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.