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How a Personal Assistant can help budget travellers

| 38 comments | Category: travel

People are always curious about how I can set myself up so quickly in a foreign country and I’ve shared my typical strategies for finding accommodation quickly before. That’s what I typically do and it’s been very effective.

But this time I tried something very different!

Because I’d have a 10 hour jet lag (coming from Vancouver) and would have a rough flight as a consequence of buying such a cheap ticket, I knew I’d arrive very tired. What I didn’t realise was that my final flight would be delayed SEVEN times and I’d end up spending 28 hours in Düsseldorf airport!

(Many thanks to SunExpress for being the worst airline in my entire last decade of travelling and treating their passengers so terribly, most of whom were Turkish families with dehydrated babies)

This meant that I arrived a day late and 3 full days of sleep deprivation meant that my usual strategies to get over jetlag quickly didn’t work.

I’ve actually had a rough first week of exhaustion and oversleeping, so I’ve only started my language mission in the last two days. (First week update of mission will have to come next week, sorry!)

If I had to do my usual intensive search for an apartment on my first day(s), while figuring out the bureaucracy behind setting up a SIM card in Turkey, and doing it all in a country that doesn’t speak much English (I am here learning its language after all!) I would have had a terrible first few days on top of my exhaustion, likely spending a lot on hostels or sleeping on someone’s couch in the process, which would not have been easy when I needed to catch up on lots of sleep.

A hired helping hand

Instead of this, I arrived and went straight to my own bed in my own apartment, and had the vast majority of everything else arranged for me. And no, I didn’t go through an agency!

Agencies are all over the place; they are a barrier to protect you from the local langauge and will figure it all out for you with a pre-arranged deal they have with local businesses. But they are also terribly expensive, may be working on commission (so are motivated to give you something more expensive) and tend to be too up-market for my needs. Those I know of give you anything but an authentic experience.

The ideal is to have a good friend to simply do all the work for you, but that’s asking a lot of any friend and I didn’t know anyone in Istanbul. So I hired a task specific temporary Personal Assistant!

Now I know what you’re thinking: assistants are for people in suits with too much money, but I actually spent a total of about US$50 to get all my bare essentials arranged for me! He was happy with the payment and so was I. That’s what I’d easily spend in hostels and needing to eat out all the time in a day or two. Or much more for hotels. And frankly, the convenience of going straight to my own bed from the airport in the perfect inexpensive ideally located apartment was in itself well worth the money!

How did I do it?

I went to odesk and elance [affiliate links] and wrote an advertisement to get someone who lives in Istanbul to do the work for me. After an interview process with several people, I hired a local who definitely looked like he would be helpful. On these systems you can hire someone who has already worked before for other people and has references so you know you can trust them.

He called up several advertisements that he saw (entirely in Turkish of course) and haggled the prices for me. He visited the most interesting ones personally and sent me all the details, and made sure they fit all the criteria I set (central, safe area, furnished, with Internet, within my budget etc.). Since he was searching as a local “for a friend” he didn’t have to deal with the price hikes I would have had as an obvious foreigner with no Turkish.

My ideal home

When I arrived I went straight “home”, paid my rent and got some well needed sleep.

My rent is a fantastic price and everyone I’ve told how much I pay are always surprised considering I live right by the Galata tower and a short walk to nearly all the nightlife of the city, and am only here for just over seven weeks. The apartment itself is modern, spacious, with air conditioning for hot Turkish afternoons and has all features I need and some I don’t (like widescreen satellite TV).

The only catch is there is no view because it’s tucked inside a small street. This also means no light gets into the apartment, and this has not been helping me adjust to local time! I usually wake up with sunlight, not alarm clocks: something I’ll miss for the next weeks, but worth the sacrifice for all the other benefits.

He was initially going to meet me as soon as I arrived from where the airport shuttle drops me and even bring me there himself! But all my delays meant I arrived too late to meet him, so I got a taxi and met with the owner directly instead.

The personal VA

While travelling, I was constantly communicating with “my assistant” to finalise details with him and ask him for extra tips entirely on my 3G Kindle, which has come in handy many times before while I’m on the road. He met up with me the next day and he gave me a bureaucracy-handled SIM card, with 3G Internet enabled, a public transport card, a nice chat, and a warm welcome! We did it in a place that had my first taste of very strong Turkish coffee, which certainly woke me up!

While here, I’ll continue to send him small tasks over the next weeks that may simplify my time in Istanbul. For him it’s welcome extra work (he already works full time) and he gets paid fairly of course, and for me it simplifies my life! This week for example I’ve asked him to call up some gyms and dance schools for me to find out what their prices are, since I can’t make phonecalls in Turkish yet.

I had read about “Virtual Assistants” in books like Tim Ferriss’ 4 hour work week that virtualise everything for you. I have gotten paid help online before to help me tweak some things on this website, but there is isn’t a lot that’s “virtual” about what I’m doing in Istanbul!

It worked out great, so I do believe I’ll be trying this in future destinations too :)

Think you would ever give it a try, or prefer to do all the dirty work yourself? Let us know in the comments!

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  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Give it a whirl! Its usefulness would depend on where you go and on your budget, since some PAs would be more expensive than others, and it would be harder to find them in some places. There are lots of people working on the sites I mentioned in Turkey so it was easier to find someone good!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Give it a whirl! Its usefulness would depend on where you go and on your budget, since some PAs would be more expensive than others, and it would be harder to find them in some places. There are lots of people working on the sites I mentioned in Turkey so it was easier to find someone good!

  • http://www.travelnlass.com/ TravelnLass

    Most interesting.  But most seem to offer mainly technical/business
    services.  How might I find someone to find me an apartment in Vietnam?

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      The reason I wrote about this is because it’s quite a unique idea ;) So you will NOT have people who say “apartment searcher” in their job description! My Turkish assistant is actually a video editor! But he is a local, is streetwise and seemed clever in the application so I gave him a try.

      Write your own ad and people will apply. Or see if you can find virtual assistants based on Vietnam, since they’d have a bit more experience in such matters.

      Say that they must live in Vietnam and within the ad put a question that will show that they paid attention, so that you can avoid spam. I like to say “start your email with the word ‘penguin'”. That way if I don’t see it when scrolling through dozens of applications I can scrap the majority of them immediately in the preview window, since too many people copy and paste generic applications to everything.

      Lots of common sense is needed here. You could get someone affiliated with a real estate agent apply. That’s why I was actually happier to get a video editor in my case, since I knew he would very unlikely be biased. Like everything on the Internet you can get scammed, so be careful and you should be fine.

      • http://www.facebook.com/amikeco.ru Väčesláv Ivanov

        Looks more like a volunteer network, like those services to stay overnight for free. But here the input of a local is less involving — one get paid for the efforts, but probably does the work mostly for the pleasure of helping. Do I get it right?

  • http://ryangoesabroad.com Ryan

    Benny, this is such a great idea! Such a travel ninja tip… I think you could use it as a chapter in your International Haggling Guide. :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks! It’s guide worthy if I were to write such a book :P

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks! It’s guide worthy if I were to write such a book :P

  • http://www.facebook.com/amikeco.ru Väčesláv Ivanov

    » I went to odesk and elance

    Kiu el ili ŝajnis al vi pli facila kaj utila? Ial ne aperas deziro registriĝi en ambaŭ :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      La du estas bonaj. Mi havas pli da spertoj en odesk, sed mi trovis la turkan helpulon en elance cxi-foje.
      Registriĝi estas senpage. Kiam vi trovos iun kaj decidos fari ion kun li, tiam vi pagos (aux gajnos).

  • http://yetanotherlanguage.blogspot.com/ Crno Srce

    So the answer to not being able to do everything you need to in the target language from day one is now that you don’t?

    Just kidding – the fact is that you could never read a phrasebook on your flight over and then be able to negotiate all these little hurdles straight away, so getting it organised for you seems like a reasonable approach, as long as you can find someone trustworthy!

    One question – why the shorter missions now? I suppose all will be revealed in the fullness of time :-)

    Good luck with your adventures in Istanbul. Turkey is a country I would love to visit someday…

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      See the intro to the Turkish mission http://fi3m.com/turkish-mission/ where I mention why they are shorter this year.

    • http://stephenrice.eu Stephen Rice

      No kidding: just because you can’t do everything you need in the target language on day one doesn’t mean you do some real estate negotiation to give you some practice.

  • http://LifeByExperimentation.com Zane the Experimenter

    This is cool, Benny – I really need to get myself a Kindle, I think. I’m always wandering around looking for an internet connection, it seems, when I first arrive in a city.

    I’m really happy with my new living situation though, I just moved into my own room in Montpellier (France) with a French flatmate whom I found on AirBnB with very minimal work. The price & location & amenities are great, and my flatmate is happy to speak only French with me. For the first time in almost 2 months I have completely unpacked my bags :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Feels good doesn’t it! You appreciate having a home so much more after NOT having one for a while…
      Definitely invest in the Kindle if you’ll be on the road again later. To be honest I never use the 3G on it while living somewhere, since I get 3G on my smartphone and it’s more versatile. But while popping between countries, and the day you arrive with nothing organised yet (even here from the airport I e-mailed my PA) it’s worth it!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    With taxis here in Istanbul I always have to have my GPS on and constantly guide them, otherwise they’ll “forget” the way and take me on a tour of the city…
    More communication always helps! :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Merci Marjorie! :D

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yep, and the money you’d pay for a hostel for two nights or a hotel would already make hiring a PA worth it ;)

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Yup, I’ve always wanted to try this after having read about it in Ferriss’ book, just never had the need.  That’s fantastic and the total cost for everything is…$50? That can’t be right, maybe for the initial hook-up, but you say you’re going to have him do some other stuff for you–are you paying per-task or per-hour or what?

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      $50 was for everything I described in this article. Why the hell would I pay $50 just for a “hook up”? The website takes 10% off all payments you make – no need for anything else.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      $50 was for everything I described in this article. Why the hell would I pay $50 just for a “hook up”? The website takes 10% off all payments you make – no need for anything else.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      $50 was for everything I described in this article. Why the hell would I pay $50 just for a “hook up”? The website takes 10% off all payments you make – no need for anything else.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      $50 was for everything I described in this article. Why the hell would I pay $50 just for a “hook up”? The website takes 10% off all payments you make – no need for anything else.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Glad to hear the other side of the story! :) I met a lot of people who earn a good living form oDesk, so hopefully I’ll be sending them some new employers with this post ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Glad to hear the other side of the story! :) I met a lot of people who earn a good living form oDesk, so hopefully I’ll be sending them some new employers with this post ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Glad to hear the other side of the story! :) I met a lot of people who earn a good living form oDesk, so hopefully I’ll be sending them some new employers with this post ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Glad to hear the other side of the story! :) I met a lot of people who earn a good living form oDesk, so hopefully I’ll be sending them some new employers with this post ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Glad to hear the other side of the story! :) I met a lot of people who earn a good living form oDesk, so hopefully I’ll be sending them some new employers with this post ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Glad to hear the other side of the story! :) I met a lot of people who earn a good living form oDesk, so hopefully I’ll be sending them some new employers with this post ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I’ve already been to India http://www.fluentin3months.com/no-words/ but I’ll be back some day.

  • Péter Németh

    I wasn’t so lucky:

    Your job posting: Find me an apartment in Beirut was removed because it was in violation of the oDesk Terms of Service. 

  • Péter Németh

    I wasn’t so lucky:

    Your job posting: Find me an apartment in Beirut was removed because it was in violation of the oDesk Terms of Service. 

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      I phrased mine as looking for an *assistant* in Istanbul, not finding an apartment. He did a couple of other things for me – use different phrasing and it might get through ;)

  • http://theoryofeverywhere.com/ Matt Krems

    So cool! Glad it all worked out so well. I have had some incredibly stressful days while traveling, and it is finally starting to sink in that it is almost ALWAYS worth it to pay a bit for things to go more smoothly.

  • andrew_wilcox

    Boe – if you’re still looking, I have an friend living in Istanbul who is a personal assistant for English-speaking visitors. Feel free to email me you’re interested. andrew.wilcox@gmail.com

  • EntertheDragans

    That is an amazing suggestion! I’m already thinking of tasks I could give a VA. You always give the best tips. Thanks Benny.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fabien.snauwaert Fabien Snauwaert

    Abby, I’m currently looking for a personal virtual assistant in Buenos Aires — the same way Benny describes in here. If you’re interested or know some people, would you be so kind as to contact me? I’m the only one with my name on Facebook: fabien.snauwaert

  • rafa

    Awesome idea! May I ask you the contact information of your Personal Assistant in Taipei?