Renting your own apartment on vacation will likely be as cheap—if not cheaper than—a hotel, plus will get you a kitchen and the other amenities of everyday life
If you really want to feel like a temporary European, try renting an apartment, like this pointy trullo in the Italian town of Alberobello. After all, it's not every night you get to bed down in a genuine, UNESCO-protected piece of historic vernacular architecture—and it costs less than the hotels in town to boot. Added bonus: tourists kept taking pictures of me sitting in a chair in my doorway, as if I were a colorful local character.
Pros & cons
Rental tips When I took my in-laws to England a few years ago, we rented a two-bedroom/two-bath flat in the very heart of London—right atop a Tube station, yet also walking distance from Covent Garden, SoHo, the West End, and the British Museum.
The apartment came with a full kitchen, satellite TV, a terrace, and free washer-dryer... and the week-long rental cost less than half the price of two double rooms at the nearby equivalent of a Motel 6.
Rental apartments rock.
The first thing most people get wrong about renting an apartment for their travels is they assume you can only rent one by the month. This is not so.
In fact, while some are available only on a monthly basis, the majority of vacation apartments are rented out by the week, or even for just three nights—and there are plenty that will rent to you for just a single night, especially in low season.
With you own pad, and a chance to try on the experience of living life as a local for a short while, shopping at the local stores and cooking meals in your own kitchen.
This helps you save money on dining expenses by limiting the number of meals you have to eat out at a restaurant; you avoid paying through the nose for a hotel breakfast, can dine at home some nights, and keep a stock of cheese, salamis, fruits, and veggies in the fridge for replenishing your daily picnic lunch supplies.
One hotel amenity you usually don't get with a short-term rental apartment is maid service—but do you really need fresh sheets every night?
How to find an apartment to rent
Apartments for rent—often referred to using the British terminology "flats to let"—are widely advertised in U.S. newspaper travel sections and magazines, though that is usually the priciest way to go.
Apartments easiest to arrange through a rental consortium like those listed below, but you'll sometimes find the best deals by contacting people privately in the destination itself, either via the local tourist office, which will usually have a list of apartments you can contact directly as well as local agencies, or in locally published English-language magazines and newspapers.
Do a lot of shopping around, ask many questions, look at pictures if you can get 'em. Work with agencies that specialize in that region or city and only ones that will help you find the place you want, not the one they want to sell you. Here are some leads.
More than 120,000 properties around the world, including 800 in Paris alone (a modern one-bedroom in the Bastille district, five minutes from the Picasso Museum in the Marais, runs €580 a week), 485 in London (a studio in tony Kensington starts at $560 a week) and 164 in Florence (how about a frescoed two-bedroom apartment in the city center for €775 a week or €130 a night?).
The names stands for "Vacation Rentals By Owners," which is (mostly) exactly what this is: it cuts out the middle man or a rental agency (and the attendant fees) by allowing those with rental homes to advertise them directly to potential vacation renters. I say "mostly" because, as you might imagine, plenty of agencies post their offering here as well, but that's OK. So long as you find the right match for you, Does the provenance of the perfect vacation home really matter? I've used this service to find everything from a flat in London to a South Carolina beach house for an extended-family vacation (as in the family was extended—three generations-worth—not, sadly, the vacation, which was one week).
Network of both official and unofficial apartments and B&Bs, including more than 1,600 apartments in Rome; 4,600 apartments in Paris; 1,700 apartments in London; and 550 apartments in Florence. Its rates are among the lowest, most charging anywhere from $25 to $800 per night. A handful do range higher, but the important thing is that roughly 80% of the apartments cost $200 or less per night—way less than most hotels.
Barclay International (www.barclayweb.com)
One of the world's premier rental agencies since 1963. (And yes, "premier" does mean "a bit pricey"). Excellent properties and service, though, throughout the major cities of Western Europe—however, except in France, Italy, and the UK, most are residence hotels or condo-like arrangements, not private flats.
Thousands upon thousands of apartments and villas across Europe (and, er, Florida).
Villas International (www.villasintl.com)
Long-established agency, with properties in perhaps more countries than any other—Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic (Prague), Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, and Wales.
Hotel booking engine that also includes lots of apartments. Not as many options as at some dedicated apartment-rental agencies, but there are some big benefits to using it: namely, the flat are as easy to book as a hotel. There's no mucking about with contracts to fax and deposits to transfer (at a fee) by bank wire; just enter your dates and credit card info and you're done.
This Wyndham Resorts site serves as a clearinghouse for its own condos and time-shares (oops, I mean "fractional ownership properties"), renting them out to the general public when the owners are away (with, one assumes, the owners' permission). Rates start as low as $59 per night, less than $499 per week. Benefits: no booking fees, 100% cancellation refunds, concierge service at the property.
The biggest virtual classifieds section lists short-term rentals all over the world. So far there are individual European craigslists only for Paris, Amsterdam, and Berlin, but be sure to rifle through the craigslists of major US cities, too—doesn't matter if you live there or not—because lots of folks post rental ads for their Paris apartment on the Craigslists for New York, Chicago, San Fran, etc.
European rental agencies by country
Austria apartment rentals
Apartment Keeper Association of Vienna (www.netland.at/wien)
Unglaubliche is the German word for "unbelievable," and that's just what the prices on these apartments in Vienna are: as low as €50 per night for two people to rent a full-fledged apartment, kitchen and all, in the heart of the city. Why would you even bother booking a hotel room?
Czech Republic apartment rentals
Prague Serviced Apartments (www.prague-hotel.co.uk)
74 serviced apartment across Prague starting around €60 per night (for a one-bedroom) in the off-season, €100 in summer.
France apartment rentals
Paris Séjour Réservation (www.psrparis.com)
Around 50 apartments across Paris, starting at €90/€100 for a studio or one-bedroom.
Coach House Paris (www.rentals.chsparis.com)
Only about 17 apartments, but all carefully hand-selected and reasonably priced, starting at around $150 a night.
Italy apartment rentals
Rome Power (www.romepower.com)
Decent prices on weekly and monthly rentals in Rome and other parts of Italy.
Bed & Breakfast & Apartments (www.kleinundfein.org) - Fantastically priced B&Bs and rental apartments across Italy's South Tyrol region (the bit up around Trent in the Dolomites where they speak a German dialect and are culturally closer to Innsbruck than to Italy).
Switzerland apartment rentals
Swiss Tourism Federation (usa.myswitzerland.com)
Literally thousands upon thousands of vacation rentals and apartments across Switzerland.
U.K. apartment rentals
Coach House London Vacation Rentals (www.rentals.chslondon.com)
From garden apartments to luxury houseboats, the unique private flats for short-term let at the site can’t be beat. Truly a handpicked cadre of London apartments, with prices for studio starting around $150 per night with a five-night minimum.
Home from Home (www.homefromhome.co.uk)
Some 55 flats in London from £65 a night.
Here are some tips to help during the booking, paying, and arrival process:
BOOKING: Getting what you pay for
- Week-long rentals are typical, though some apartments are available for two or three nights at a time, especially in the off-season (winter).
- Peak season in most places in Europe and North America is roughly Easter through October, plus Christmas (Dec 15–Jan 6).
- Advanced reservations are essential. For high season (summer in most places), it's best to book several months, or even a full year, ahead.
- Every owner bends the rules sometimes, so even if a website states that an apartment only rents by the week or longer, or that rates are completely nonnegotiable, it never hurts to inquire about flexibility. Small agencies and owners who rent one or two apartments are particularly likely to bargain during slower periods.
- Bait and switch is pervasive when booking through an agency (as opposed to direct from the owner or a hotel)—whether intentional or because online databases aren't updated to reflect actual availability. Double-check that the apartment you want is the apartment you're getting. If the agency offers an alternative, make sure it's up to snuff and reasonably priced.
PAYING: Deposits and cancellations
- A deposit will often be necessary to hold your reservation. The amount varies: It might be the equivalent of one night's stay; it might be 30 to 50 percent of the total; it might be something totally different. The balance is due 6 to 20 days prior to arrival.
- Bank wire transfers are required to rent some apartments, particularly direct-from-owner units (agencies will usually let you use a credit card). If you're renting abroad, note that banks in the U.S. charge $30–$50 for an international transfer, and it'll take three to five business days to process.
- Taxes, utilities, and an initial and final cleaning fee are frequently included in the quoted price, but that's not always the case, so ask. If the apartment has a phone, inquire whether local calls cost extra.
- Expect to pay a deposit against potential damages, either through a hold on your credit card or in cash to the person who gives you the keys. The money will be refunded when you check out.
- Cancellation policies vary, with refunds given on a sliding scale, meaning less money is returned the later that you cancel. The deposit is rarely refundable, though you may be able to get some of the money back if you cancel far in advance.
ARRIVING: Who will give you the key?
- A representative will usually meet you at the apartment, a major landmark, train station, their own downtown office, or the local bus or metro stop nearest the apartment at a prearranged time. He or she will lead you to the flat, show you the ropes (which keys fit which locks, location of the fuse box), point out nearby markets and cafés, and provide a local number to call if you have questions.
- Most kitchens come fully equipped, but double-check that this is the case if you plan on cooking. Before heading to the market, look in the cabinets. There are often some cooking staples (salt, sugar, pasta, oil) left by former guests.
- Towels and linens are typically provided, but bring your own soap, shampoo, and toiletries; this is not a hotel.
- Maid service is rare, though a few rentals offer cleaning every three days or so. Remember: You're living like a local, which includes taking out the trash and recycling. Your host will provide a schedule.