Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 19, 2017

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Comforts of home

Why stay in a cookie-cutter hotel when you can get a unique space for the same price?

We all know that finding the right place to stay can make or break a vacation. For most of us, that means booking a suitable-looking hotel and hoping the amenities, service and room size meet our expectations, especially in proportion to cost. These days, that model is increasingly challenged by the Internet, which, aside from offering hotel review sites like TripAdvisor.com or booking engines like Hotels.com or Expedia.ca, also features a wide range of alternatives to standard hotels and resorts both internationally and here in Canada.

In fact, the Net is your connection to a world of short-term accommodations that either dramatically revise the conventional hotel experience or dispense with it all together. You can now tailor an independent holiday that enjoys the advantages of “serviced apartments” and hotel “member floors” — or make yourself at home anywhere in the world in one of the tens of thousands of vacation rentals of every description and price level. There are even home-swapping networks that dispense with payment altogether, apart from minor service fees.

Exclusive and personal

Despite the incredible variety, all these types of accommodation have certain things in common. First, they offer a sense of personal exclusivity that traditional high-volume hotels find hard to match. That exclusivity is based on the uniqueness of the different options available, and the fact that they either feature more privacy, living space and flexibility at a cheaper cost, or provide better value for money because of perks, personalized service and extra amenities.

Most of these holiday choices should be arranged online through a reputable agent, meaning one of the many established companies that compile and manage property listings on aggregator websites. Dealing with professionals is not only more convenient, but much safer, that is, it’s easier to seek redress from a legitimate business bound by real world laws than a phone number next to a great deal you discovered on Craigslist.

As long as you abide by a few basic rules (always Google your agent and vacation host to establish that they are bona fide: never use anything except a cancellable credit card to make payments), you’re likely to be pleasantly surprised by the experience. Many people are actually so impressed they never go back to generic hotel rooms if they can help it. Globally, the alternative hospitality industry has quintupled in size since 2000 and now generates $18 billion in business every year.

Some analysts even predict that this type of individuated catering represents the future, and that standard hotels will eventually be relegated to a smaller part of the market. What is apparent is that conventional hoteliers are both threatened by the competition (pressuring legislators to forbid short-term private leasing arrangements, as is happening in New York City) and also inspired to try new strategies to satisfy customers.

Hotel clubs and premium floors

Many international hotel chains offer complimentary loyalty programs and frequent-stay reward plans with discounts and benefits. Some loyalty programs allow you to earn points to redeem for future visits; others focus on enhancing your stay on the spot, most often through adjusted rates, room upgrades and free use of services and facilities.

For instance, the global Fairmont chain, proprietor of such Canadian landmarks as the Rockies’ Chateau Lake Louise and the Château Frontenac in Quebec City, hosts the Fairmont President’s Club, a recognition program that allows members to earn additional free nights and other deals with each further day stayed (sign up for free at any Fairmont hotel or at fairmont.com/fpc). Fairmont has also introduced a premium floor in its hotels that features fancier quarters, more amenities, and enhanced service. Fairmont Gold, as it’s known, bills itself as “a hotel within a hotel” that offers full-time concierges and residential-style rooms, along with a membership perks program that allows the free use of many hotel services (at Lake Louise, canoes that are regularly $45 an hour are complimentary).

Every Fairmont Gold contains a private lounge for its guests with free breakfast and cocktail buffets, an honour bar, a library and business amenities such as iPads. Thirty of Fairmont’s 80 properties around the world contain Gold floors (including Hawaii, Cairo, and Shanghai) and joining up is easy: simply inquire at any front desk to become a member. Gold rates, depending on the location, season, number of guests and room category, typically start at $300 per night.

Vacation clubs and timeshare hotels

Vacation clubs come in all shapes and sizes, but are essentially timeshares. Some clubs may own units in multiple resorts in different locations, offering services to a private customer base for exclusivity; others consist only of individual weeks at other developers' resorts. Many work off points programs affiliated with large resort groups offering a selection of destinations — the western Canadian company Intrawest is a good example.

Clubs and resorts may also help members lease out their time-share to the public. Complexes with large blocks of rentable properties thus act as “timeshare hotels,” the advantage to you being the size of the condo units available and the reasonable prices attached. In Whistler, BC, units at the Mountainside Lodge (whistler.com/Mountainside_Lodge) start at $133 per night and include one to five bedrooms, fully equipped kitchens, saunas and fireplaces, all a minute’s walk from the slopes of North America’s best ski resort. Booking stays in these establishments may require a credit card deposit in advance.

Apartment hotels

Rest assured, apartment hotels now have nothing do with your mental picture of the shabby local motor inn that used to rent kitchenettes by the week. Today’s chic apartment hotels were pioneered in Europe to cater to fed-up business travellers wanting the illusion of a home life. On this continent, Manhattan’s Eastgate Tower is one of the largest, offering one and two-bedroom suites. Eastgate's owner Affinia Hotels (affinia.com) also runs three smaller, posh establishments in Midtown: spacious suites are advertised as starting under $350 a night, unheard of in New York.

In Europe, France’s Citadines Apart’hotels (citadines.com) now runs a worldwide network: apart from hotels in every major French city (Paris has 15 alone), the company also has apartments in 21 countries, including settings as varied as Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City and Tbilisi, Georgia. Often housed in historic buildings at prime locations — in Paris, one is opposite the Louvre — their stylish one- to two-bedroom suites come equipped down to nail files. Rooms at their property in Paris' trendy and central Marais neighbourhood start at €165 for a studio.

The British have their own equivalent called Saco (sacoapartments.co.uk), and have rarefied the concept even further. The amenities and features of “serviced apartments” are limited only by your budget: if you can afford a flat with seven powder rooms and want a manservant from Lapland, Saco will find a way to arrange it for you. A presence in 32 countries where it manages 12,000-odd apartments, Saco’s rates for more plebeian folk average around £145 ($235) for a two-bedroom suite in London, and $400 for a two-bedroom suite internationally. Use of the washer and dryer provided is optional: housekeeping services clean clothes and shine shoes.

Wild world of rentals

For the first time in history, the world really is your oyster: you can venture online and in minutes locate destinations and properties you never dreamed were available. While you can certainly use the Internet’s accommodation listings to search for houseboats on BC’s Shuswap Lake, or to find a beach house on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, websites like Airbnb (airbnb.com) are worth visiting just to see the amazing variety of places the world has on offer.

Named as the next multibillion-dollar start-up by The Wall Street Journal, Airbnb is an online service that matches people seeking short-term accommodations with those with spaces to rent, generally private parties who are not hoteliers. As of October 2011, the company had over 130,000 listings in 19,732 cities in 192 of the world’s 196 countries. Listings include apartments, houses, castles, sailboats, decommissioned warships, manors, tree houses, French gîtes, lighthouses, caves, beach villas, igloos, shrines, private islands, empty gardeners’ sheds, and “eccentric” properties.

Rates vary from $10 a night for a futon and toothbrush in Rimouski, Quebec, to $20,000 a night for a 6000-square-metre modernist palace built over a jungle waterfall in Brazil. Airbnb has a 24-hour customer-service hotline, and in-house security devoted to investigating any suspicious activity.

Less trendy and wacky than Airbnb, HomeAway (homeaway.com) has an even larger collection of rental properties: 260,000 around the world in 193 countries, including a large footprint in Latin America. Founded in 1963 and still sticking to its slogan, “rent a house for the cost of a hotel,” HomeAway has an extensive presence across Canada. Its website currently features winter ski rentals at just about every hill in British Columbia with a T-bar: there are 703 properties available in Whistler alone (properties usually run from $100 to 700 per night). HomeAway also has in-house security and an online presence containing forums posting guest reviews.

One of the side effects of the recent global downturn has been the surplus of empty vacation properties built during boom years. Everywhere, unsold homes and condos are now being marketed as rentals, making the entire market extremely competitive. Many upscale vacation rentals are now trying to stand out by essentially posing as luxury hotels in miniature — offering everything from regular maid service to caterers who’ll appear in your kitchen to cook a gourmet meal. In Mexico, Lifestyle Villas (lifestylevillas.net), which manages luxury beachfront rental homes, requires property owners who list with the agency to include standard amenities, among them 800-thread-count linens and L’Occitane toiletries.

On Grand Bahama Island, Villas of Distinction (villasofdistinction.com) offers $4000-per-night, five-bedroom properties that include such features as an in-house masseur, an infinity pool, Jet Skis, and access to a private 18-hole golf course. Even more typical mom-and-pop outfits are now stepping up the personal service, offering airport pickups and leaving welcome baskets along with the key.

House-Swapping

Founded by idealists committed to international dialogue, the world’s two premiere house-exchange networks, HomeLink (homelink.com) and Intervac (intervac.ca) have 25,000 members between them in 60 countries worldwide. With a home exchange, homeowners agree to trade living quarters with a like-minded person or family in a desired locale for a specific period of time. Once the would-be vacationers make contact through the network’s listings, they are basically on their own to work out the details.

While this obviously requires a leap of faith, those who run vacation exchange services say that complaints are rare and that most clients are so satisfied with the experience they become serial swappers. Both HomeLink and Intervac charge members an annual fee ($70) for access to their databases.

Dos & don’ts

  • Use a reputable, legally constituted online agency that features listings of private homes for rent by their owners. The best agencies have problem hotlines and investigators to keep everyone happy.
  • Demand ironclad assurances that the person you are renting from has title to the property in question. Research them yourself online to make sure they’re legit (scammers tend to repeat successful scams). Remember that listing agents have never visited these homes either — check the fine print to see who’s liable for what if something goes wrong.
  • When in touch with your prospective leaser, ask for more interior and exterior photos to make sure the ones posted aren’t unduly flattering. Get a good idea of the amenities offered. Use Google Earth to make sure there isn’t a highway behind the house.
  • Establish a relationship with the party you’re renting from — it’ll pay off, especially if you’re in it for the long haul (you may be putting down a deposit months before you pick up a key). Make sure you understand paperwork and proper procedure, especially when leasing internationally.
  • Only use a cancelable, refundable credit card to put down deposits or full amounts ahead of time. Never ever agree to make any other form of payment: you’re either dealing with a con artist, or someone whose rental property will be as amateurish as they are.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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