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Who needs a hotel?


Renting an apartment or villa can be cheaper than a hotel, gives you a taste of local life, and lets you vacation as a family.

Europe Your Way

Who needs a hotel?

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Choose article section... How to know if you're in good hands What to ask before you reserve


Renting an apartment or villa can be cheaper than a hotel, gives you a taste of local life, and lets you vacation as a family.

By Jacqueline Harmon Butler

Staying in even a moderately priced hotel in Europe can be expensive, especially if you bring your kids along. Having to eat every meal out adds to the cost. It can be inconvenient, too, if you like to start each day with a cup of coffee or grab a snack between meals. Also, if you're traveling with children and they're staying in a separate hotel room, who knows what they're up to?

These are some of the reasons why more and more Europe-bound vacationers are renting homes abroad. You can rent a manor in the Cotswolds, a castle in the Dordogne, or a palazzo in Venice for a princely sum, but many vacation rentals, in virtually every country in Europe, offer exceptionally good values. For example, a one-bedroom apartment in Paris, with a view of the Panthéon, goes for about $115 a day.

Homes in the country may offer even better values. Imagine spending a week with your entire family in a villa in the Chianti region of Tuscany that sleeps 10 and has a swimming pool, and paying about $1,800 for lodging. If there are 10 of you, that's only $180 per person for the week. In the French Riviera, you can rent a chateau near Cannes that accommodates up to seven, again with a swimming pool, for $1,200 a week.

In Ireland, it's possible to rent a 400-year-old, two-bedroom cottage near the River Shannon, just a two-hour drive from Dublin, for less than $800 a week.

The number of rental agencies is ballooning. You're likely to find a dozen or more listed in the classified ads in the back of your alumni magazine. But to gain access to the universe of agencies and single rentals, go online. Type "vacation rentals" in Yahoo!'s search field, for instance, and you'll find more than 3,000 services or listings in virtually all parts of the world. Depending on the agency, however, many of the rentals listed may be merely hotel or motel rooms or apartments.

You can narrow your search considerably if you know the Web sites of agencies that handle only residential short-term rentals. For example, Paris Séjour Réservation, or PSR, shows pictures of the interiors of its properties as well as a floor plan (see page 131). You can reserve your apartment over the Internet; PSR will follow up by mailing you contracts and other paperwork.

If you so choose, for an extra fee, PSR will send a car to pick you up at the airport or train station and drive you to the company's office to get the key, and then to the property. PSR also sells packages of common household items and offers other conveniences such as key pickup and off-hours check-in and checkout.

But if you're the kind of person who prefers live human contact, it's often possible to do business by phone. Geneticist David E.C. Cole, for instance, was planning to attend a five-day conference in Florence, where a colleague had stayed in a rented vacation home a few years before. This appealed to Cole and his wife, ob/gyn Linda J. Stirk. When she saw an article about a company called Vacation Rentals in Western Europe, she called and spoke with rental agent Christine Whitelaw.

After discussing several options, Cole and Stirk settled on an apartment in a villa. Their arrival coincided with the birthday of the villa's caretaker. Within moments, they were immersed in a party. Over champagne, pasta, and salad, they met the villa's other guests.

Cole and Stirk were generally pleased with their apartment, saying the facilities were clean and matched the description Whitelaw had given them. The only negative notes were the phone, which they couldn't get to work properly, and the final bill, which they found complicated.

Rent a whole villa, and you can stay with friends. That's what anesthesiologist Mark Nixon and his GP wife, Patricia Mark, did with two other couples. They were tired of large, impersonal hotels, and the thought of mingling with residents of a small town in rural Italy appealed to them. Through Vacation Rentals in Western Europe, they took a hilltop villa near Arezzo, in Tuscany. It could easily accommodate 10 persons and had a lovely view of the valley.

Used to being independent, each couple rented a car. After the day's explorations, all six travelers returned to the villa and prepared dinner as a group. "The best part of our stay was being part of the local scene and cooking meals with wonderful fresh ingredients from the market," Nixon reports.

The Nixons repeated the experience with a different couple in an apartment in Venice, located through the same agency. Venice is expensive, so the two-bedroom, two-bath apartment was a good value at $2,400 a week. The flat had no elevator, but the location, in a quiet residential area, and a tiny rooftop patio, where the vacationers ate breakfast, made up for the inconvenience of climbing 67 steps.

The apartment was located within walking or vaporetto (water bus) distance of most major attractions. Although the Nixons got lost several times, finding their way back home was "part of the charm." Thoroughly hooked on living abroad, they subsequently rented another property in Umbria and are planning to rent a villa in Provence this summer, followed by a week in a chalet in the Languedoc, all through Vacation Rentals.

Vacation rentals are ideal for extended families, too, as anesthesiologist Judy Coursley found. She, her husband Gary Kingston, a surgeon, their 9-year-old daughter, and Coursley's parents spent two weeks in a Tuscan farmhouse about 30 miles from Florence. The house, which is divided into four apartments, dates from the 12th century. The owners, who live nearby, not only suggested trips and activities but also supplied a playmate in the person of their own 9-year-old daughter. The girls became such good friends that they still write to each other.

Traveling with a baby or very young child presents its own challenges. Pediatric cardiologist Russel Hirsch and his wife Patricia, a pediatric ICU nurse, wanted a toddler-proof place to stay with their 16-month-old in rural Italy, and they gave their rental agency, Barclay International Group, a long list of requirements. Barclay not only found a place that satisfied those needs but also bargained with a car rental agency for lower rates and a car seat that met US safety regulations.

The Hirsches' home abroad was a two-bedroom unit in a house on a working farm in Impruneta, near Florence. Everything was fine except the crib supplied by the owner, which wasn't up to US safety standards. Fortunately, the Hirsches had brought along a portable crib. Their toddler was a big hit with the bambino-loving Italians.

For families with older children, a vacation rental allows everyone to be together, rather than scattered in separate hotel rooms. Anesthesiologist Rael Elk, his wife Barbara, and their five children, then ranging in age from 19 to 12, rented a large apartment in London with easy access to the Underground. It was cheaper than several hotel rooms would have been, and all seven Elks congregated around the breakfast table to plan each day's activities,

More recently, Rael and Barbara Elk, her mother, and their 23-year-old daughter returned to London and rented another flat through Barclay International Group. It was accurately described as sleeping six, but they decided they'd like something more spacious in the same neighborhood. They notified Barclay, whose representative offered to move the family to a property some distance away, since nothing was available nearby. The Elks declined, because they preferred the location of the first apartment, but were glad of the prompt response. "We'd use Barclay again," says Rael Elk. In fact, reputable agencies will do their best to resolve problems or, if they can't, to relocate you.

Some agencies will do more than rent you an apartment or villa. The Parker Company made airline and rental car reservations for cardiologist Joe Wise and his journalist wife, Suzanne. From Parker's catalog, the couple chose a small 19th-century farmhouse just outside Cortona in Italy. The owner greeted them, showed them the quirks of the fuse box and appliances, and assured them that he was on 24-hour call if they needed his help.

The Wises found the local people friendly and helpful, and the experience so enjoyable that they rented another property through Parker, in Sicily, and are planning a third trip for later this year.

The author is a freelance writer based in San Francisco

How to know if you're in good hands

The vacation rental agency you choose should have representatives with first-hand knowledge of the country you plan to visit, including the weather, places of interest, and modes of transportation.

Look for an agency that represents companies in the destination country, rather than the property owners directly. While this adds another layer of commission, it means you'll have someone near your rental site who can deal with problems, serve as a go-between with the owner, and provide help in English. In addition, the company can be more objective than the owner about the merits and disadvantages of the property.

Speaking of commission, it may vary depending on the length of your stay, but it should not exceed 20 percent of the rental.

Will the agency give you negative as well as positive feedback from previous clients? Be wary of anyone who tries to brush off your questions.

The author of the accompanying article has had experience with the following agencies and recommends them:

Barclay International Group
3 School St.
Glen Cove, NY 11542
800-845-6636; fax 516-609-0000; www.barclayweb.com; information@barclayweb.com

Barclay has been in business for more than 36 years. The majority of its properties are in England, France, and Italy, but there are also rentals in Austria, Greece, Holland, Portugal, and Spain. Barclay operates a full-service travel agency, which will reserve airline tickets, rental cars, and sightseeing tours, as well as obtain phone cards and rail passes.

The Parker Company
Seaport Landing
152 Lynnway
Lynn, MA 01902
800-280-2811; fax 781-596-3125; www.theparkercompany.com; italy@theparkercompany.com

Parker offers a wide range of vacation properties in Italy; a color catalog is available on request. A Parker employee has fully inspected each of the agency's properties. Parker will arrange car rentals and airfares.

PSR—Paris Séjour Réservation
875 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 3214
Chicago, IL 60611
312-587-7707; fax 312-587-9887; www.PSRyourhomeinParis.com; Reservations@PSRyourhomeinParis.com

PSR offers more than 600 apartments in Paris, everything from small studios to large three-bedroom suites, priced from $75 to $350 per night. All are supplied with direct phone lines, color television, fully equipped kitchens, weekly cleaning with change of linens, and a 24-hour emergency hotline. Special airfares, airport transfers, and chauffeur service are available for additional fees. So are various business services, including Minitel, fax, and photocopying.

Vacation Rentals in Western Europe
4348 Shell Beach Road
Ladysmith, BC V9G 1M8

250-245-8707; fax 250-245-8701;www.889.net/vacations; whitelaw@mail.island.net

Vacation Rentals in Western Europe represents 11 companies (including the oldest and largest villa rental agency in Europe) that manage properties for their owners. Rentals include castles, farmhouses, manor houses, cottages, and apartments of every description, and range in price from budget to luxury. Most are in the countryside, though some are in small towns or in large cities, including London, Paris, Rome, and Venice.

Unlike the Web sites of the other agencies listed here, Vacation Rentals' doesn't allow you to shop or reserve online. Instead, you're asked to choose your country and send in your specifications. All the companies represented publish annual catalogs, and some are available for purchase through Vacation Rentals at cost. Alternatively, Vacation Rentals will e-mail, mail, or fax you excerpts from the catalogs, based on your specifications, along with the necessary booking forms and full information on rental terms and conditions for the relevant company.

You can find additional listings through various Web browsers or at dmoz.org/Recreation/Travel/Lodging/Vacation_Rentals/Commercial_Listings/European_Commercial_Listings/.

What to ask before you reserve

You'll avoid nasty surprises, and perhaps discover some nice ones, by asking these questions of the rental agency:

  • What is the minimum stay?

  • What is the cancellation policy?

  • Are there extra charges, and what are they?

  • How much is the security deposit, and when will I get it back?

  • Are there any holidays I should plan around? Holidays can bring crowds, and stores and restaurants may be closed.

  • How do I get to my vacation home from the airport or train station? Most agencies supply maps and detailed directions, but ask for them anyway.

  • Will someone meet me at the airport or station, or at the property?

  • Do I need a rental car? Where can I park it?

  • How will I get the key to the property?

  • How can I return the key?

  • Where can I buy basic provisions?

  • What amenities does the property have? Usually, linens, kitchen utensils, dishes, and coffee maker are included. Ask about TV, radio, kitchen appliances, telephone service, and Internet hookups. If being online is important to you, ask about cybercafes in the neighborhood.

  • What are the sleeping arrangements? Sofa beds are usually uncomfortable.

  • How many bathrooms are there, and do they have tubs or only showers?

  • Is there a special hot water heater? Is it automatic?

  • Are there a washer and dryer? Dryers are rare; usually you'll make do with a rack or clothesline.

  • Is there air conditioning? Central heating? Will I have access to temperature controls?

  • Is maid service provided, and how often? Weekly service is usually included.

  • Must I supply my own cleaning products?

  • Is there an elevator? If not, how many flights must I climb? Bear in mind that what Americans call the second floor is generally the first floor to Europeans.

  • What do I do in an emergency?

  • Whom do I call if something breaks down?

  • What if I simply hate the property? Can I exchange it?

Above all, do enough research on your own to learn about the area you'll be visiting: local attractions, beaches or pools, sports, scenery, public transportation, stores, museums, entertainment—whatever is important to you and your traveling companions.


Jacqueline Harmon Butler. Who needs a hotel?. Medical Economics 2000;7:125.

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