A Guide to Self-Catering Apartments

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Do without desk clerks, porters, concierges, and pricey hotel restaurants and live like a local

The tour bus pulled alongside a dozen more like it at Notre Dame cathedral. Though it was only May, the sun beat down fiercely on Parisians and tourists alike. Disembarking from the bus, American tourists groped toward the church entrance like sleepwalkers. A hot and thirsty-looking lot, they stopped on the corner where I was waiting to cross. They perused a map as their leader exhorted them, "Please, please, people! You must be on time. The bus will leave here exactly at 2 p.m. You must be aboard. We will go next to the Eiffel Tower where you will have 45 minutes. We will then depart for our swing around the Arc de Triomphe and Montmartre. Don't forget, dinner is served promptly at 8 p.m. at your hotel. Have all luggage in the lobby for our departure for Amsterdam at 6:30 a.m. Have a great day in Paris!"

I ambled over to assist these forlorn-looking folks who were having no luck with the map. Thrilled to find an American to help them, one woman asked, "Where's the best place around here to eat lunch?" "That would be my apartment, though I doubt you would all fit in," I replied. "You live here in Paris?" she queried. "No," I said, "I'm just a tourist like you. My apartment is in that building there the one on the island, Ile St. Louis, just near that bridge you see." I left them there to puzzle it out and went happily home to my delicious luncheon bought at the market that morning. I ate it sitting in my window overlooking the Seine, watching the boats go by and feeling somewhat smug and sorry for anyone who was not enjoying Paris as much as I.

What is a self-catering apartment? It is a flat in which you tend to your own needs in your own way. Though many feature maid service one or more times per week, you are essentially on your own. Kitchens or kitchenettes provide you with the leisure to cook or prepare snacks at any time. Private phone, TV, and all the amenities of home come with most apartments or can be paid for as additions to your bill. You have a landlord to contact if something goes wrong or breaks, or if you have locked yourself out again!

It is like any apartment in the United States, only better! You are living in a neighborhood in a foreign country as a part of the local life, not as a mere visitor. Your groceries, your time, your recreation, sightseeing, and laundry are up to you, just like at home, only better. You aren't just making an eight-hour stopover on your way to 14 cities in nine days-you are living there! You are experiencing the life, culture, and economy of the country and people. You are taking care of yourself, you lucky self-catering traveler, you.

The advantages of self-catering apartments versus hotel stays For me, there is nothing like waking in the morning at my leisure, making my own coffee, and lounging around with my maps and guidebooks to decide where I'd like to go today. Will I visit a museum, take a train or bus to an exciting castle, or just hang out at the local flea market and get lunch at a charming cafe? Many of the most memorable travel experiences I have had came out of this secret tourist science, which I can sum up as "exploring by getting lost and wandering around."

How about a jog through the Parc Monceau in Paris, followed by an afternoon nap? If I opt for the late show at the flamenco bar in Madrid, tomorrow I can sleep as late as I wish. In my own apartment in Dublin, I can be a neat-freak or a total slob. I will probably not encounter another American on most days. I will, however, visit with the ladies who run the bakery down the street, the guy who works at the post office, the vendors at the fish market, and the police officer who patrols my neighborhood.

No matter what I do, I will do it on my schedule. No one will tell me to hurry. I will not move my luggage. I will use my apartment as a base camp for my travels and explorations in the areas I fancy. I will pick and choose the activities and sights that interest me. I will eat and sleep, and I'll drink the local wine when I wish. I will make lifelong friends and pen-pals. I will learn about the economy, how much it costs to live and feed oneself in another country. I will develop a new appreciation for all I have in America, and I will watch it amount to awe. But I will also fall a little bit in love with the place in which I am living and with the new people around me.

What's the downside? The downside is um well, for me, there honestly is no downside. I know from some excruciating past experiences with arranged tours that lots of people want to be "guided." This seems particularly true of Americans, many of whom do not speak a foreign language and thus believe they would become irretrievably lost if they were on their own in a foreign country. In truth, most people outside of North America are used to dealing with strangers who speak a different language than they do. Here in the U.S., we thrive on airconditioning, cable TV, room service, and other amenities provided by hotels. Many people like to have their schedule, tickets, and itinerary planned for them so they don't have to think about making these arrangements. So I guess the downside of staying in self-catering apartments is that you have to be your own travel guide, concierge, ticket agent, and cook. That's more than fine with me, but it might not be for everyone. Also, depending on the type of facility you book, you might find that the heating system only works on "tepid," the shower won't flow if you flush the toilet, and the towels provided are the size of Kleenex. No matter how meticulously you research your accommodation, there will probably be some surprises. Not everybody likes surprises. Self-catering apartments are perhaps only suitable for the very adaptable traveler, and for those with a sense of humor.

How do I find an apartment in a foreign country or an unfamiliar U.S. city? The better guidebooks contain the names and addresses of agencies booking self-catering apartments. The government tourist offices of many cities, islands, and countries also have that information-and many exist to impart it to you for free. The Internet is full of such agencies, and a few minutes' use of a search engine will yield remarkably detailed information on reserving properties. From all of those sources, and from many recommendations of friends, I've compiled a ready-to-use list of apartment-renting offices in America and around the world (see the special box accompanying this article).

When I plan a vacation, in addition to digging out the names of agencies, I also study the area I want to visit and decide where I do not want to stay. If there is a high-crime area or an expensive area catering to movie stars in chauffeured cars, you can be sure I will not consider those locations for an apartment stay, since those factors may affect the lifestyle I will lead once I arrive. I try to find a middle-class section of town. It may be arty or trendy, but not seedy. I check maps to see if it has ready access to the subway, buses, and train stations.

I make a list of what I need to make myself comfortable. Do I need a telephone, or will I have a cell phone with me? For people traveling with children, a washing machine may be important, but I don't need one. Remember: The more appliances you need, the more you will have to pay for the apartment.

I get information on lots of apartments before making my final decision. Though it's easy to get hyped up about your trip, as with any purchase, it's never smart to book the first attractive property you encounter. Shop around.

If I can, I make phone contact with the agency or with the representative for the property. I evaluate how they "sound" to me. Do the prices and the facilities they quote jibe with those touted by the other sources I have checked? Are they accommodating and forthcoming in response to my questions?

This isn't Kansas, Toto

People assume that leasing an apartment in a foreign country is the same as leasing one in the United States. Not true. To my mind, there are some crucial considerations about the apartment you choose: o Is electricity free? It might be billed at check-out, or you may have to regularly feed coins to a meter. Most apartment rentals now include electricity with the rental fee, but if the agency is silent about it, you should ask. o Will you have all modern appliances? Unless specified otherwise, most rental apartments in Europe will not provide a dishwasher. Some will have clothes-washing equipment, but not dryers. In some, a telephone costs extra. Ask before booking.

o There may be hidden fees. Does the local government levy a tax that you have not been warned about? Is there a usage fee for any portion of the apartment building or the equipment? What is the total actual daily or weekly rental fee that you must pay? Is there a security deposit? If the landlord or agency seems evasive, or if the answer is confusing, look elsewhere.

o One might expect that apartments catering to tourists would provide sheets and towels. Au contraire. Unless you want to schlep your own linens, ask if they are furnished. Some rentals charge more for these. If they are provided, how often are fresh ones dropped off?

o What is the security arrangement? Will you be provided a physical key, or will you enter using a combination key and security number? Who else will have a key, and from whom and where do you pick it up when you arrive? o If you want your own bathroom, make sure it is specified as an en suite bath. If you don't mind sharing facilities with other residents, an apartment with a shared bath is always cheaper. Ask what the bath includes. Is it merely a toilet/sink, or does it have a tub/shower, too?

o What is in the kitchen? If you plan to cut costs by preparing your own food, is the kitchen sufficiently outfitted? I like to cook full meals with ingredients from the markets. Therefore, a kitchen with only a hot plate and a coffee pot would never suffice for me, although it might be fine for those who aren't interested in learning to cook the local delicacies.

o If you intend to rent a car, is parking available? If so, is the space nearby? Does it require a separate fee? o In what form and in what amount will you make your payment? Most rental agencies accept credit cards, but not all of them do. If this is the case, your bank can send a wire transfer.

o Are there any other unforeseen restrictions on your stay? For example, is there a limit to the number of people who may stay overnight in the apartment, or are there rules concerning which days you may check into or out? If you arrive in town at night, will someone be there to check you in and give you a key to the dwelling?

o Finally, be sure you receive a written confirmation either via the Internet or mail. Ask about the cancellation policy, too. Be sure you understand all the financial arrangements-fully-before completing a final booking.

Leave Jeeves, the butler, to the hotels You don't need Jeeves. You can wash your breakfast dishes yourself, use the coin-operated laundry down the street, or (horrors) sweep the kitchen floor, if need be. You can learn the intricacies of foreign plumbing. The independence and the fun of living in your own apartment more than make up for the lack of room service and guides leading you by the nose, on someone else's schedule.

And what, pray tell, are you likely to remember of your stay in a self-catering apartment? I lapse into reverie to report:

The cheerful smile of the bakery lady who came to know exactly what I wished to order each morning: hot and fragrant pastries direct from the oven.

The sounds of families coming home from work and school, with the gossip, the arguing, and the laughter everywhere.

The red-haired schoolboy who greeted me with a goofy grin and a "Bonjour, madame" that always made me smile.

Two international soccer teams which, after a beer or nine, decided to stage a practice game at 2 a.m. on the street under my window. The Italians won.

Finding the best tapas bar in Spain in which to eat calamares.

Watching from my window as a head-of-state was ushered down the street by a contingent of mounted cavalry wearing uniforms from another era.

Waking on Sunday to the ringing of the bells in the nearby cathedral.

Strolling through flower markets, taking photos and my own sweet time to enjoy every blossom.

Excuse me I get a little misty when I think of all the wonderful experiences I had after I fired Jeeves and decided to go it alone in the real neighborhoods of real people. If you try it, a stay in a self-catering apartment will surely prove to be the best vacation you ever have.

Agencies renting self-catering apartments

Prices vary widely depending on the season, region, company, and luxury level, but a good self-catering apartment will cost at least 15 to 20 percent less than most mid-range hotel rooms. For Europe: Prices for apartments have not increased much in the last five years. They start at around $85 per night (although some can dip down to $55 during winter). For Asia: Hong Kong apartments tend to be deluxe, and start around $90 per night; you'll rarely find self-catering apartments in Japan. For Australia: Apartments start at around $85. For the U.S., prices vary more widely than other countries, but here are some regional examples: In Hawaii, apartments start at a surprisingly cheap $55-$75 per night; for New York, studio apartments in this pricey city often start at $100 per night; for Texas and other less-touristed states, apartments start at $69 per night; for Orlando, apartments that sleep four start around $88, but ones sleeping up to ten usually start at $156 per night-a grand economy of scale.

France Servissimo 011-33/1-43-29-03-23 servissimo.com. Apartments of various sizes and locations throughout Paris. Friendly, helpful staff. At Home Abroad 212/421-9165 athomeabroadinc.com. Throughout France, including the Cote d'Azur and Provence. (Also serves Caribbean, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, Portugal, U.K.) United Kingdom Holiday Serviced Apartments 011-44/20-7373-4477 holidayapartments.co.uk. Central London economy studios and flats, all fully equipped, many amenities, security, full kitchens. Apartments throughout the U.K. (Also serves Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, U.S.) Oakwood

Worldwide 800/259-6914 oakwood.com. Short stays or longer throughout the U.K. (Also: Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Nether-lands, New Zealand, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Thailand, U.S.)

Italy Italy Weekly Rentals 011-39/6-9014-0602 italy-weekly-rentals.com. Many varied rentals available, details regarding amenities, rates, owners. Venetian Apartments 011-44/20-8878-1130 venice-rentals.com. Beautiful apartments, good locations, views, short stays of three to five nights, also weekly and monthly rentals.

Northern Ireland and Irish Republic Self-Catering Ireland 011-353/53-33-999 selfcatering-ireland.com. Comprehensive reservation service for Ireland. Three- and four-star apartments from economy to four bedrooms. Irish Tourist Board/Bord Failte 011-353/1-602-4000 ireland.travel.ie. Listings of apartments throughout Ireland, ratings, descriptions, phone numbers, and contacts.

Norway Norway Apartments 011-47/22-60-3666 norwayapartments.no. Apartments sleeping two to twenty; all with complete kitchens, full baths. Many apartments in Oslo and cabins throughout Norway. Norwegian Tourist Board 212/885-9700 visitnorway.com. Links to agencies providing apartments and other rentals. Information and assistance for travelers.

Spain Hometours International 866/367-4668 or 865/690-8484, ask for Moti  thor.he.net/~hometour/link1.htm. Many lovely apartments in all sections of Madrid. (Also serves France, Israel, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, U.K., U.S.) International Lodging Corporation 800/SPAIN-44 or 212/228-5900 ilcweb.com. Apartments and villas in Spain for a week or longer. Tourist Office of Spain 212/265-8822, 305/358-1992, 312/642-1992, or 323/658-7188 okspain.org. Assistance in planning your trip, referrals to sources and agencies that rent apartments.

Greece Elysian Holidays 011-44/15-8076-6599 elysianholidays.co.uk. Apartments, villas, and houses in Greece and the Greek Isles. (Also serves Caribbean, Cyprus, Portugal, Spain.) Portugal Owners Direct 011-44/13-7272-2708, ask for Chris or Marie Goddard ownersdirect.co.uk. Fully furnished, courtyards, scenic. Agency gives you direct addresses, names, phone numbers to book with owner/manager. Good photos of apartments and details on rates. (Also serves Canary Islands, Caribbean, Cyprus, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malta, South Africa, Spain, Thailand, U.S.)

Netherlands Barclay International Group 800/845-6636 or 516/759-5100 barclayweb.com. Amsterdam apartments and all types of apartments, lodges, and villas throughout Europe. Offers assistance for special needs such as for handicapped travelers. (Also serves Belgium, Caribbean, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Spain, U.K., U.S.) Netherlands Board of Tourism 888/GOHOLLAND or 212/370-7360 holland.com. Assistance in planning trips and locating resources for lodging.

United States 

No More Hotels 212/897-0572 nomorehotels.com. From the humble to the ritzy in New York City. Apartments and condos in Hawaii and other locations. Wide variety of types, locations, prices. Provides name, address, and phone for direct contact with owner/manager. Good photos of apartments. (Also serves Africa, Asia, Australia, Canada, Caribbean, Central America, Europe, Mexico, Middle East, New Zealand, South America, South Pacific.) a hospitality company 800/987-1235 hospitalitycompany.com. Studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments, owned and furnished by the company, in safe, fun neighborhoods away from the high prices of the Times Square area. CANADA Vacations-Abroad.com 819/688-2228 vacations-abroad.com. Self-catering apartments in Montreal, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and elsewhere. (Also serves Belgium, Caribbean, France, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, U.K., U.S.)

Caribbean and Central America

Zoomaway.com 011-44/20-7976-6514 zoomaway.com. Rental apartments, villas, condos on Antigua, Barbados, St. Lucia, Trinidad, and Tobago. All fully equipped. You can book direct with the owner or through Zoomaway.com. (Also serves Australia, Bulgaria, France, India, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Turkey, U.K., U.S.) LateLet.com 011-44/161-819-5100 latelet.com. Many types of vacation rentals in the Caribbean, as well as in San Jose and other areas of Costa Rica. (Also serves Africa, Australia, Europe, Middle East, New Zealand, South America, South Pacific, U.S.) Solapartotel Vacation Apartments 506/384-7990, ask for Franco Solano. A lovely, privately owned apartment building in residential San Jose; kitchens, fully equipped, garage.


Globalstore Reservations 011-61/7-5471-1013 mxp.com.au. Beautiful apartments, all sizes and prices, in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Queensland's Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast. The Apartment Service 011-44/20-8944-1444 apartmentservice.com. Apartments throughout Australia. Fully equipped. (Also serves Africa, Belgium, Canada, Caribbean, China, eastern Europe, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malta, Mexico, Middle East, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Russia, South America, South Pacific, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, U.K., U.S.) China Moveandstay.com 011-66/2-891-2231 moveandstay.com. Apartments in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere; weekly or monthly rentals. (Also serves Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, U.K.) Harbour Plaza North Point 011-852/2187-2888 or 011-852/2185-2888, ask for Bredon Lam or Tracy Yam in reservations harbour-plaza.com/hpnp. Inquire about the home-stay package. Luxury apartments at budget prices in Quarry Bay on Hong Kong Island. Weekly or monthly rates. All amenities including fitness center, swimming pool.

Other contacts for self-catering 

Untours 888/868-6871 untours.com. Minimum two-week stay (with some seven-night exceptions). Packages combine airfare and a stay in a self-catering apartment or house offered in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, and Vietnam. English-speaking Untour guides meet travelers and provide orientation. All apartments are personally inspected. Drive-Alive Holidays 011-44/870-745-7979 drive-alive.com. Motoring holidays. Pick up vehicle in U.K. and cross the English Channel via ferry or tunnel. Motor to self-catering apartments or homes throughout Europe. Stay in one location, then drive to others arranged by the agency. Many listings. Great vacation for families.

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