for now, I'm content with dreaming of the next adventure and being able to pack up and go.

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Stephanie Lee travels the world with her laptop and writes about the amazing and the ugly of a traveling freelancing life at FY!S, a website to help digital nomads stay in shape, productive, and sane. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.