When New Yorkers Renee Marton, a chef and writer, and her husband, Edward Smith, a college professor, decided to vacation in Paris last July, they briefly considered staying in a hotel. But the veteran travelers agreed that they could forgo a concierge and maid service. They yearned to live like locals—if only for a week. So they rented a spacious one-bedroom apartment, with a well-stocked kitchen, on the Left Bank’s famous market street, Rue Mouffetard.
"The shopping was so enjoyable," Marton says of her forays to the local cheese, wine, and fish stores. "The farmers’ market was down the block, with vendors singing, ’Bonjour, Madame.’" What’s more, the couple could spread out and get comfortable. "You can really act as if it’s home—I felt like moving there."
Unfortunately, the local color faded on occasion. The apartment’s phone didn’t work, and its one fan was no match for the heat wave that was pummeling Paris. The euros they spent on a calling card were wasted—the landlady never answered the phone.
Appliances break, landlords vanish. So why do vacationers rent when they could be ordering room service?
First, there’s the allure of experiencing life, however briefly, as a Parisian or a New Yorker. Also, apartments offer space. "I’m an extremely light sleeper, and my friend is a snorer. I don't think I could share a hotel room for ten days," says Christine Kim, a film-industry worker who leased a small apartment in Buenos Aires with her sonorous traveling companion last August.
Another benefit is being able to whip up your own meals or snacks. "It’s convenient not to pay $20 for coffee in a hotel restaurant," says Sarah Darneille, a Houston management consultant who rented an apartment in New York City. For families, a kitchen is practically a necessity—and so is a place for kids to be, well, kids. "In a hotel I’m always telling the children, ’Keep your voices down,’ " says Dana Simonds, of Santa Rosa, California. That wasn’t a problem in the London flat where she stayed with her husband, two children, and two other families.
The strategy once practiced mainly by temporarily relocating business executives is spreading among leisure travelers. "I do think it’s growing," says Adam Weissenberg, national managing partner for travel, hospitality, and leisure at Deloitte & Touche’s Parsippany, New Jersey, office. "When hotel prices go up, it makes sense to try an apartment."
Renting a well-appointed place takes research—there are thousands of listings on the Internet alone. Proceed carefully: most agencies require full payment a month or so before arrival, and cancellation penalties can be stiff. Before you begin your search, identify what would make your stay enjoyable—and what could mar it. Picking a place for its view would seem logical, but even that can backfire. Beth Harris, of San Francisco, and her husband, David Neuman, found a studio apartment in Florence that overlooked the Duomo. But at night, the scene included gangs of carousers.
Nora Rawlinson, a Brooklyn publishing executive, was directed to a charming one-bedroom rental with a balcony on a Venetian canal—unexpectedly, through a hotel. "We’re full, but I do know this nice lady who has an apartment," the desk clerk told her. Rawlinson was fearful. She recalls thinking, I sent this woman money and I don’t even know who she is.
But the place panned out, and Rawlinson says she would rent again. "You need a sense of adventure, and flexibility too," she concludes.
By Matthew Demmer
1. Time limits
Be aware that many apartments require minimum stays of one week, one month, or even longer. If you’ll be in a city less than a week, a short-term rental is unlikely to be practical.
2. Book early
To get the best possible prices and selection, try to reserve at least four to six months before your trip.
3. Background check
Agencies should provide references, and Slowtrav.com is also a good resource, with reviews of rentals around the world.
4. Numbers game
How many people an apartment can sleep is not necessarily the same as how many it sleeps comfortably. Find out the number of full rooms and beds a place has before you commit. Don’t rely on photos, which can be deceptive, to get a sense of the size of an apartment. The square footage is a more precise measure (one square meter is approximately 11 square feet). Finally, ask about elevator service, especially if you’re traveling with anyone who may have problems climbing several flights.
5. Cooling agents
Inquire about air-conditioning, which isn’t standard in most European apartments, and beware of the agent who talks up the wonders of cross-ventilation.
6. Call before you commit
Although Web sites can be a handy research tool, talk to an agent directly before pulling out your credit card. Agencies often have more apartments than they list online, and you can tailor amenities more easily over the phone. You may even be able to drive the price down.
7. Read the fine print
To ensure that your vacation isn’t a horror story of confused dates and false promises, read the contract carefully before signing.
8. At your service
Most rentals include a onetime housekeeping fee, but if you are staying more than a week, you may want to arrange for additional maid service. Some agencies can also arrange for the kitchen to be stocked prior to your arrival.
9. Phone home
Telephones in rental apartments are often restricted to local service. If you plan to make long-distance calls, get a country-compatible cell phone with prepaid minutes, or a phone card.
10. Plan ahead
You will be exploring on your own—exactly the fun of renting an apartment, but also the challenge. Unless you plan on using a private concierge service, no one will be there to score you reservations, so book restaurants and theater tickets far in advance and come with good guidebooks and maps.
Here’s how five top city hotels compare with nearby apartments. In dollars per square foot, the apartments win. Just don’t expect Hermès amenities or butler service. Reported by Christine Ajudua
Property: Premier luxury suite, Alvear Palace Hotel
Square Feet: 592
Neighborhood: Recoleta, a wealthy district with high-end shopping
Description: Bedroom and separate living room; daily fresh fruit; 500-thread-count Egyptian linens; Hermès toiletries; hydromassage; LCD TV and DVD equipment; wireless Internet.
Price: $790 per night
Property: One-bedroom apartment near the Alvear Palace (www.alojargentina.com)
Square Feet: 484
Description: Double bed; bathroom with tub; linens and towels provided; kitchenette, no freezer; cable TV; weekly maid service; garden balcony; AC in bedroom only; limited local calls.
Price: $312 per week
Property: Junior suite, the Dorchester
Square Feet: 613
Neighborhood: Mayfair, on Park Lane
Description: Bedroom and sitting area; two marble bathrooms; 24-hour room service; high-speed Internet; video and music on demand; spa; car service; mobile-phone rental.
Price: $1,300 per night
Property: One-bedroom apartment on Ennismore Mews (www.farnum-christ.com)
Square Feet: 600
Neighborhood: Knightsbridge, near Hyde Park
Description: Ground-floor apartment; entrance through inner courtyard; living/ dining room; queen-size bed; full kitchen; washer/dryer.
Price: $1,888 per week
Property: Deluxe guest room, St. Regis
Square Feet: 450
Neighborhood: East 55th Street, at the corner of Fifth Avenue, near Central Park
Description: Marble bath and separate shower; in-room fax machine; 24-hour butler service; access to a fitness center and spa.
Price: $845 per night
Property: Studio apartment on East 58th Street (www.nyhabitat.com)
Square Feet: 450
Neighborhood: Between Second and Third Avenues, in a residential area of midtown
Description: Queen-size bed; cable TV, VCR, and stereo; bathroom with tub and shower; towels and linens provided; stocked kitchen; third floor, no elevator; no doorman.
Price: $297 per night
Property: Superior suite, Four Seasons George V
Square Feet: 915
Neighborhood: Eighth Arrondissement, on the Right Bank
Description: Bedroom and living room; full marble bathroom; high-speed Internet; TV, video, and stereo; 24-hour concierge; overnight laundry and dry cleaning; pool and spa.
Price: $2,095 per night
Property: One-bedroom apartment on Rue du Mont Thabor (www.parisluxuryrentals.com)
Square Feet: 1,100
Neighborhood: First Arrondissement, adjacent to the Eighth
Description: Bedroom with king-size bed and adjoining dressing room; sleeps up to two; bathroom with tub and shower; laptop with wireless Internet; and living/dining room with marble fireplace.
Price: $550 per night
Property: Classic suite, Hotel de Russie
Square Feet: 646
Neighborhood: Near the Spanish Steps and the Piazza del Popolo
Description: Bedroom with separate living room; city view; two telephone lines; voice mail; fax machine on request; satellite television; access to terraced gardens, spa with Turkish steam bath.
Price: $2,285 per night
Property: Two-bedroom apartment near Via del Corso (www.leisureinrome.com)
Square Feet: 753
Neighborhood: Overlooking the Piazza del Popolo
Description: One double room; one single room; living room with sofa bed and balcony; two full bathrooms; full kitchen; and Florentine-tile floors. Fourth floor, no elevator.
Price: $172 per night
To start your search, check out this list:
ALL OVER EUROPE
Barclay International Group
Villas and Apartments Abroad
Ville et Village
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