Hotels are for suckers. Rent a place for the week and be a temporary European, enjoying the local rhythms, shopping the markets, and sipping wine on your terrace at sunset. Follow these steps to find that Italian villa, London flat, or dream house in the south of France--if only for a week or two.
The best villas go fast. Ideally, start looking--and booking--six months in advance.
Set your priorities. Is price the key factor? Location? Size? A pool? Be clear up front with your travel companions.
Get everyone's desires down on paper. People often rent with friends or extended family, so discuss everyone's wants and needs first. Then designate one person to search for the villa (or narrow the field to a few finalists, then vote), but make sure everyone is on the same page first.
Be reasonable about costs. Villas sleeping, say, six people start as low as $200 per person per week, but in more popular areas--and for nicer properties--the low end is closer to $500. With even modest hotels in European cities topping $100 per night these days, that's still a phenomenal bargain.
Treat the agent like a therapist. Tell her everything you like and dislike, what you want and what you want to avoid, what you expect to find and what would ruin your trip. The more she knows, the better she'll be able to match you with your perfect villa.
Country life is lovely, but you can quickly go stir-crazy. Make sure your villa is within driving distance of a few villages.
Ask about the surroundings. Where is the next closest house? Who lives there? How far is the nearest town with a grocery store or market? When does it close?
Will you be alone? Some properties contain three or four rental villas, all sharing one pool--that's great for socializing, but not if you want solitude.
Ask for tons of photos, then be politely suspicious of them. The villa that looks dreamy on the website might turn out less homey than a barn, and you can bet that the hog farm next door won't make it into the snaps. Get photos that were taken while looking in each direction from the villa. Find out when they were shot.
Check the parameters. Most villas rent by the week; some have two-week minimums. Many insist on set arrival/departure days (say, Saturday to Saturday). The off-season offers more flexibility.
Assume nothing. Not every villa offers TV, phone, heat, air-conditioning, towels and linens, maid service, a washer and dryer, a fully equipped kitchen, etc. Many of these come only at an extra charge. You can never ask too many questions.
Be alert for cultural and language differences. You may read "4-baths" as four full bathrooms; it might mean one toilet, four sinks.
Are all bedrooms full-fledged bedrooms? Or will some folks be stuck on pullout sofas in the living room?
Ask for a floor plan. Check that everyone doesn't have to troop through one person's bedroom to get to the only bathroom.
If your group includes all ages, make sure the rental will work for everyone. Does the pool have a gate for small children? Is there a ground-floor bedroom for Grandpa?
For major rentals--say, 12 people for a whole month--consider sending an advance scout. Once the list is narrowed to a half-dozen choices, designate someone to take a quick trip over and eyeball the candidates before you make the final selection. (In exchange for this free trip, insist he wash all the dishes for the first week.)
Find out what kind of support you'll get. Is there a caretaker, on-site owners, or local contact? How will questions or problems--leaky roofs, broken water heaters--be handled while you're there?
Buy cancellation insurance. Villas tend to have onerous cancellation policies and require large deposits, and much can happen between the time you book and the time you arrive.
Know every detail about the arrival before you leave. Where do you pick up the keys? What papers will you need?
Finding that countryside villa always takes longer than expected. Remember that you'll be faced with foreign road signs and traffic patterns. Estimate how long the trip will take, then double it. If your plane lands in the afternoon and you're looking at a five-hour drive, maybe your first night should be in an airport hotel.
Buy the most detailed map you can find. It will help you find your new home and explore the region.
Manage your expectations. No matter how many precautions you take, what you'll get is certain to be different from what you expected--the trick is to roll with it and have fun.
Don't make the obvious mistakes
"Many travelers overschedule ambitious day trips. Once they arrive, they realize that a perfect-fit house will be the most appealing location of all." --Marjorie Shaw, Insider's Italy
"We have some clients who turn down lovely villas because of the beds. There aren't many queen- or king-size beds. You're only there for a few days. Find a way to make it work." --Mary Vaira, El Sol Villas
"The cars are smaller than Americans expect. Rent a van or, if it's in your budget, a couple of cars. Then you can split up and go in any direction you want." --Michael Thiel, Hideaways International
"A lot of people want to be on the beach. Being by the beach itself can be noisy and busy. It's not that bad to be a 15-minute walk or drive from the beach, to be somewhere more rustic and private." --David Kendall, Villas International
"Make whatever amenity you need a priority. If it's air-conditioning--although you won't find it often in Europe--make sure to tell the [rental] company." --Harry D.J. Barclay, Barclay International
"Most villas require a security deposit, which you are required to pay before you get into the villa. How are you going to get it back?" --Harley Nott, Coach House London Vacation Rentals
Generalist agencies--Barclay International (800/845-6636, barclayweb.com), Rent Villas (800/726-6702, rentvillas.com), Villas International (415/499-9490, villasintl.com), and Hideaways International (800/843-4433, hideaways.com)--have the widest selection. But if you've chosen a region, country-specific agents who really know their turf can find you a better match. Here are the best of the regional specialists.
France: Gites de France represents 42,000 gites rural--country cottages and farmhouses available for a weekend or longer (011-33/1-49-70-75-75, gites-de-france.fr). Arrange a Parisian pad with Paris Sejour Reservation (312/587-7707, psrparis.com), the France USA Contacts classifieds (212/777-5553, fusac.com), or At Home in France (541/488-9467, athomeinfrance.com), which also has villas.
Italy: Everything from apartments in Venice to Renaissance castles to Tuscan farmhouses are handled by four major agencies: Italian Vacation Villas (202/333-6247, villasitalia.com), Vacanze in Italia (413/528-6610, homeabroad.com), the Parker Company (800/280-2811, theparkercompany.com), and Marjorie Shaw's pricey but excellent Insider's Italy (718/855-3878, insidersitaly.com).
Spain: Spanish rentals range from mansions on the glitzy Costa del Sol to simple cortijos (farmhouses). El Sol Villas does villas and Madrid apartments (610/687-9066, elsolvillas.com). Mijas Villas represents properties on the Costa del Sol (011-44/1744-884-404, mijas-villas.com and estepona-villas.com). Or forgo the agencies and peruse hundreds of villas being rented directly by owners at www.rentinspain.co.uk.
Great Britain and Ireland: Special Places to Stay reviews vacation homes in the U.K. and Ireland (011-44/1275-464-891, specialplacestostay.co.uk). Resireland books Irish cottages (011-353/66-979-2196, resireland.com). Find a London flat with Coach House London Vacation Rentals (011-44/20-8772-1939, rentals.chslondon.com). The Landmark Trust lists British castles and historic manors in their $25 property guide (011-44/1628-825-925, landmarktrust.co.uk).
Greece: Greek rental action centers around Mykonos, where some of the best cliffside villas are listed by Living International (011-39/ 348-0146-466, livinginternational.net). Villas across the Greek Isles are represented by Sunisle Holidays (011-44/1285-750-612, sunisle.co.uk). Check out the Greek Travel Pages (011-30/10-324-7511, gtp.gr) or the classifieds of Kathimerini (ekathimerini.com) for Athens apartments.