Vacation Rentals: When a Dark Hotel Room Just Won’t Do

061004_villaF.jpgFrances Mayes was right: life is sweet in “Bella Tuscany,” especially when you have a country house to call your own. My villa perfetta sits on a 15-acre property near Pisa. Outside, I can stroll beneath olive trees or lounge poolside under the Tuscan sun. Inside, I have all the comforts of home. But unlike Ms. Mayes, I didn’t have to spend a fortune buying my dream house. I just rented it for my vacation.

I’ve booked equally enticing places on three continents. Imagine a whitewashed Mexican casa, an 18th-century Edinburgh townhouse, a seaside flat in Puerto Rico, a bungalow in North Africa, even the tower of a French castle, all for the average price of $740 a week in low season, $1,255 in high. Given the locations, that works out to about the same cost per night as one uninspired hotel room.

Yet it’s not just the potential savings that make renting so attractive. Conventional hotel holidays, particularly in foreign countries, can be stressful. Rooms are cramped, concierges are cranky, maids pop up at inconvenient times. With rental homes, you get the luxury of space as well as privacy. Best of all, you can live like the locals — at least for a week or two. Ready to start house hunting yourself? Check out these reliable websites.

Chalets to Chateaux

Holiday-rentals.com is a well-designed British site that connects you directly to owners. With almost 19,000 holiday rentals in 82 countries, it offers something for every taste and budget, from humble chalets costing a few hundred bucks a week to stunning chateaux costing over $1,000 per night. Despite the sizable inventory, searching is easy. Users can browse by dates, destination, and preferred price or use 34 other options to check for features like proximity to golf courses and wheelchair accessibility. 061004_beachF.jpg

Once you’ve short-listed a few, you’ll also see that the site gets points for thoroughness. Property pages give information on accommodations and local attractions, plus they scrupulously note amenities and add-ons (such as final cleaning charges), and they typically provide ample interior and exterior photos.

Around the World

Another noteworthy direct-from-owners site is homelidays.com. It boasts a comparable selection (28,000 listings in 85 countries); in this case, though, the most significant number is its 98% renters’ satisfaction rating. Two welcome features account for it. First there are the testimonials renters write as part of the site’s “Charter of Trust.” While houses in similar databases may include some glowing comments gleaned from guest books, Homelidays offers real reviews that lay out the pros and cons of specific properties. Secondly, the site gives vacationers renting within the European Union the option of buying “Surprise-Proof Insurance,” which covers cancellation prior to your arrival and discrepancies between the actual property and the online description evident upon arrival. That’s a reassuring benefit direct-rental sites seldom offer.

Strictly European

Rather book with an agency that inspects and vets properties? Try rentvillas.com, the company Forbes magazine named “Favorite Pick for Vacation Rentals” last April. Rentvillas rates each of its 1300-plus European offerings, letting you see how spots stack up in seven categories before delving into the brass-tacks details. Moreover, it too adds a level of objectivity by posting reviews from former renters.

Take La Torretta Bella, a restored stone tower near Florence that starts at $1,130 a week. Renters note that a narrow road makes access difficult; yet the views are glorious. Want to know about the views? Rentvillas will link you to clients who can answer questions personally. And once you’re satisfied, travel advisors will help you seal the deal.

High-End Digs061004_luxuryHomesAwayF.jpg

Homesaway.com, an offshoot of the respected tour company Butterfield & Robinson, is the ultimate source for high-end digs. With just 65 handpicked properties in France, Italy, Spain and Scotland, its portfolio is small; and average weekly rates are high (around $13,000 for an eight-person place with a pool). However, HomesAway agents are expert “match makers,” and once you settle into your rental the perks are unparalleled.

Aside from daily housekeeping, guests get 12 hours of assistance a week from an English-speaking host who acts as “guide, concierge, translator, and troubleshooter.” Hosts run errands, make restaurant reservations, and organize outings (anyone for a private winery tour?). Most importantly, they use their connections to customize your experience and provide an entrée into local culture.

Exploring your options will take some effort, and for first-timers the process may seem time-consuming — even intimidating. So take it slow. Browse a little. Dream a lot. And remember: the rewards are worth it, because once you’ve found the perfect place, all you have to do is make yourself at home.

Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb

Also see: A Few Things to Consider When Renting A House or Villa