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Saturday, January 21, 2006 - Page updated at 04:08 PM

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Finding the right rental

Seattle Times travel staff

Want more space for less money than a hotel on your next trip? Consider renting a vacation apartment or house.

Hundreds of vacation-rental agencies — and individual owners — offer everything from city apartments to country villas in Europe, North America and beyond.

Vacation-renters do need to be independent-minded, however, and flexible. Unlike hotels, there's no front-desk staff to answer questions or make bookings. Unless you've rented a high-end, luxurious place, there's no daily (nor even weekly) maid service. And rentals can have idiosyncrasies, from balky dishwashers and tiny closets to unpredictable neighbors.

"It's a house you're renting, not a hotel room," said Pauline Kenny, of Santa Fe, N.M., who runs Slow Travel, a Web-based business with extensive individual reviews of vacation rentals by people who've stayed in them.

"There's always something that's weird, that's a bit strange, just like in your own home," said Kenny, a veteran of more than 30 vacation rentals, mostly in Europe.

For those considering a vacation rental, here are some things to know:

What are they?

Apartments and houses offered for vacation rentals may be an owner's second home, a pied--terre or investment property — or even the primary home that an owner has moved out of temporarily. It can range from a tiny studio apartment to a sprawling villa with private pool. Furnishings can be dorm-room basic to antiques.

Many are managed by rental agencies based in the U.S. or abroad; others are rented directly from owners or through groups such as Britain's Landmark Trust and National Trust which have hundreds of historic vacation-rentals, from cottages to castles, in the English countryside.

Europe is the epicenter of vacation rentals, although many North American ski and beach resorts also have condos/houses for vacation rentals, particularly in places such as Hawaii. The Caribbean has many beach rentals, as do some Mexican and Asian resorts.

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Costs

As an example, studio apartments in Paris that sleep two — in basic style — can be found for around $100 a night in the off-season. Stylish villas in Tuscany or the Caribbean that sleep a dozen can cost several thousand dollars a night. Some rentals can be booked for a few nights; others may require a minimum of a week, especially in the high season, such as summer in Europe.

Most big U.S.-based rental agencies will take credit cards, but some foreign rental companies or individual owners may not. And almost every agency's or owner's cancellation/deposit policies is far more stringent than those of hotels. A substantial, and nonrefundable, deposit may be required when booking; a damage deposit also may be required.

One caution: Be sure to ask if heating/air conditioning costs are included in the price. If there's an additional metered charge, as there is for some Italian and French rental accommodations, it can boost the price significantly. Also ask if there are cleaning fees or any other extra charges.

Finding the right place

Vacation rentals have flourished on the Internet. Do a Google search for the name of an area you're interested in and the term "vacation rental " or "holiday rental" or "self catering," as it's called by the British, who are big fans of holiday apartments/houses, and you'll find a bevy of places and rental companies. Or contact the visitors/convention bureau of an area you're interested in to get listings: that's particularly useful for North American beach and ski resorts which often have vacation houses suitable for big groups.

The problem then becomes how to tell if an apartment or house is as good as it sounds and how to choose the right one. Some strategies:

Getting info: If you don't have Web access, you'll need to get print catalogs (although some companies may not publish those anymore) or get advice from a travel agent or travel guidebooks.

Searching online, however, is the easiest and best way to comparison-shop. However, don't be enticed by enchanting descriptions and photos. No rental agency or owner is going to make a place look bad, and a photo taken with a wide-angle lens can make even a tiny apartment look spacious.

Most rentals outside North America will give an apartment/house's size in square meters; multiply that by 10 to get a rough estimate of the square footage. Most city-center apartments will be much smaller than many Americans expect since space is at a premium in European capitals or cities such as New York. Some agencies also post the floor plans of urban apartment in their online listings, useful for getting a sense of the space.

Once you've narrowed it down, phone or e-mail the agency/owner of the place(s) you're interested in to get more information and get a feel for how they treat you.

Check it out: A word-of-mouth recommendation from someone who's stayed in the rental apartment/house, or at least in the neighborhood, can be invaluable.

If you can't get a personal recommendation, there are travelers' reviews of vacation rentals at the Slow Travel Web site, www.slowtrav.com (click on the country you're interested in and then on "vacation rentals"). Or go to www.tripadvisor.com, one of the Web's biggest travel forums, and do a search for the name of the destination you're interested in and the words "apartment rental." You'll find candid reviews by individual travelers.

Another good resource is Edmonds-based travel expert's Rick Steves' Web site, www.ricksteves.com/graffiti (go to "sleeping" and then "alternative accommodations") for individuals' comments on vacation rentals.

Many rental companies also have testimonials from clients on their Web sites. Those can give a flavor of the accommodations and neighborhood, although usually only favorable comments are posted. An alternative is to ask the company if you can speak with one of its clients who has stayed in the rental in which you're interested.

Also ask if someone from the agency has personally inspected the apartment.

Location, location: If you're booking a European city apartment, be sure to check how close it is to public transit. Given the high cost of gas and scarcity of parking in most big European cities, it's best to avoid rental cars.

Read about the rental's neighborhood in a guidebook. And be sure to ask the agency/owners about street noise. In Rome, for instance, there are many vacation-rental apartments around Campo dei Fiori, a popular square in the heart of the city. But get a place right on the Campo and you'll be kept awake at night by hundreds of revelers at bars and restaurants that line the square — and be awoken at dawn by vendors setting up their food-market stalls. If you rent a block away — or even on the back of a building on the square — you'll be able to sleep.

If you want an on-the-beach condo or house — whether it's in Hawaii, or the family-reunion mecca of Hilton Head, S.C., or on a Thai beach — make sure to be clear how close to the water it is. "Oceanside" or "oceanview" may mean a peek-a-boo-view from hundreds of feet away; "oceanfront" may be closer to what you want.

Language concerns

Rental agencies that cater to North American and British travelers will be able to serve you in English, through their main offices and/or local representatives. And most will have handbooks in English in the rental that give instructions on everything from how to work the dishwasher to phone numbers for police, ambulance and other emergency services. But unless you're fluent in the local language, be prepared to have little misadventures in everything from shopping to asking directions, since you won't have any hotel staff to rely upon for advice.

To be prepared for emergencies, when I rented an apartment in Paris, I took along the phone number and address of the U.S. Embassy there, since embassies have duty officers who can assist Americans. When we went out, I always made sure both my daughter and I each carried a set of apartment keys, directions and contact numbers in case one of us got pickpocketed or if we became separated.

Keys, etc.

Some rental companies will send keys before you go, but many will arrange for you to meet a local manager and be given keys.

Be sure to always have contact information for the owner/manager in case you have problems. And don't forget to take the directions to your rental:

Mary Ellen Stauber, a co-owner of the New Jersey-based Vacation in Paris rental agency, said "Several times a month, clients call us from Paris having left home without the directions and then ask where the apartment is."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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