European Vacation Rentals
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
by Steenie Harvey
To cite one example: a springtime trip to the trapped-in-a-time-warp Belgian city of Bruges. I rented a small apartment in the very center of town, next to the medieval marketplace. The total cost for a four-night stay for two of us was $134. Those same four nights in any medium-class hotel would have set us back at least $240.
Whether it's for a short three days, a leisurely three months, or even a "let's see how we like it'' prelude to buying property, the options of where to lay your head are tremendous. You could be unlocking the door to a stylish Portuguese villa, a flat in bohemian Berlin, or a quintessential English country cottage with a thatched roof and roses clambering around the porch. How do you fancy a studio in Paris or a houseboat in Amsterdam? A "little gray home" in Ireland's wildly romantic west, an apartment in a centuries-old Italian palazzo, or even a log cabin in Scandinavia? The choice is yours. And if you've ever wondered about the joys of the troglodyte lifestyle, you could even try renting a cave home near the Spanish city of Granada.
I've been spending time in other people's homes for decades-when I was growing up in England, my family always spent our summer vacations in rental properties. Sometimes we stayed in small cottages lost in Devon's and Cornwall's flowery lanes, other times we traveled into the wild Welsh mountains of Snowdonia. One summer we rented a house on Scotland's Isle of Skye, where a friendly farming neighbor taught me how to milk goats. It was a wonderful way of discovering some of the most beautiful parts of Britain. Those early years left me with a wealth of happy memories as well as a huge appetite for travel.
Vacation Rentals-The FAQs
Q: How far in advance should I book?
A: If you're planning your visit for July or August, book as far in advance as possible. In fact, if you can start making inquiries shortly after New Year is out of the way, do so. High summer is Europe's main holiday season and the choicest properties are booked up months in advance. Some families have standing bookings, returning to the same seaside villa or rural cottage year after year. All the Mediterranean seaside resorts and the most delicious parts of the French and Italian countryside are full to bursting point at this time of year. That's not to say that it's impossible to find something in July or August if you leave it to a couple of months before-or simply turn up on spec. Just that your options will be extremely limited.
Easter, Whitsun (late May/early June), and the period around May Day are also fairly hectic if you're considering the French Riviera, southern Spain, or Portugal's Algarve. And to book a chalet in Austria and Switzerland's main skiing resorts over Christmas and New Year's, or an apartment in Venice for Carnival time, you should start making inquiries in summer. Outside of those periods, between one and two months should be more than adequate to put plans into place.
And if you have a sudden impulse to get away from it all, use the Internet. The choice of properties might not be as great as you'd like, but available accommodation is only a mouse click away.
Q: Is there a seasonal variation in rental prices?
A: Yes. In most places you'll pay a hefty premium to rent in the main July and August holiday period (see above). Due to supply and demand, rents can be more than triple what you would pay in the off-season. Except for ski resorts and over the Christmas/New Year's/Easter period, rents are at their lowest from October through April. May, June, and September are considered to be the shoulder season-rents are likely to be higher than in gloomy January, but not as high as in July and August.
Q: Will I be charged a deposit-and how much?
A: Normally, yes, though I've booked apartments in Amsterdam, Spain, and Germany where the owners have simply taken my word that I'll turn up. There is no standard practice. Some agencies and owners ask you to pay a 30 percent deposit when booking and the remainder within six or eight weeks of your arrival. Others request a deposit, with the balance to be paid on arrival. And some owners simply ask you for your credit card number as a guarantee-if you fail to show, you'll be charged one or two nights.
Q: How do I pay the deposit?
A: If an agency or privately owned establishment is geared up to take credit cards, you can normally pay the deposit by this method. Visa is the most widely used card in Europe. I'm reluctant to send my own credit card details by email, so once I've been offered accommodation, I usually phone with the information.
The other main method of making payment is to go to your own hometown bank and obtain a foreign currency draft for the required amount against a recognized bank in whatever European country you're planning to visit. (For example, a check in British pounds sterling drawn against Barclays Bank in London. Or, if it's France, Germany, or one of the other countries in the Euro-zone, a check in euros drawn against one of their main banks such as Deutsche Bank, Credit Lyonnaise, etc.) You then send this draft to your chosen agency or individual to be cashed-for peace of mind, send it by registered or certified mail.
Personal checks in dollars are not a good idea. Sure, foreign banks take them-I often pay U.S. dollar checks into my own bank in Ireland-but they take a devil of a long time to clear.
Q: Is there a minimum rental period?
A: There is flexibility, but agencies usually look for a minimum one-week stay. Outside of July and August, I've found that individual owners are usually happy to accommodate you for less time, though they generally look for a minimum stay of three days. Places need to be cleaned between guests so single night bookings aren't really cost-effective for apartment and cottage owners.
Q: What happens on arrival-and how do I find my cottage/apartment/villa?
A: If you've booked through an agency, they'll invariably send out maps pinpointing the property's location, a designated time of arrival, and owner contact details. Individuals who don't live on the property also usually supply all the relevant information-how to get there, what time you should arrive, etc.
However, it must be said that there's no exact blueprint detailing what's likely to happen. Always expect the unexpected. Last month I took a trip to Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands. I arranged to stay in an apartment owned by a German couple in Puerto de la Cruz for three days. A couple of days before leaving home, I got an email: "Dear Steenie, we won't be here at the weekend. We'll leave your keys around the corner at Bar Pepito.'' Although I'm used to quirky German apartment-owners, I had a few panic-stricken moments imagining all the things that could go wrong. Where was Bar Pepito and what corner did they mean? What if the bartender wouldn't give me the key? I know enough Spanish to get around, book a room, and order a meal, but it's not exactly up to full-scale problem-solving. Needless to say, it all worked out fine-I didn't end up sleeping on the beach.
Q: Will I have to pay a security deposit-and how much?
A: Many agencies and a few individual property owners do ask for one. For the average home, it's likely to be around $50 to $250. For something really palatial and movie-star standard, undoubtedly a lot more. You can pay in cash, by credit card, or in traveler's checks. If you haven't decided to emulate Conan the Barbarian and trash the property, the security deposit will either be returned at the end of your stay or posted home to you. There is nothing dubious about this practice if you're using a reputable agency-and paying a security deposit for vacation cottages is the norm in Scandinavia.
Q: Will a three-room apartment be big enough for two couples?
A: Unless you're very good friends, probably not. Before you book, check how many bedrooms a property has. A "room" is not a bedroom. This sounds idiotically simplistic, but listings can often be confusing. Switzerland in particular is full of contradictions. The country is divided into cantons, and each canton has its own way of doing things. For example, in Geneva canton the kitchen is counted as a room, whereas in other cantons it is not. Thus Geneva listings translate as follows:
Studio: One room with kitchenette and bathroom.
Two-room apartment: One large room, kitchen, and bathroom.
Three-room apartment: A living room, kitchen, one bedroom, and bathroom.
Four-room apartment: A living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and bathroom.
In some other cantons, a "three-room apartment" would net you two bedrooms plus kitchen and bathroom. It's all very strange, and not what you'd expect from the oh-so-precise Swiss. (Obviously something went wrong in the translation, but I've even heard of one family who rented an apartment in Zurich that was described as "three-bedroom." To their dismay, it only had one.) When booking in Switzerland, perhaps the best thing to do is to explain how many people are in your party and how many bedrooms are needed.
Happily the rest of Europe isn't quite so intent on baffling its overseas visitors. When a property is described as having two bedrooms, that's exactly what it turns out to have. But to be certain, check with the agency or owner before making a definite booking.
Q: Do vacation rental properties come furnished?
A: Yes. Wherever you go, you will not be sleeping on the floorboards of a totally bare room. What the furnishings and cooking facilities are like is a bit harder to answer. In general, properties come with everything you're likely to need, but you have to be realistic. A $20 per night holiday apartment is not going to have king-size beds covered in goosedown quilts, antique furniture, and a hot tub. Nor will it have every single bit of kitchen equipment that has ever been invented. The more you pay, the better things are likely to be. From my own experiences, Greece has the most sparsely equipped properties-on many of its islands, studio apartments at the cheaper end of the price scale can be very spartan indeed.
Q: Self-catering, or serviced, apartments what do these terms mean?
A: Especially in Britain and Ireland, you'll often hear vacation rentals described as "self-catering properties." I use this term myself a few times throughout the book. A self-catering property is a holiday cottage or vacation rental with kitchen facilities, so you are required to shop, cook, and clean up. No maid is going to come along and clean up your clutter-by opting for "self-catering," you are quite literally catering for yourself.
"Serviced" apartments are usually found in big cities, often attached to a hotel with its own business center where you can use a fax and have access to the Internet.
Although they have kitchen facilities and all the other "self-catering" facilities of a vacation rental, you can usually avail of extra services if you wish. For example, taking breakfast in the adjoining hotel, or asking a maid to clean your apartment on a daily basis. Serviced apartments are particularly popular with business people who want hotel facilities combined with home comforts.
Q: Do I need to rent a car?
A: That depends on where you're going and what you plan to do. For a property buried in the silent, green heart of the countryside, I'd say "yes." Especially in France and Italy, some of the nicest rural cottages and villas are often found three miles or so down a lane, a lengthy walk away from the nearest village or bus stop.
On the other hand, driving around a city you don't know can be a real headache. If I was planning to spend most of my time in a capital like London, Berlin, or Paris, I'd use public transportation. As for driving in Rome-that's my idea of a short cut to a nervous breakdown.
Q: I don't speak any foreign languages-is this a problem?
A: It shouldn't be, but do invest in a good phrase book. After all, if a family from Lisbon rented a property from you, they wouldn't be expecting you to speak Portuguese, would they? Honestly, though, I've never found language to be a stumbling block. Although I speak adequate German, that's about it. For everywhere else, I rely on phrase books—and phrase book Spanish, French, Greek, and Italian has always been good enough for me. Portugal? I left it all to my husband who took a six-week "learn the basics" course before we went exploring the green and relatively undiscovered north. (Unlike the Algarve and Lisbon, they're not really used to tourists in that part of the country.)
In the majority of countries, you'll find most people in the service industries know a smattering of English. Plus tourist offices and large rental agencies regularly make bookings for overseas vacationers.
Wherever you are, why should day-to-day activities like shopping be problematic? You'll not get fobbed off with a pile of ghastly looking fish heads-not unless you actually point to them! Europe has supermarkets, you know. Just pile whatever you want into a basket, and look at the total on the register.
Obviously North Americans won't encounter a language barrier in Britain and Ireland, but they're not your only options if you quail at the thought of foreign tongues. Just about everybody in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia speaks impeccably correct English. Malta, Cyprus, Portugal's Algarve, and the islands and coastal resorts of southern Spain are all good bets for the linguistically challenged, too.
In northwest Spain, northern Portugal, many parts of Italy, and what was the former East Germany, English speakers are rare. Yes, lots of establishments will answer queries in English, but don't be surprised if you discover that the property owner doesn't speak it-there's at least one 12-year-old Italian girl sending out emails for her non-English-speaking parents! Outside of central Paris and along the Riviera, the French also expect visitors to converse in their language.
Excerpted European Vacation Rentals by Steenie Harvey. Copyright © 2003 by Steenie Harvey. Excerpted by arrangement with Avalon Travel Publishing. $17.95. Available in local bookstores or click here.