Europe for Real: For Rent
Bag the hotel and frantic pace. Instead, unwind in a villa, savor la dolce vita—and save
By Robb Mandelbaum

(MONEY Magazine) – Among the palazzi, towers and churches that grace the postcard views of Siena is another less touristed treasure. It is a shop called Morbidi, purveyors of the staples of Italian cooking since 1925. A delectable panoply of antipasti vies for customers' attention with golden-hued pasta, sausage in all shapes and sizes, and memorable local cheeses that seldom find their way into Tuscan restaurants, much less to America. But while visitors salivate over spots like Morbidi, they can seldom truly experience them. How do you prepare a freshly made meat tortellini and serve it with the perfect ragu in a hotel room?

Perhaps that's why more Americans are discovering that a better way to savor Europe is to actually live it: shopping, eating and sleeping just like the natives, in a rented vacation home. There are more than a million properties available across Europe, according to the U.S. travel-services giant Cendant, and plenty of firms that broker them. Rentals not only offer more space but also, usually and happily, cost less than comparable hotels. In Tuscany, for instance, it's rare to find a decent hotel room for less than $150 a night for two in the high season, but you can book a Saturday-to-Saturday stay in a pleasant apartment for around $700 or even less. More spartan places start at $500. And the economics of rentals get still more enticing for families and groups of friends, especially when you do some of your own cooking.

Unlike a cramped hotel room, which all but pushes you out the door, the right rental invites you to milk the moment. After awakening to crowing roosters, you can throw open the shutters and watch the mist burn off the fields as you sip your coffee away from the hordes. Then later, when you're finally ready to catch the guidebook highlights, it won't seem like a forced march. Or maybe skip the tourist magnets this trip and vegetate in a rustic retreat with hiking trails or a pool.

A broad choice

European rentals come in all types and sizes. In Italy they range from studio apartments (often in converted farmhouses) to three-bedroom villas to castles and estates that sleep as many as 30. Elsewhere on the Continent, don't count on finding apartments except in cities or resorts. France is dotted with cottages, most of which boast at least two bedrooms. Likewise Britain and Ireland, where the villas are called manor houses.

Prices run the gamut. City stays across Europe typically begin at around $1,000 a week in July or August. You can find a two-bedroom cottage in the French, British or Irish countryside for as little as $600 to $800, but expect to pay at least $1,200 for a reasonable degree of comfort. Villas in Italy and the South of France start at $1,500; for U.K. manor houses, it's $4,000. And castles? Don't ask.

To lock up the most desirable properties for next summer, try to book by New Year's. (See the resource box on page 146.) In many northern countries, including Britain, Germany and Switzerland, the tourist authorities make it easy, inspecting and rating rentals that you can then often lease online. A useful unofficial alternative is Slow Travel, a U.S.-based website that provides thorough reviews from previous tenants of nearly 1,000 places, most of them in Italy.

The Internet offers a confusing profusion of rental agencies. Most are really just marketers that broker properties managed by someone else. The larger firms have more units to choose from, but your best bet is to browse until you find an agency that can provide the most detailed info to help you settle on a choice. When MONEY phoned Italy's Solemar agency seeking specifics about six of its 1,100 offerings, the rep could add nothing to the blurb in the catalogue. "Look," she said, clearly annoyed, "you're not buying the property, you're only renting it for a week."

Not exactly the message you want to hear. "If an agency won't take the time to answer questions, you probably don't want to book with them," says Pauline Kenny, who runs the Slow Travel site. A frequent renter on the Continent, Kenny insists on a range of photographs showing the unit's living spaces. "If they don't have pictures," she says, "I cross them off the list."

As for bypassing the middlemen (and their fees) and renting directly from the owner of a property, that is a risky proposition unless you have a reference from a recent occupant. Unlike most hotel bookings, rentals cannot be canceled. You are required to put down a nonrefundable deposit and pay the balance in cash—individual proprietors seldom accept plastic—when you arrive. Should something go wrong, you have virtually no recourse—no opportunity to recover your down payment and move to a more suitable place.

Demand answers

Regardless of your destination, it helps to curb your expectations. Cottages in Britain and Ireland often have small rooms and low ceilings, and rentals tend to be plainly furnished right across the Continent. If you have your heart set on the charming ambience of copper pots and pans dangling over a blackened hearth, then be prepared to pay top euro for it—or else catch a foreign movie at the local art house. "Some Italians don't recognize that it's a 15th-century house," says Mario Scalzi, president of the Parker Company, which manages and markets properties in Italy, "so they'll go out to the local K Mart and buy cheap lawn furniture for the place."

You have to fine-tooth the brochure or online listing, and don't be shy about pushing the broker to describe the amenities or lack thereof. Unless the write-up states otherwise, don't depend on having window screens, air conditioning, landline phones or washers and dryers. Some rentals include only a kitchenette with a small refrigerator, a stovetop and perhaps a microwave. Also, pay close attention to the total size of the rental—those under 50 square meters (about 550 square feet) may be a bit tight for two people.

Another potential surprise is getting sandbagged with added costs. Some agencies, especially in France, charge for linen. Some bill for cleaning the place after you leave (only the fanciest rentals are likely to include a maid during your stay). In cooler seasons, heating is extra and relatively expensive, and if there is a phone, you'll be billed by the call. Finally, some agencies will sock you with processing fees and currency-conversion surcharges.

Still, there are ways to reduce the tab. First, consider undervalued up-and-coming regions, such as France's Dordogne in lieu of pricier Provence, or Umbria, just southeast of Tuscany. Tony Haeusler, the North American manager of the Interhome booking agency, recommends renting in Spain: "In the Costa Blanca [between Valencia and Alicante], you can get the same type of villa as you'd find in the French Riviera for half the price."

If you must have your Arles or Florence, try off-peak travel: Renting in June or September can save you an amazing 25% over the July and August highs; May and October are even better values. The days are shorter in the fall, but when the sun goes down, you have a place to go. Even when it's rented, there's no place like home.