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Finding budget vacation rentals in Europe

With the U.S. dollar circling the drain, and rising local hotel rates, American travelers to Europe are looking to find alternative accommodations more than ever. And if you’re planning to stay in one spot for several days or a week, a vacation rental is often your best bet. But vacation rentals can be pricey—especially the luxurious “villas” that so many slick magazines feature. Finding budget places may pose a real challenge.

A recent reader’s email posed it this way: “We are retired and want to spend our fixed income wisely. What resources do you recommend for finding reasonably priced apartment rentals in Europe?”

The short answer is encouraging: Quite a few websites list relatively low-cost vacation rentals throughout Europe (including the U.K. and Ireland). But first you have to understand a fundamental difference between the two major types of online vacation rental postings.

Listing sites

The largest sources of vacation rentals are sites that simply take and display listings submitted by property owners. On most sites, the owners submit—and pay for—detailed listings, with a list of rooms and other features, the local area, and, of course, prices and availabilities. Most listings include photographs and minimal maps. Once you select a property to examine, you make the deal directly with the property owner (or a local property management company). These days, most listing sites include direct links to a site for each property and you can book online; a few ask you to book by email or even by phone. Many good sites are based in Europe or the U.K. and list prices only in euros or pounds.

These sites almost always offer the lowest prices. Many of the sites I list below feature studio and one bedroom cottages for as little as $500 a week. But they also entail the highest risks. Florid language may overstate a property’s charm, and wide-angle lenses can make closet-size rooms look spacious. Some of these sites claim zero tolerance for complaints, so if a renter complains about a property, the site banishes it. I have no personal experience that supports this claim.

Here is a sample of major listing sites. Many of them cover the entire world; some specialize in just Europe or even individual countries. My “favorites” list includes more than 50 such sites; I’ve tried to highlight the larger ones, and those that specialize in low-priced European accommodations.

Rental agencies

Other rental centers act as agencies for the property owners. They handle the marketing, reservations, payments, and other details of the rental. And most of them personally inspect the properties they list. If a problem arises, they’re responsible to find a fix—and, in the worst of cases, make a refund. Clearly, renting through one of these agencies minimizes your risk of finding yourself in an uncomfortable situation—a bad location, a substandard property, or whatever.

The offset, of course, is that you typically pay more with a rental agency than you would for rentals through some other sources. The agencies add a markup to cover their costs and a profit. And because they want to avoid problems and disappointment, they tend to concentrate mainly on mid-price and upscale rentals rather than budget properties.

Although rental agencies cover almost all of Europe (as well as other parts of the world), you find a heavy concentration in the U.K., France, and Italy.

Here is a sampling of these agencies; web searches will find many others:

Individual properties

Still another approach is to locate an individual property. Many of them advertise in the “classified” or equivalent sections of travel magazines and newspapers. If you attended a college or university, your alumni magazine typically carries a bunch of these ads. You can also find some by Googling the location you want to visit.

As far as I can tell, this approach is mainly for mid-priced and upscale properties, but you sometimes see budget accommodations offered. You may also see some offers for home exchange, but that’s a completely different story—for another time.

Renting cautions

However you arrange the rental, you have to consider some of the special limitation of vacation rentals—especially on low-priced properties:

1. Many properties rent only on a weekly, Saturday-to-Saturday basis. However, those terms are sometimes subject to negotiation for off-season stays.

2. The lowest prices are almost always in the countryside. But a rental car is essential in many of them—and the extra cost may offset the price advantage over a city rental.

3. Prices and availabilities are highly seasonal; July and August are usually the high months for Europe. If you can arrange your trip off-season, you’ll find much lower prices and a much wider choice of accommodations.

4. Vacation rentals typically require full payment well in advance; they may entail a large cancellation penalty, and many are totally nonrefundable. I highly recommend trip-cancellation insurance for anyone booking a rental.

5. Don’t blindly accept the “sleeps” figure for a property. That’s a maximum, often requiring use of sofas and other less-then-standard beds. Instead, rent by the number of rooms and other specific features.

6. “If it isn’t specifically listed among the features, you probably won’t get it.” I’ve found this especially true of showers. If the description doesn’t state “shower,” you typically get just a bathtub, maybe with a “French telephone” hand-held shower attachment, maybe not.

Traveler reviews

Sadly, you won’t find much in the way of traveler experiences online. Vacation Rentals WatchDog claims to be the “first” site dedicated exclusively to posting traveler experiences with vacation rentals. It’s a great idea, but with a mere 11 total listings—for the entire world—it’s definitely a work in progress.

A bit more useful are the reviews posted on the SlowTravel U.K. & Ireland site, with traveler reviews of several dozen U.K. rentals. It’s a very small sample of a large universe, but still worth a look.

You can also Google the name of the rental unit. I once found, for example, a site dedicated specifically to warning travelers about a single U.K. rental agency (which has since disappeared). Again, whether or not you find anything useful is a crapshoot.

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