Sometimes, it’s just not possible to find an apartment before you arrive in a new city. Maybe you got a sweet job offer, but it required you to drop everything and get there immediately. Maybe you totally meant to find a place a long time ago, but, well, kept putting it off. Or, perhaps you live a life of intrigue–you’re in the witness protection program and had to move in the middle of the night, and now you’re counting on My First Apartment to swoop in and help you out. (Hey, we can dream.) In any case, you may be fretting that your temporary lodging options are either a dumpster or the Four Seasons–abject squalor or bankruptcy. Here are a few alternatives. We’ll start with the pricier options and work our way toward the most affordable ones.
Long-term stay hotels, such as TownPlace Suites (run by Marriott) or Homewood Suites (run by Hilton) or your local independent equivalent, offer many of the comforts and amenities of home. There’s a small kitchen–oven, sink, refrigerator, cabinets fully stocked with dishes–and, often, an office area, even if it’s just a nook. And you typically won’t pay more for these extra amenities than you would for a more run-of-the-mill hotels–in the outlying suburbs of a metropolitan area, you might expect to pay around $60 per night, heading up past $100 closer to downtown. Not a cheap option, but not horribly expensive for a short time.
College dorms during the summer. Colleges and universities have hundreds or thousands of rooms on campus, most of them sitting empty during the summer, so some schools open them up to the public. If you’re a summer intern heading to Chicago, for example, the University of Illinois at Chicago rents out dorm rooms to interns for up to twelve weeks, with rates of $900 for four weeks, including internet, cable television, and use of the rec center. Or there’s University Center on State Street, which offers housing for students at various nearby colleges during the school year, and to the general public during the summer (in 2013, “summer” is May 8th through August 24th). The cost of summer housing at University Center varies depending on how long you stay and what type of unit you want. As an example, a two-week stay in July would cost $41.22 per night for a shared suite or $66.16 per night for a private suite.
Hostels aren’t just where you stay when you’re backpacking abroad–they’re a viable option in many American cities, too. Now, if your idea of hostels is a loud, large room overflowing with bunk beds and people strumming guitars–the sort of place that brings out your inner curmudgeon–please know that the stereotypes aren’t true. At least, not necessarily. Modern hostels are clean and cozy and offer private rooms. There are plenty of independent local hostels (just ask Google), or check out Hostelling International USA, which has locations across the United States. You can book a room or find out more about a given hostel on the company’s web site. Note that there may be some restrictions–for example, some Hostelling International USA locations cannot be booked for more than seven consecutive nights, and others, like the one in Austin, won’t let you stay there if you’re a local (according to the website, they “cannot accommodate guests who live within a 60 mile range of Austin”).
Airbnb is an excellent option if you want cheap, casual accommodations in a given neighborhood. The accommodations listed on Airbnb are posted by their respective owners, and they’re typically everyday apartments and houses listed by everyday people, although there are also some castles, private islands, tree houses, and even igloos. Prices and restrictions are set by the owners and vary widely, so be sure sure to read the fine print. Search for a while and you just might find that unexpected marvel, like this $39-per-night apartment in a Minneapolis mansion.
House-sitting, believe it or not, is not just something you can do for your parents. My friend Sherry Ott, for example, is a travel blogger with no permanent address, who has essentially house-sat her way around the world. It’s free, but don’t expect to find all kinds of options no matter where you go. As Sherry noted in a recent story for WorldReviewer, “In order to house-sit, you have to put yourself in places where people don’t want to be. For me this meant the Midwest in the winter. Long, cold winters make a winter getaway a necessity in the Northern US.” Another traveler, Leigh Haugseth, has recapped her extensive house-sitting experience at Meet Plan Go, offering the ins and outs, plus a few resources and links to house-sitting companies such as HouseSittersAmerica.
Think of Couchsurfing as Airbnb’s even less formal and more adventurous sibling. With Couchsurfing, you’re typically not renting out an entire apartment but, as the name implies, scoring a spot on someone’s couch or in the spare bedroom. It’s free, but do keep in mind that, since you really are sleeping on a stranger’s couch, you probably won’t be able to stay for an extended period of time–unless you happen to be really, really good at making friends.
Friends and family (or friends of friends, or friends of family …) are always a good bet–and you might not even know they’re out there, unless you ask. Put out a call on Facebook or via email: Do any of you have any friends in this awesome city to which I’m heading? You never know how the request will carom and who might get in touch. And even if you don’t find a place to stay, you may still find a new friend to guide you around your new town and help make you feel at home.