A Guide to Vacation Rentals

I don’t begin to even think I know everything about traveling. There are travel warriors out there who are always one step ahead of the rest of us, so I’ll talk about what I do know. For the past ten years I have been booking short term rentals instead of hotels when we travel. My primary experience has been with VRBO, Homeaway and AirBnB. There are others, like Roomorama or Flipkey, but I’ve never used them. Once, when we went to Argentina, after receiving a friend’s recommendation, I booked a fabulous apartment in Recoleta through a local real estate agency  Reynolds Properties short term rentals in Buenos Aires.

BA apartment
Buenos Aires Apt
(Old World Charm of Recoleta)

It was a smooth transaction and a wonderful apartment. For the most part, all have been very good choices. I have nothing against hotels, except they can be more expensive and if you are in one place for an extended period, they often feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable. I do remember a trip to Paris back in 2007. Our hotel was in a great location, charming but tiny and cramped (often described as “cozy”). After a while, I don’t give a flip about charm if there isn’t a place to sit except the bed or nowhere to put toiletries or my reading glasses. I vowed then that I would only stay in a hotel if it was for a day or two. Over that time period, I would seek out rentals.

I’ll warn you: Finding the right rental can take hours of your time. It’s a process, and hopefully some of these guidelines will save you precious time — Time that you can use to nail down some restaurants you want to check out!

First of all, why get a rental instead of a hotel?

  • It can be less expensive than a hotel. Compare prices of apartments with hotel.com or tripadvisor if you are skeptical about a property.
  • You will have access to a kitchen. I love this aspect. At breakfast time, I can sit at a dining room table in my jammies with spiked rooster hair and eat breakfast at my own pace.
  • In most instances, you will have more space than a hotel, and that may even include a studio apartment. (I really look at the photos of a rental property. Futon couches and flimsy chairs are a turn off. I want a chair I can curl up with a book and relax.)
  • You get to “live like a local” in a neighborhood. On market days, you won’t drool over food stalls. You can actually take home that fresh pasta or basket of fresh picked berries and experiment in your kitchen…or not.
  • Unless you are looking for a property in the suburbs, the biggest demand in rental properties tend to be in the thick of things. Hotels can often be in an area of the city that dies when the sun goes down and office workers head home or located by a mall.   Yikes. I want to walk out the door and find restaurants and bars around me.
Collobrières France
Our Vacation Rental
Collobrières, France (above art gallery)

What neighborhood appeals to you? This is where some research is necessary.   Perhaps, you are already familiar with the area, which helps. Figure out how you will likely spend your time. Will it be mostly going to museums, looking at architecture, galleries, or are you content with mostly exploring shops, eating in cafes, sipping wine and watching people?   Look at a public transportation map and figure out how you will be getting around. Just Google or Bing “neighborhoods of your desired city” and you’ll find a wealth of information. Also, don’t just rely on the Internet. There are some excellent books out there and a lot of them are at your library, so no additional costs to you. Personally, I love Rick Steves’ books and website stories.

More recently, I’ve started looking at blogs by expats in areas that I am interested in visiting. Those blogs lead to other blogs or other websites and my notes become a notebook. It’s equivalent to working on a puzzle on the dining room table. Consult friends who have visited your destination. Consult friends of friends who have lived there.

There is another way of knowing what neighborhood is the most appealing. I watch a lot of House Hunters International and when I see an area full of restaurants, bars, and galleries in a city of interest, I jot it down for later use. Note: The TV series has become so contrived and scripted now that I can fast forward through a 30 minute segment in 7.35 minutes. (For the love of God, can they please stop having the buyers say, “Now we’re talking” or “We have a lot to think about”)

Once you have decided on your preferred location, start looking at rentals on established rental websites, such as Homeaway, VRBO, or AirBnB. I have not used Flipkey, but it also becoming popular.   Here’s a Rick Steves article about vacation rentals. https://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/sleeping-eating/find-vacation-rentals

Orvieto Vacation Rental
Orvieto Apartment (Italy)


Looking for Your Rental: This is where you put on your detective hat. First sign in and create an account at the sites you have chosen to review. This way you can keep a list of favorites and any correspondence you may rack up with owners. Always remember, other people are looking, so if you zero in on a place that you love, don’t wait too long to make your booking.

Begin your search and place your booking as early as you can.   The best properties go first. Also, many properties get repeat business and they are often the cream of the crop.

You may find yourself scanning the descriptions of properties. That’s understandable, but if you are really interested in a property, before you take any steps to contact the owner, thoroughly read the description.

Study the photos. Does the furniture look worn? Does there seem to be natural light coming in? If you can’t quite figure out the configuration of the apartment, ask if there is a floorplan available.

Study the amenities list carefully. Some of the things you want to look for:

  • What size is the bed? Outside of the USA, king-size beds are rare. A double in Europe is usually the equivalent of two twin beds together. A full is a little bigger than a twin.
  • Know if there is a shower and tub combination or just a shower.
  • If the apartment is on the 5th floor, don’t assume there is an elevator. In a lot of countries that will not be the case.
  • If you are going in the summer, and with recent heat waves in Europe, you may want air conditioning. Ask what rooms are air conditioned because sometimes it can be just the main room, or just the main bedroom. What is the source of heat in the winter?
  • If you have picked a bustling part of a city and you are concerned about noise pollution, ask if the windows are double-paned.
  • Know the terrain around the property. If you don’t mind climbing hill after hill at the end of day of playing tourists, then go for it. Me. I don’t want to have to hail a cab all the time. I want to walk but I always don’t want to walk and pant, day after day.
  • What all is included? Linens, towels, dishwasher, utensils and kitchenware for cooking?
  • Is there a washing machine, and specifically, is there a dryer? Often a dryer means some drying racks.  If there is not a dryer, know that can be common in Continental Europe.
  • Is there WI-FI? Sometimes they will say they have free Internet, but it’s just a hard line modem/router. How many devices can it support?
  • If there is a TV, do they have cable or satellite and, if so, are there any English channels?
  • If you will have a rental car, find out if parking comes with the property. If not, where is the closest parking facility or is on street parking viable?
  • Does the owner have a list of recommendations, i.e. restaurants, grocery markets, ATMs, phone numbers for calling a taxi to the airport, or nearby metro or bus stops?
  • Is this an “Owner occupied” or “Holiday Rental”? Owner occupied means that you will be surrounded by a lot of the owners’ personal items, something I personally would not like. A holiday rental will be more geared to your needs and less “hands off”.  VRBO and Homeaway are usually dedicated rental properties.

Read Reviews, then read them Again.   This is often where your detective work really comes to play. Note references to noise pollution or poor water pressure. If more than one review has comments about a lousy mattress, you may want to know if the owner has addressed this issue or just not chance it. Do, however, notice if a reviewer seems to have expected much more than the price would warrant, you may need to trust that review accordingly.  Keep in mind, renters often form a connection with their hosts and don’t want to say anything negative in reviews, but watch for subtle  hints.

Contact the Owners  Don’t rely on the website’s availability calendars to always be up to date. Contact the owners and give them your dates. If you have any questions, pose them now so you don’t waste everyone’s time. Ask them to furnish you with the street address if the property is indeed available for your requested time frame. Map out the location on Google Maps, and go one step further, check out the building and the neighborhood on Google’s street view. I studied our apartment in Orvieto, Italy so often that when we arrived in the town in our rental car, I was able to guide my husband directly to our apartment. (I also already knew where a bakery and a wine café was located.)

detective graphic
Read the Fine Print Before you Book

Read the Fine Print   My preference is Homeaway and VRBO.   There contract is straightforward, but then I have used them the most. I found AirBnB’s website easy to navigate, but I loathe their cancellation policy. The only time I have used them was when I booked a house in Philadelphia. I accidentally booked the wrong place, caught the mistake before 24 hours had lapsed and contacted the owner, who was great. The booking was five months away. I went to my account on AirBnB and cancelled my reservation, then booked the correct house. I rechecked the transaction and my account clearly showed my cancellation before 24 hours the period. Five days later, I get a call from the original property owner, telling me I was still registered to rent his place. After going into my account, I noticed I was no longer cancelled. I did this immediately, then got an email that they were keeping half of my deposit (around $600).  Keep in mind this was a booking five months away!   Their “help desk” is maddening, a list of multiple choices to explain your problem (none of which included my situation). I wrote several messages to them and I never received a direct reply. After two weeks, I got an email telling me that they were returning all of my deposit except a $100 administration fee. Way too much time was spent dealing with them and not once did anyone answer my questions. So, don’t hit that send button until you are certain you have the right place!  Good luck if you have to cancel at all.

I’ll be posting shortly more information on what to look for when you first arrive at your rental.