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

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.

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.

Chiffriller reiterates the need for timeliness. “If you want to make sure that you can stay where you want, contact the owners several months prior to your scheduled vacation. Especially in areas where the demand is high, make an early decision and follow up quickly.” It’s especially important to book early if you’re planning on traveling during high tourist seasons. For tips on seasonality and getting the best deals on vacation rentals, read our feature.

Because there is no one standard form or practice in renting a vacation apartment, be cautious when starting the rental process. Standard questions to ask a landlord are:

  • Are there any additional charges beyond what is posted on the site?
  • Will you need to sign a rental contract or submit a security deposit?
  • Do you pay in advance or on arrival? If you pay in advance and your plans change, can your money be refunded?
  • How many guests can be accommodated? Are there surcharges per guest if you have more than a standard number (three or five, for example)?
  • Will you be charged a cleaning fee or be expected to clean up yourself?
  • Are linens, towels, and toiletries provided?
  • Are pets allowed (should you be traveling with animals)?

“It’s always good to have a written agreement—it avoids misunderstandings and gives you backup,” Chiffriller states. However, some owners will have a standard contract, others will rent you the place on the basis of your conversation alone—no two are alike. If contracts are required, make sure to read the fine print and understand all clauses before signing them.

Upon arrival

Once you’ve picked an apartment and made arrangements to stay, contact the owner a day or two before arrival to arrange check-in procedures, agreeing on a time that works for both of you. Unlike hotels, there will be no 24-hour front desk to accommodate travelers arriving at all hours of the day. If you are paying upon arrival, make sure that the form of payment is agreed upon—some landlords only accept cash, others permit traveler’s checks (often only in the currency of their home country—make sure you don’t attempt to pay a Euro fee with traveler’s checks in American dollar values). Also, while you are there with the landlord, agree upon check-out procedures—many are as simple as leaving the front door keys under the doormat or in the mailbox. Even better, there often is no standard check-out time, a perk for those who like to use their last day on vacation fully, or sleep late.

In addition, be sure to ask your landlord for restaurant recommendations, public transportation tips, and other tourist advice; most are happy to help and can be great local experts.

Upon departure

If your agreement requires you to clean up after yourself, make sure you do so to the quality of the condition upon arrival. Chiffriller abides by this policy. For her renters, she asks that “sheets and other linens that were used be left in a pile for the cleaners, all open food be disposed of and dishes washed. The apartment should be in the same condition when guests depart that they found when they arrived.”

As a fan of vacation rentals, I’ve also opted for such stays on recent trips to Montreal and Vermont. (In the interest of full disclosure, the Vermont rental belongs to relatives.) I particularly enjoy the “among the locals” feel vacation rentals provide, as well as the ability to cook a homemade meal with my traveling companions. And for an upcoming trip to Prince Edward Island, I once again will be seeking out a home away from home.

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