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Renting a Bed in Some Person's Home

A couple decades ago, pre-AirBnB, my parents (both now deceased) traveled across Germany lodging each evening within the home of some generous local in the village they happened upon. Does this scene still exist? Do folks in Germany (and other EU countries) still avail a room in their home for the night to a weary wayfarer? If so, is there some online compendium of addresses for such? ...or, has AirBnB usurped all semblance of this improvised accommodation?

Posted by
1267 posts

I remember back in the mid-90's, wanting to be close to Heathrow for an early morning flight to Paris, and catching a glimpse of a sign saying room to let and I thought, hey, why not. It was a weird experience, the people were weird, the room was weird, and the shower only had scalding hot water. That experience was never again to be duplicated.

Posted by
1526 posts

Lothian, you're probably talking about an early version of Couchsurfing, which does still exist. It's a very large organization and there are a lot of people who use it all over the world.

I'm not sure why people have an aversion to spending a night in someone's home. I've done it for years since I started traveling. Even with Airbnb, I will rent a room from a host and not a whole apartment. I've met the most wonderful people that way and have never had a bad experience.

Posted by
6 posts

Perzactly.
I recall my parents regaling each of their overnight stays: the views out their bedroom window; the warmth and cordiality of their hosts; a small enjoyable breakfast of familial cuisine; interested and interesting conversation with the hosts; the list goes on. Each extempore stop was a treat to end one day, a delightful beginning of the next. My wife and I seek a similar experience, if possible.

Couchsurfing. A quick visit to the site reveals Couchsurfing is struggling: "Without your immediate help, this community will be lost forever." This entreaty is on the paywall that thwarts everyone visiting the site (along with the fine-print admission that data collected from cookies will be provided to select partners.), so no browsing Couchsurfing for prospects without first providing a credit card and enabling cookies on your browser. auf Wiedersehen, Couchsurfing.

Sooo... I wonder what resource my parents used in the 1990's to find these locals with a room for let. (One imagines a corkboard in a town center or pub.)

Posted by
5769 posts

I would like to offer an alternative that would still provide a social aspect and low cost housing. Have you thought about hostels? The reason I ask is that there have been some changes since the 90's and a pandemic as well. I am not sure that people may be as willing to have a stream of strangers come through their home with Covid. In addition, every indication is that the huge pent up travel demand is hitting this summer. How much of your trip do you want to spend scouring for lodging and how much do you want to spend out and enjoying your locations?

A hostel will still provide the opportunity to mix with new people from various cultures and keep costs low. The advantage is that you can go from one location to the next knowing you have a bed to sleep in at the next location.

Posted by
13214 posts

I did this sort of accommodation only once and in Germany. That was in 1984, no problems at all. This type of arrangement was called "Zimmer frei." WC and sink were available.

I did this in the small town of Bad Sassendorf/Westfalen, stayed a couple of nights. The breakfast, a traditional German breakfast, was included. The landlady, an older woman of the war generation, did not speak English at all. Most likely, she would have been against it anyway, so all the communication was done in German. The time to engage in conversation was at breakfast as was the custom.

Would I use this option nowadays? Yes, depending on the town in Germany, price, etc. AirBnB is not an option.

Posted by
6 posts

I haven't considered hostels. I have no aversion to hostels; neither do I have any experience with them. I'm also looking at the prospect of overnighting in a monastery.

With these options, it seems the issue that presents is one of options-to-stay; where (presumably) more homes are available in a given village, and (presumably) one hostel serves one town, and (presumably) monastery serves an area.

Posted by
18465 posts

What about a "Privat Zimmer", which is a room in a private home? A lot of town websites will list Privat Zimmmer along with Hotels, Pensionen, and Ferien Wohnungen. Not quite the same as couch surfing, they do charge for the service, but it is usually less expensive than staying at a small Gasthaus.

Today's Privat Zimmer are not like someone once described them as "Frau Schmidt's spare room". They are often in a bigger house where the owners raised a large family. After the kids are grown and gone, they remodel part of the house to have rooms with en suite bathrooms. The accommodations are pretty private, but you still have contact with family members if you wish.

I have to admit that initially I was a bit reluctant to stay in a Privat Zimmer, but once I tried it, I really liked it. A Privat Zimmer is ideal if you really want to connect with the locals. Every Zimmer I've stayed in included breakfast (Frühstück) with the room, and it was served by a family member. Some of the best conversations I've had with locals was when with a family member when they served me breakfast.

Posted by
5769 posts

If you have to wait to find a home until you are in the city itself, then I would argue it is less convenient than a hostel or monastery stay where you could reserve in advance, even if it was just a day or two in advance so you could keep your trip flexible.

I just read Lee's post about being able to find rooms on town's websites. That would eliminate the last minute worry and be a great option.

Hostels are quite common across Europe and there are sites that arrange monastery stays as well.

Posted by
18465 posts

I've found that town websites are a good source for finding accommodations, particularly in small towns. A great many small towns have their own websites, which are usually the town name dot de. A host from whom I rented a Privat Zimmer once told my that to be listed on the town website, he had to pay a small fee (I think it was 50€/yr and work one or two weekend days a year in the tourist office. Compare that to a booking website that exacts a 15% (or more) fee. That kind of explains why the properties listed on booking websites are generally the more expensive place in a town. I've found that a town website will often have 2 - 2½ times as many listings compared to a booking site for the same town, and those are usually the more economical places in town.

If the town website does not have an English option, look for the words "Unterküfte" (accommodations) or "Übernachtung" (Overnight). A lot of the terms are pretty simple in German. EZ (Einzelzimmer) is a single room; DZ (Doppelzimmer) is a double room. Look for "Ü/F" or "Mit Frühstück" if you want breakfast included.

There will usually be a website URL and email address attached to the listing. If you can't communicate in German, try it in English. A lot of Germans speak English. If they don't, they probably will not answer. I always arrange my accommodations in German; then when I arrive about half the time I find that they also speak English.

Posted by
6 posts

Privat Zimmer, Zimmer Frei,... these are excellent suggestions, and quite possibly the resource my parents used during their sojourn across Deutschland.

Presumably, the same sort of thing exist in other European counties; e.g., France, Switzerland, et. al.? As simple as visiting a town website and searching within for private homes with rooms for let..? I wonder if Europe Through the Back Door provides any information about this sort of thing...

Posted by
2088 posts

I am curious what the difference is between Privat Zimmer and a bed & breakfast, which I enjoy using.

Posted by
3248 posts

On our early trips to Germany where we drove through very small towns we often found a house with a Zimmer Frei sign in the window and would stay the night there. They were never free, frei means unoccupied (like the toilet stalls 😉). A simple breakfast was usually included.

Posted by
5654 posts

Privatzimmer (one word) is both singular and plural.

"Zimmer Frei" isn't a type of accommodation. It's what's written on an advertisement, often a sign hanging in the window or out in front of someone's home, or sometimes small hotel, indicating "room available." If it's a home, what you get is a Privatzimmer, but like many German terms used by speakers of other languages, "Zimmer frei" has been contorted into a type of accommodation by travelers (and certain guidebook writers!) who don't understand the language.

"Gästezimmer Frei" is common too. This sign even shows you whether singles or doubles are available.

Bacharach's German page for "Private Gästezimmer":
https://rhein-nahe-touristik.de/gastgeber/privatzimmer/

The "Gastgeberverzeichnis" or "Unterkunftsverzeichnis" (guide to accommodations) for any town is often available in pdf format - small towns - or small coalitions of towns - often combine hotels, vacation apartments and Privatzimmer in the same document. Boppard's (below) does this but separates them by category; "Pensionen und Privatzimmer" can be found on pages 5 & 6:

https://www.boppard-tourismus.de/media/download/titel_ukv-zusammengefuegt.pdf

Privatzimmer, which traditionally offer breakfast, have definitely been on the decline for the last 2 decades. Much more common are Ferienwohnungen (vacation rentals) which rarely offer breakfast (though many offer "Brötchenservice" - a delivery of hot rolls to go with your in-room Keurig fix.)

https://www.boppard-tourismus.de/media/download/titel_ukv-zusammengefuegt.pdf

Posted by
6986 posts

Yeah, I traveled this way in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland. Not couchsurfing, but paid rooms in houses where people did this as a side business, not as a kindness. It was the BnB model for AirBnB** Its the internet that makes the difference. I think the term BnB has been corrupted over the years, where in the US, it seems to mean any hotel (usually boutique) that provides a breakfast (usually fancy) with their rooms. Whereas it was, once upon a time, the cheap way to travel across Europe. No frills breakfasts and a small spartan room, with shared baths down the hall. I remember rolling into a rail station and seeing bulletin boards with business cards offering rooms, or walk down certain streets to see the Zimmer frei signs in house windows. Sometimes kids holding signs. Or going to the Tourist Office where they'd find one for you, to your specs.

** as I heard it described on the radio, AirBnB was started by a couple of guys who provided air mattresses on the floor in their apartment for out of towners during an IT convention.

Posted by
5926 posts

Back in the day, many cities (maybe most towns of any size?) had an official "TI" Tourist Info office, where local rooms in private homes could be booked. It wasn't that long ago -- look at the early Rick Steves TV episodes, you often see Rick landing in one of these places and getting a pointer to a room.

I think these institutions have largely disappeared -- at least in the form they used to take: you can still find plenty of TI places in major tourist cities, but I think they function differently now. These days they seem to have full-color brochures and general info for organized, commercial tourist activities to hand out, but not much on hooking you up with rooms in a local private home. I assume the internet and the commoditization of mass-tourism killed them (IME lately, many shops labeled as "Tourist Info Offices" in large cities are in fact private businesses with some agenda that often does not align with mine). Some TI offices are still very valuable, but many, not so much.

Posted by
18465 posts

I wonder what resource my parents used in the 1990's to find these
locals with a room for let

I've heard people claim that they just drove or walked around town until they saw a "Zimmer frei" sign outside a building, but that does not, in my experience, look like a very efficient method.

In the 1980s I read that you could arrive in a town and go to the tourist information office, usually in or near the Bahnhof, and they would have a list of rooms available. I tried that trick in 2001, on my second RS era trip to Germany. It was in March, not a busy season for people with accommodations. and on two occasions I had no problems.

The first place was in a medium sized town on the Rhein river south of Offenburg. I went into the TI office and they gave me an address for a hotel in town. I think I was the only person in the hotel that night; at least no one came into the breakfast room the next morning except through the front door. I think maybe they did provide breakfast service for people in the neighborhood.

The second test was in a small town in the Black Forest the following day. I already had a reservation for a room in that town for the following day, but I arrived a day early and decided to test the system. The room they directed my to was pretty good, but it was farther from the station than the room I had for the following night and cost a little more. So my conclusion was that they just have a list of rooms available in the town and they just give you a room from the list on a rotating basis. There is no attempt on their part to give you the most cost effective place in town, just the next one on the list. If you care about getting the best deal, find it yourself.

Posted by
18465 posts

I am curious what the difference is between Privat Zimmer and a bed &
breakfast, which I enjoy using.

I recently stayed in a Ferienwohnung (FeWo, vacation apartment) in a small town in the Spessart area between Frankfurt and Würzburg). The town website had a few Privatzimmer and FeWo listed but no "BnBs". However, using the AirBnB website, I did find some in the town. Every AirBnB in town was really a FeWo, i.e., there was no resident host. A lot of them were whole houses, not just a room. A least one of them had an out-of-town landlord. All were more expensive than the FeWos in town, and a lot of the difference was the fees added by AirBnB (and not disclosed in the initial offering).

I guess the difference between places offered on AirBnB and a site like Booking is that on booking the property is charged the commission (15% and up), which they include in their rates, whereas on AirBnB, the rentee pays the commission. On Booking, you "see" the commission up front; on AirBnB it's less visible.

I would say that a Privatzimmer is the purest form of a BnB. AirBnB rentals should not be allowed to use the BnB designation. At a real BnB, you get breakfast "served" to you; at most AirBnBs you only get breakfast if you fix it to yourself.

BTW, I've stayed several times in a BnB (unfortunately no long open) in downtown Steamboat Springs. It was a "true" BnB, with breakfast served my the resident owner. I loved it.

Posted by
18465 posts

"Zimmer Frei" isn't a type of accommodation.

A Zimmer Frei sign is more like the sign on a motel that says vacancy. How many people come home from a vacation and proudly say "we stayed in a "vacancy".

Posted by
5654 posts

@lothian.mcadam: Because you're looking to experience the "purest form" of BnB, as Lee put it, and because it is on the wane, and because there's at least a handful of us with experience in such places on this forum, you might want to share some of your anticipated travel destinations to see whether we're aware of specific homes that might work for you.

stan wrote,

No frills breakfasts and a small spartan room, with shared baths down
the hall.

Spartan operations like this, whether BnBs, hotels, or Ferienwohnungen, are REALLY rare nowadays. The public's overnight standards have changed a lot from the old days your parents probably experienced. Rooms in private homes are most commonly redone to include ensuite baths or converted to Fe-wos (short for Ferienwohnungen) with bath and kitchenette. Where breakfast is served, it's more varied. There's probably still a good-sized "Aufenthaltsraum" where 2-3 breakfast tables are set up, but hosts usually take pride in making things very "gemütlich." This photo is on the website of a Privatzimmer home in Osterspai, where I spent 5 nights several years ago. IME the hosts don't normally sit down to breakfast with you unless you invite them to do so.

Posted by
1834 posts

Altho I primarily use fewos since I tend to stay in one place for several days, my favorite place is in Bacharach where the landlady rents 3 rooms, essentially the third floor in her house. The tourist office will help those who ask for a room. One of those staying on our last trip had just walked into the tourist office that afternoon. When I was travelling by bicycle, I often found a place that way since I was never sure where my day would end.

I find that town websites are more likely to list ALL the town’s places to stay. Sometimes if there is an English language version, not all the places are listed.

The British Cyclist Tourist Club used to issue an annual guide listing friendly B&Bs. I think the maximum cost for a night’s stay was two pounds !

Posted by
1526 posts

I agree with Stephen about the town websites. I was trying to find a place to stay in Ostbevern, a very small town a little north of Münster where my father‘s family came from. I was looking online everywhere and the few hotels I found were already booked.

But then I went to the town website, which is the German name of the town followed by “.de” and clicked on the tourism tab. It had a list of all apartments and rooms in town. I found a very nice place to stay and I’ve been communicating with the landlady since then.

I did get a little thrown when she sent me an invoice and asked me to transfer the money to her bank, which I think is somewhat common for German residents. But I emailed her and explained that I am already out of the country and that my bank charges a fee for international wire transfers. She was fine and said I could pay with cash when I got there. I am paying around €55 for a two bedroom apartment with a kitchen, washer and dryer, and so on.

Posted by
46 posts

Mardee:

I did get a little thrown when she sent me an invoice and asked me to
transfer the money to her bank, which I think is somewhat common for
German residents. But I emailed her and explained that I am already
out of the country and that my bank charges a fee for international
wire transfers. She was fine and said I could pay with cash when I got
there. I am paying around €55 for a two bedroom apartment with a
kitchen, washer and dryer, and so on.

Nice find! And yes, the classic "Überweisung" or bank transfer among German residents!