Thursday, July 23, 2015

Renting on Vacation

Mike is clueless.

His words, not mine. Mike is getting married then taking his new bride to a country they have never been to and know nothing about.This doesn't make him clueless but he did feel that way.

So he was asking my advice on travel in Europe. How do you get around? How do you find a good hotel? What if we witness a political assassination and we need to be smuggled out of the country in the back of a laundry truck by communists?
"I can see the boarder! Push harder comrade!"
Well I can't say I have all the answers but I can help with some things, especially when it comes to lodging. Renting is really a better option (in my humble opinion) if you're planning on staying in one place for more that 3 days. It allows for more privacy (which the SO and I prefer), we can cook our own meal by utilizing local foods (yay!), and you usually get more bang for your buck. So I wrote him a list of tips that I'm going to share with you!

The main sites I use when searching: (make sure you secure "private" or "whole") (limited but still good resource) (limited but usually refundable)

AND/OR (which searches some of these sites at the same time, although they don't catch everything)

A lot of these are overlapping and you will see the same properties over again but if you want to do your due diligence to find the perfect place, you should use more than one. (Usually 2-3)

My Tips:
  • My #1 most important tip (and starting point in any search) - Research the area you want to stay, learn the names of the areas (downtown, olde town,etc) and use maps. Really familiarize yourself with the layout of the city. Do you REALLY want to stay next to The Colosseum? (Tourists can be loud and dirty.) Yes, this apartment is amazing and close to attractions, but did you notice it's in the red light district? (Drunk frat guys getting laid at 3am isn't fun for me personally.) Your townhouse is awesome but if you can't walk home from dinner without stepping on used syringes or crossing a dark railroad yard, maybe it's not worth it. Be aware of noise levels, safety, and things that may/may not be important to you like a beautiful view or closeness to shopping, attractions, etc. 
"Maybe the market district was a mistake..."
  • Use your filters to search more efficiently. Set those price min/max points first thing. If you must have a pool, use that filter. If you want to be near Brandenburg Gate or Graceland proper, use the site's map feature. 
  • Make sure management speaks English or make arrangements to find a way to communicate. (I have used google translate in the past to arrange meet up, get directions to the apartment, etc)
  • Know your budget and stick to it! (You can filter to save time and avoid the dreaded "rental envy".)
  • Check reviews! If the property doesn't have any reviews yet, I am usually a bit wary. I check other sites to see if maybe they have reviews there but if there is nothing, it's something that you will have to use your own judgement. Also be aware there are a lot of people who feel entitled or just like to complain. I can't tell you how many reviews I've read that say "The rooms were so small! The bathrooms were tiny! There's no AC! The nerve!". Yeah. It's Europe. A home built in 1754 isn't going to be massive or have an HVAC system. If you need that stuff, rent the penthouse at the Westin. (or just search those filters)
Not that there's anything wrong with that!
  • Photos are key. If they don't have the forethought to have nice pictures taken, don't even bother. If they can't clean the home or open the curtains to let the light in when they're trying to advertise, they aren't managing the property correctly and they aren't going to be someone you want to work with.  Also, if the photos are of a really poor resolution, this can be a real sign that it's a scam. I've had an apartment advertised that looked great but the resolution was really awful. I inquired to the "owner" and later found out that they had saved large thumbnails taken from a real estate website and put this place up for rent posing as owners of the property. On the other end of the spectrum, really nice, photo-shopped photos (usually of high-end properties) can be suspect too. You can always ask for more/different photos from the owners or check google maps to find the property. (to make sure it actually exists)
  • If prices are too good to be true, they are. It's probably a scam OR they're charging by the person so read that fine print!
$69/night! What a deal!
  • Always call the owner/property manager/etc. I will usually think of a silly question and call them to get it answered. (Do you have a hair dryer in the home? Can you recommend a car rental company in walking distance?) If you get a weird feeling, don't do it. 
  • Always use a credit card. Don't wire money or send a check. If there is any problem, you can get some of your money back. (Airbnb holds the funds in escrow so both sides are protected.) That being said, like many places in Europe and around the world, people don't use credit cards much and prefer cash. Usually half of my interactions with vacation rentals involve paying 50% when we book on my Visa then the other 50% is due at the key hand-off in cash. This is not unusual. 
  • Style is important. At least for me it is. I feel that if someone take pride in styling and furnishing a place, that will show in other areas of the transaction as well. Even a modest home can easily be cared for with simple window treatments and nice linens. It feels more like a proper vacation if you stay someplace that looks beautiful too. 
Both top and bottom apts are in Rome, same price...

It's not like checking into a hotel...
  • If you have a phone while traveling, exchange numbers. Things happen and you can get delayed so having a phone is great. If you won't have a phone, make sure you have exchanged proper email address at the least.
  • Give your host your travel info. If you're flying in, they can check your flight if delayed. If you're driving or taking the train in, give them a time window and try hard to stick to it.
  • When you arrange a time, pick a very specific spot to meet up and get the owner's info and even physical description and tell them yours. Usually I say, "My husband and I will be together; look for the red head in the colorful scarf!"
  • If you're delayed, call, email, carrier pigeon a new time to meet because they will leave the meetup spot and won't come back til they hear from you. (I've run off in search of a wifi cafe to email our host after our plane was delayed and they had left when we didn't show up.) 
  • Check your fine print! Sometimes they charge per person, per day. Sometimes checkout is way early. Sometimes they charge you for using their linens. (Yes, really.) Also small things like if shampoo and soap is provided or if you will need to find a market to purchase those yourself. 
And don't forget to be kind, be respectful and be flexible! 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Racist Sea-Monkeys

Sea-monkeys are racist and helped Neo-Nazism.

Just let that sink in for a minute, because it is a real thing.

So the sea-monkeys themselves aren't racist (can you imagine little shrimp trying to 'heil'? Adorable and horrible at the same time) but their inventor seemed to be.

Harold von Braunhut was an inventor and brilliant marketer. He created X-Ray Specs, mail-in hermit crabs, the self-closing doll eyes and the aforementioned Sea Monkeys. Born in 1926, he was actually "Harold Braunhut", adding the "von" while living in New York City in the 50's. More on that later...

He loved car racing (racing under the name The Green Hornet in his youth) and he loved animals. So much so, he began experimenting with a kind of shrimp that can sustain in a suspended animation. (Cause that's facinating, right? I thought suspended animation was just from sci-fi movies but many animals possess this ability.) He started cross breeding to create hardier breeds of shrimp to survive the mailing process and live longer in their tanks.

Sea Monkeys were invented in 1957, a year after the ant farm became popular in the United States. I think we've all seen the illustration in the back of comics and such featuring the happy Sea
Monkey family. They are actually brine shrimp eggs that when added to water hatch and the creatures live off yeast and spiralina packets.

Innocent fun. Harold also invented another fun toy, the Kiyoga. Basically, a spring loaded baton originally marketed for ladies defense.

It found another core audience later... With a marketing campaign that started with "If you need a gun and can't get a license..." Ummm, why wouldn't I be able to get a license? Maybe cause I'm a domestic abuser, felon, metally ill...

"So get to the damn point! Stop with all the cloak and dagger!", you say.

Alrighty... The sweet, kooky inventor loved cars and animals... and the Aryan Brotherhood. Yep. He was a big ol' Nazi-lover.  In 2000, Tomar Brott wrote an article for the LA Times (The Sea Monkeys and the White Supremacist) with his findings. This wasn't the first article outing. The above photo of the ad for the Kiyoga was found in a lovely little rag of filth known as "Aryan Nations", a white supremacy magazine owned by Richard Butler.

I have to say, growing up in the south, Richard Butler was always the butt of the joke yet filled me with shame/fear/sadness for the hate he spouted in the 80's. When he was indited for a plot to overthrow the government, he sent out a letter to his 'brothers' that everyone should buy a Kiyoga because the “manufacturer has made a pledge of $25 to my defense fund for each one sold to Aryan Nations supporters.” Harold just so happened to be that guy. When Butler's wife died in 1995, Harold presided over the funeral. They were tight, these two.

There a photos of Mr. von Braunhut standing in from of a giant swastika, tales of him lighting crosses at Aryan gatherings and had made several bat-shit crazy statements about agreeing with Butler who said that Jews are direct descendants of the Devil. (Soooooo the real, live, red devil demon creature himself at some point in human history gave birth or perhaps just went 'poof!' and a particular person appeared here on earth who begat and begat and they became the Jews? I think they were reading some kind of fantasy novel and got confused...)

Now here's the kicker. Wait for it... Harold was a Jew. The "von" in "von Braunhut" was to make his name sound more German. He grew up in Brighton Beach, which at the time was a 'Jewish neighborhood'. His parents are buried in a Jewish cemetery. I... I can't even wrap my brain around this...
"I'm racist, Jewish and one suave motherfucker!"

I don't know what is more flabbergasting: The fact the Harold was a self-hating Jew surrounded by Neo-Nazis or that the Aryan Nation was like, "Whatever. Cha-Ch$ng!" Money talks, I guess, so you could be anyone or anything as long you gave up enough cash.

Harold von Braunhut died in 2003 at age 77 and we're all left shaking our heads and wondering a simple, "what the fuck?"