A home away from home: Should you choose a vacation rental?

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Rowhouses (credit: Photo Disc)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on February 17, 2005. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: hotel, Sarah Pascarella.

Before I became SmarterTravel.com's hotel editor, I took a 10-day, three-city trip to Italy with my mother and sister, and struggled over finding a place to stay. Like many novice travel planners, I didn't know where to look for good deals, and was overwhelmed with all the listings on the Web and in guidebooks and travel magazines. It wasn't until I remembered a friend recommending vacation rentals that my travel plans clicked into place.

My requirements were few, but nonnegotiable: I wanted to stay somewhere clean and comfortable, in close proximity to major historic areas, but also slightly off the beaten path to ensure a local feel. I did not want to spend more than $150 per night. And I also wanted to guarantee safety, as during a recent trip, some friends had had theft problems with the cleaning staff in their four-star Italian hotel.

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Once I set to work researching what was available, imagine my surprise to find a treasure trove of apartment and home rentals in Italy, as well as other locations worldwide. And many were very affordable: For a rate comparable to a hotel stay, we would have several rooms and amenities—washers and dryers, full stereo systems, and kitchens with dishes and cookware—in short, a home away from home on our vacation.

Margaret Chiffriller, who leases a Manhattan apartment to travelers, is an advocate of staying in apartments over hotels. "If you want a relaxing place to settle down after a long day of sightseeing, a refrigerator full of things you like to eat, coffee or tea in the morning without getting dressed, feeling that you're really experiencing living in a different place, or having a home base that feels like a real home, vacation apartments are the way to go," she says.

For example, the apartment we rented in Rome had ample closet space to hang our wet clothes on a day we got caught in the rain. Also, just outside our front door, there was a cafe serving delicious pastries and coffee, where we got fresh treats to eat in our pajamas each morning (none of us missed a generic hotel continental breakfast). At our next stop in Florence, our apartment boasted cathedral ceilings, a tub with sauna jets, and a full-size refrigerator to keep our late-night snacks fresh. And in Venice, a city unique in Italy for its less-than-stellar restaurants (for travelers on a budget, that is), we decided to take advantage of our apartment's full kitchen, hitting the markets each day to cook our own delicious meals.

In addition, there are other benefits to staying in apartments, beyond the properties themselves: Our "home" in Rome was located near historic sites we wanted to visit, and was less expensive than hotels in the same neighborhood; we also had a friendly landlady who lived one floor down, offering her services as a tour guide/restaurant recommender/personal map if needed. Our Florentine apartment was located on a street with tantalizing wine bars and trattorias, and was just a short walk from area museums and the city's famous markets. And our flat in Venice was in a neighborhood filled with locals, interesting boutiques, and fine galleries, far away from the area's hordes of tourists. Better yet, at the cost of approximately $150 per night, our roomy apartment could have held four more guests comfortably, a very cheap option for those splitting accommodations costs.

Simply put: If you're an independent-minded, do-it-yourself traveler, like extra space, or are traveling with several friends or family members, booking a rental may be a good option. If you like maid service, room service, or other types of service with a smile, you may want to stick with a hotel.

Where to start?

If you are considering vacation apartment rentals, surf the Web for the best deals worldwide. Good sites to start with are Vacation Rentals by Owner, CyberRentals.com, and VacationHomes.com. Most websites will set up an e-mail form, enabling travelers to communicate with landlords quickly and at no charge. This is a great plus, as you can avoid often-steep international phone fees when setting up lodging arrangements. In addition, contact several potential rental properties in each city, as some apartments will no doubt be booked during desired vacation times or landlords simply may not get back to you promptly.

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