Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 20, 2017
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Consider yourself at home

Getting a vacation rental in Europe is cheaper and easier than you think

Frances Mayes was right: life is sweet in "Bella Tuscany" -- especially when you have a country house to call your own. My villa perfetta, Casa Ferruccio, sits on a six-hectare property about 90 minutes south of Pisa. Outside, I can stroll beneath cork and olive trees or lounge poolside under the Tuscan sun.

Inside, I have all the comforts of home: a cosy living area with terra-cotta floors and chestnut ceiling beams, two bedrooms flooded with light and colour, two baths and a modern kitchen complete with washing machine and dishwasher. But unlike Ms. Mayes, I didn't have to spend a fortune buying my dream house. I just rented it for $1125 a week.

My family and I have rented equally enticing places throughout Europe. Imagine a whitewashed Andalusian casita, a medieval guardhouse in Languedoc, an apartment in a Ligurian villa, an 18th-century Edinburgh townhouse, a bucolic Bavarian chalet, a Maltese farmhouse with private pool, a newly-built Sicilian casa, even the tower of a French castle: all for the average weekly price of $865.

In European terms, that works out to about the same cost per night as one uninspired hotel room. However, it's not just the potential savings that make self-catering (as it's known abroad) so attractive. Anyone who has taken conventional, hotel-hopping holidays in Europe knows how stressful they can be. Rooms are cramped, concierges are cranky, maids pop up at the most inconvenient times.

With rental homes, on the other hand, you get the luxury of space, as well as privacy. And that's not all. You can come and go as you please, relax as much or as little as you like and cook whenever you want. At last, an excuse to stock up on hand-pressed olive oil and absurdly cheap local wines! Best of all, you can live like the locals -- at least for a week or two.

Sounds tempting, doesn't it? But before rushing out and renting a house, you first have to settle on a destination and determine the type of holiday you hope to have. If you plan on making the most of Europe's fabled restaurants, shops and museums, urban rentals are the wisest choice. Those wanting to take in an entire region are better off picking an outlying spot with a central location and easy highway access for day trips. Conversely, travellers who crave quiet or long for an authentic experience off the beaten path should opt for a house hidden deep in the countryside.

I KNOW THE OWNER
Once you know what you're looking for, the next step is to decide which rental route you'll take. The most direct approach is to deal with homeowners themselves. You can find them though international newspapers or magazines like Living France that have classified sections devoted to self-catering. There are also countless online databases that will help you hook up. But many make their revenues by simply advertising properties. So you can't assume listings have been vetted or verified. The safest bet is to stick with well-established websites, like www.a1vacations.com, www.goin2travel.com and www.internationalrentals.com.

Many of my most memorable rentals -- including Casa Ferruccio -- were arranged through www.holiday-rentals.com, a well-designed British site that boasts over 6000 places in 50 countries. Property pages give information on accommodations and local attractions, plus they scrupulously note amenities and add-ons (such as cleaning charges); and typically provide both interior and exterior photos. Searching is easy, too: browse by date, destination and preferred price or use 24 other options to check for features like proximity to golf courses and wheelchair accessibility.

Direct renting has many advantages. You can save money by skipping the middlemen. And since owners usually live nearby or hire local managers, knowledgeable advice and emergency support are close at hand. But there are drawbacks. Homeowners are a subjective bunch at the best of times: throw in some cultural differences and standards are bound to vary. For instance, in areas filled with ancient buildings, terms like "recently restored" or "well equipped" are understandably open to interpretation.

If you want the security of knowing that your property has been objectively assessed yet still aim to keep costs down, not-for-profit organizations may be the way to go. Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and Sweden are just a few of the countries with national networks for rural rentals conveniently consolidated under the Eurogîtes banner (www.eurogites.com). The granddaddy of them all, France's Gîtes program (www.gites-de-france.fr) has 50 years experience and a whopping 42,000 self-catering addresses.

 

Like top commercial agencies, Gîtes de France inspects all properties: even the simple, though nonetheless charming ones that agencies generally can't afford to handle. So you get a vast selection of prescreened spots with average weekly prices of $380 in low season and $580 during peak periods. The downside is that details about individual gîtes are often limited (you're normally given a few lines of text with a thumbnail photo) and, in some cases, requests for further details or booking assistance can't be processed in English. Unless you're bilingual, there's no guarantee that you'll get what you bargained for.

Like to avoid language issues altogether? Britain's tourism board (tel: 888-847-4885; www.visitbritain.com/ca/) offers a wide range of properties ranked according to a five-key classification system. One-of-a-kind alternatives can be booked through Britain's Landmark Trust (tel: 802-254-6868; www.landmarktrust.co.uk), a charitable organization that's been funding preservation work by renting out carefully restored buildings since 1965. It currently has 178 historically or architecturally significant self-catering properties to let, including castles, forts, manors, mills -- even a lighthouse.

Since the Trust's buildings are themselves the star attractions, you shouldn't expect lots of bells and whistles. Although kitchens and bathrooms have been updated, the furnishings are traditional and, in keeping with preservationist policies, TVs and telephones are nowhere to be found.

Prices vary widely depending on size and season, however the average cost is about $60 per person per night. Full details are found in the Landmark Trust Handbook, available from its North American office for a $33 fee that can be refunded with your first booking.

SEEKING AGENTS
Of course, those willing to pay for personalized service can always find a commercial agency that will do the legwork for them. Just keep in mind that not all are created equal. Look for one that routinely inspects properties to ensure quality and has experienced staffers who can steer you through the rental process.

The agency should also be able to provide additional services (like arranging rental cars) either directly or through a reputable partner, as well as offer sound recommendations on sightseeing and dining in your chosen area. Most importantly, it should be prepared to stand behind its product.

Canada's oldest (and arguably its largest) agency, Vacances Provenìales (tel: 800-263-7152; www.europeanhomerentals.com), fits the bill. Its portfolio includes over 4000 properties throughout the UK, Ireland, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Turkey. A freestanding, four-person villa with pool will set you back about $2500 a week in high season. But if you feel like splurging, you and 35 of your closest friends can upgrade to a fully staffed, antique-filled French chëteau that features everything from a 42-inch plasma screen TV to a private chapel. Visit their website for online listings or call to purchase individually priced regional catalogues.

For other high-end digs, check out HomesAway (tel: 800-374-6637; www.homesaway.com), an offshoot of the respected Canadian tour company Butterfield & Robinson. Its selection is smaller (just 65 handpicked properties in France, Italy and Spain) and its average weekly rates are higher (around $12,775 for an eight-person place with a pool). However, it's hard to beat the on-site perks. Aside from daily housekeeping and a complimentary pre-arrival shopping service, HomesAway guests get 12 hours of expert assistance per week from an English-speaking "host" who will run errands, organize outings and provide an easy entré into local culture.

Exploring your rental options will take some effort, and for first-timers the whole process may seem time-consuming -- perhaps even a bit intimidating. So take it slow. Browse a little. Dream a lot. And remember: the rewards are worth it, because once you've found the perfect place, all you have to do is settle in and make yourself at home.

 

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

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