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 rentaal 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.