In Paris, I stayed in a seedy hotel and an Airbnb: One was horrifying

Yahoo Lifestyle is going to Paris Fashion Week on a shoestring budget, and we’re taking you along with us. Every day for a week, we’ll give you tips on how to pack, where to stay, and how to enjoy the French capital without breaking the bank — or forgoing any of the fun. Follow us on Instagram for daily stories. Today’s lesson: How to choose your lodging.

My first trip to Paris, like any college student’s, was not glamorous.

A professor of mine recommended a seedy little hotel in the French capital, which promised “affordable lodging, charming accommodation and authentic Parisian hosts.”

The $70-a-night rate and the professor’s glowing endorsement made the hotel in the second arrondissement seem like a fantastic deal for me and my college traveling buddy. Spoiler: It wasn’t.

The terrifying experience that followed is something you’d imagine happening in a David Lynch-directed horror film. The room itself — with two twin beds side by side and a small toilet — was a falsely advertised glorified closet. The only thing dustier than the bedding was the air above it.

Read more: 4 ways to fake a luxe trip on Instagram when you’re secretly on a budget 

But playing human Tetris with our luggage and bodies in the hotel room was only the beginning. During our three-night stay, we were: locked out at midnight (the entrance is only opened when you buzz the front desk, which was manned by a man who nodded off during his shift); disturbed by housekeeping crews at suspicious times (who needs a “room touch-up” at 6 p.m.?), and followed by a drunk hotel employee while we were on a night out — luckily our last.

What we saved in lodging expenses we sacrificed doubly in comfort.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m now a writer for Yahoo Lifestyle, chronicling what it’s like to head to Paris Fashion Week (PFW) on a budget. If you’re a visual learner, note that I’ve been updating my Instagram stories too (@hautetakes). To those in the industry, PFW is the last leg of Fashion Month, a four-city tour upon which models, editors, bloggers, and buyers — eager to get an close-up look at next season’s trends — embark.

The thing about Fashion Week is that it’s an expensive, keeping up with the Joneses-fueled marathon of rendezvous after rendezvous, dinners, and runway shows. It might leave green juice-chugging fashionistas fatigued but their wallets mostly intact, thanks in large part to brand-sponsored trips.

I’m doing it all for less than $2,000, and sharing how to find a deal in the French capital. Since my own creep-tastic Parisian adventure of 2014, I’ve since been back to the city twice, both times staying in reasonably priced, spacious Airbnb apartments.

To help you find a great deal during your own Parisian stay, here are some things I’ve learned along the way.

1. Pick your travel dates and budget, then start browsing

It’s easy to start narrowing down where you’d like to stay based on how much you’re willing to spend when you’re in Paris (or any city!), and when you’ll be traveling.

For this trip, arriving on a Tuesday meant landing a better deal for my AirBnB than arriving on a weekend day, when rates tend to be higher. I kept my budget under $100 per night, and the options were ample.

2. Stay away from tourist traps

It might seem romantic to book a hotel in the 15th arrondissement that promises a room with a scenic view of the Eiffel Tower. But don’t give in to temptation: the room is likely overpriced and smaller than it appears on a hotel’s site photos.

Instead, land in a different French neighborhood based on your tastes: If you want to stay near iconic Parisian cafés fit for la bourgeoisie, stay near Saint-Germain-des-Prés (enjoy the window-shopping — or real shopping! — at luxury stores near there too).

If you’d prefer a lively neighborhood with vintage shopping and plenty of nightlife options, stay near Le Marais. There are, of course, plenty of other neighborhoods worth exploring, but do your research ahead of time to decide which speaks to you.

3. Decide whether you want to stay in an apartment or a hotel

For some people, staying in a hotel is unbeatable. Often, you’ve got the convenience of a concierge and amenities, security, and perks like room service and housekeeping. That said, you might want to consider a home-rental service if you’re trying to stretch your money.

For example, it’s easy to find cheap hotel rooms (under 100 euros a night) in Paris, but they’re often cramped and are located in less than desirable areas around the city. For a week’s stay in Paris during the fall, most hotel rooms run between 100 and 200 euros a night, with plenty of more expensive options for more than 200 euros, according to Booking.com.

Meanwhile, the average cost of an Airbnb in Paris is $91. There are a handful of services that operate similarly to Airbnb — HomeAway, Vaycay Hero, FlipKey — but because it’s the most well-known, you’re likely to find the most comprehensive selection of homes in which to stay.

No matter where you decide to stay, you’ll want to be discerning about the location and what the space actually looks like. That’s where due diligence becomes tantamount.

4. Hotels are OK! But be skeptical

It’s fine if you prefer the security and amenities of a hotel, but be skeptical when booking. (I personally prefer the privacy of a private apartment, and hosts are often willing to provide recommendations that far surpass those you’d find on your own.)

Many Parisian hotels have similar names, so it’s easy to mix up a four-star stunner for a scary two-star when you book online. For example, more than a few start off with the name “Hotel Le Relais De,” and the word “relais” is found in the names of no fewer than 14 Parisian hotels, with review ratings that range from one star to four stars.

Don’t rely only on a hotel’s website photos to gauge whether it’s a good fit for your stay. Cross-check what you see there with photos other travelers may have posted on Instagram (if you’re not seeing many, perhaps you should reconsider), as well as review sites. If you’re really concerned about space, ask for room dimensions.

To be fair, plenty of home renting hosts could misrepresent what they’re selling you, and staying in an apartment with other people will reduce the cost, but won’t necessarily make you feel more comfortable.

The biggest risk in figuring out where to stay on a trip: not getting what you’ve paid for — or getting exactly what you’ve paid for, as was the case with the hotel I stayed at when I was a student.

If a deal seems too good to be true, it might just be.

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Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Lifestyle. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek.