A room to call your own in Europe
Stay in someone's spare bedroom and not only will you get a taste of European daily life, but pay only $15–$30 per person for the privilege—a good 50 percent less than at a hotel.
These days it seems everybody's renting rooms and hanging out B&B shingles in some Irish towns, like these along the waterfront in Galway.
• Tips on finding a rental room
• What renting a room is like
• Links & resources
That night I stayed with an Irish woman in her Roscommon farmhouse, she excitedly helped me leaf through her dusty regional history tomes looking for the name of my great-grandmother, who had been a local schoolteacher.
That time in Prague when I bunked in a Czech student's spare bedroom, he spent all evening detailing, in broken English, exactly what was wrong with modern capitalism while the two of us slowly drained his fridge of beer.
But the cultural adventure of feeling like you've been adopted by a European family for a few days isn't the only reason to rent a room in a private home. It also costs about half what you would pay at the impersonal hotel down the street.
Rates for two generally start around $50 in Europe's big cities—though $60 to $90 is more common. In smaller cities and towns, prices can drop to $30. (Just don't expect to pay these mom-and-pop operations with your credit card; for the most part, these transactions are cash-only.)
The three most effective ways to find a private room in Europe are:
- The Web. Some, but not all, national tourist board Web sites list rental rooms. Each also provides links to local and city tourism Web sites, which tend to be far more useful. Rarely, however, are these lists more than a string of addresses and phone numbers—Web links if you're very lucky.
There are also plenty of private booking and B&B agencies, though their fees add 10% to 30% to your bill.
All of these resources are listed below by country.
- Touts. These annoying guys descend on bag-laden tourists at train stations and ferry docks hawking their "Verry boo-tee-ful room! Very central! You come see, yes?" I find touts in cities to be a crapshoot at best, scams at worst, and I avoid them unless I'm truly desperate.
On Mediterranean islands, though, the ferry dock touts are generally honest, and their rooms are as good as you'd find on your own. Ask to see photographs first, and get them to write the price down on a piece of paper—proof against sudden "inflation" at check-out time.
Shoe leather. The old-fashioned way often works best: Start pounding the cobblestones, looking for polyglot signs in the windows that read "Chambres, Zimmer, Rooms." Like cheap hotels, rental rooms tend to congregate near the train stations.
You don't need to know that "sobe" is Croatian for "room" because signs like this one in Split, Croatia are usually in a variety of tongues.
Even better, grab the printed list of private rooms and B&Bs from the local tourist office and use it as a guide.
In small towns especially, head for the busiest pub or café and simply ask if they know of any rooms; that's how I found my view of the Italian Riviera coastline in the Cinque Terre village of Vernazza for $30.
If the barkeep doesn't know, ask to borrow the yellow pages and look under the local term for "rental room" (I give the native word in each country below), a trick that once landed me a frescoed apartment in the Apulian town of Trani for $40.
There's no guarantee you'll be staying in that prototypical B&B: a huge Victorian mansion full of chintz and doilies. These days, just as many rental rooms are in modern city apartments or isolated farmhouses, but a friendly, homey atmosphere tends to prevail.
Sometimes they'll ask, "Why don't you join us for dinner?" Other times, they'll just hand you the keys and ask you to try to be home by midnight. Still, in most cases you'll have more interaction with the owner and her family than with the desk clerk at a hotel.
During a visit to Sicily's Egadi Islands, where the tuna industry is such an integral and ancient part of the culture that there are 10,000-year-old cave paintings of men hunting tuna, I rented a room from the widow of the man who had once managed the processing plant.
My hostess regaled me with surprisingly interesting tuna-related facts that turned out to be relevant to the current state of affairs on the island, the ecology of the surrounding seas, and the future of Italy's economy.
I also got a lesson in practical Italian economics: I was instructed to tell anyone I met that I was a friend of hers, just visiting, not a guest. Guests, you see, pay money while friends stay for free—at least as far as the tax man knows.
I stayed two nights with my new friend. I never paid a bill, but to thank her for her "hospitality," I gave her a gift—which happened to be the local equivalent of about $25.
She gave me a tin of tuna.
Here's a quickie list of the local words for private rooms in each language (though keep in mind that many just use the English terms "rooms" and "B&B"), plus links to the official tourist offices and, in cases where either local the tourism authority lets us down or there are excellent private agencies or local offices, independent resources. I'll even throw in typical price ranges for a rental room sleeping two.
AUSTRIA (Privatzimmer) $45-$120
BELGIUM (gastenkamers, kamers) $70–$90
Tourism authority: www.visitflanders.com (for northern Belgium's Flemish-speaking Flanders region—including Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp, and Ghent) or www.visitbelgium.com (for southern Belgium's French-speaking Wallonia region)
Independent/Local: www.airbnb.com, www.venere.com, www.taxistop.be/4/4benb.htm, www.bnb-brussels.be, www.brugge.be, www.bedandbreakfast-gent.be, www.bedandbreakfast-antwerp.com
DENMARK (Værelser) $35-$70
FRANCE (chambres, chambres d'hôte) $40-$120
GERMANY (Zimmer) $25-$95
GREECE (dhomatia) $15-$40
ICELAND (gistihus) $56-$128
IRELAND (B&B) $65-$180
ITALY (affittacamere, camere) $45-$150
Tourism authority: www.italiantourism.com.
Independent/Local: www.airbnb.com, www.venere.com, www.bbitalia.it, www.romaturismo.it, www.b-b.rm.it, www.turismo.toscana.it, www.firenzeturismo.it, www.turismovenezia.it.
THE NETHERLANDS (kamers) $65–$110
NORWAY (rom til leie or husrom) $55–$110
PORTUGAL (quartos) $60–$150
SLOVENIA (sobe) $20–$70
SPAIN (camas, habitaciones, casas particular) $40–$70
SWEDEN (rum) $40–$115
Tourism authority: www.visit-sweden.com.
Independent/Local: www.airbnb.com, www.venere.com, www.bedbreakfast.se, www.stockholmguesthouse.com, www.stockholmuptown.com, www.bbob.se, www.bed-and-breakfast.se.
SWITZERLAND (Zimmer, chambres, camere) $60-$100
UNITED KINGDOM (B&B) $50-$140