By Rick Steves
Sometimes you'll deal directly with the apartment owner; in other cases, you might work with an agency that maintains a network of rentals. (Agencies may actually own the apartments, or they can act as a go-between.)
Direct-Booking Websites: Websites such as HomeAway.com and its sister site VRBO.com let you correspond directly with European property owners or managers. Owners pay a fee to list their places and include photos and loads of other information (number of bedrooms and bathrooms, amenities, etc.) to help you make your decision. VRBO lists many properties, but their results appear in a long list that can be overwhelming to sort through. HomeAway is more user-friendly, letting you narrow down a search to number of bedrooms or price range. GreatRentals.com, also part of the HomeAway network, is worth a peek as well.
Sites such as Roomorama.com and Airbnb.com list houses and apartments, as well as rooms in someone's pad. Both websites charge a booking fee (6–12 percent) but alleviate worries about fraud by collecting payment when you book, then waiting until you check in to release the funds to owners. Airbnb leans more toward budget listings while Roomorama tends to have nicer places, many of which are handled by management companies.
Once you've found some options that look appealing, contact the owner for more information. Most sites provide a form for entering your contact info, travel dates, and number of people. Your details are sent to the owner, who should respond directly to you within a few days to let you know whether the place is available and how much it will cost.
These sites have their pros and cons. Booking direct takes a little more effort, but cutting out the middleman also decreases cost and bureaucracy. Because you're working directly with the owner, you'll probably get a slightly better deal than if you go through an agency, which takes a commission. On the flip side, these sites require a little more legwork. You have to filter through a lot of properties, and you'll probably have a lot of back-and-forth with several owners about availability, amenities, policies, and other info.
Rental Agencies: If combing through listings and contacting homeowners sounds like too much effort, consider going through a rental agency. Using an agency is convenient, the places they list have been pre-screened, and their staff will work with you to find an appropriate accommodation. For instance, if you have a larger family or you're not sure what neighborhood you want to be in, it might be easier to talk to a rental agency, convey your needs, and see what they come up with. The downside is that you'll pay more for the rental to cover the agency's costs.
Rental agencies such as Interhome.us and the more upscale Rentavilla.com list places all over Europe. Other agencies concentrate on a certain region or city. For example, Prague-stay.com focuses on apartments in Prague while France: Homestyle lists Parisian apartments and country houses in the Loire. To find a rental in a specific region, simply search for "vacation rental" or "holiday rental" and the town you're interested in, then browse your options.
Renting an Apartment
Before you commit to a rental, be clear on the details. Check out the location on a map so you know how convenient — or inconvenient — it is. Ask about the neighborhood and what's nearby. If you plan on driving, find out about parking. If you have kids, ask if there are playgrounds or parks close by. Many European apartments involve some climbing; confirm what floor the apartment is on and whether the building has an elevator. If the owner or agency is anything but helpful, skip to the next place on your list.
When you make a reservation, you'll probably have to pay a deposit, which can range from 10 to 50 percent of the rental cost. Many places require you to pay the entire balance before your trip (such as 30 days prior to your stay), or upon arrival. Ideally the owner will accept credit cards (which offer some fraud protection), but some places will add a credit-card fee. And some rentals don't accept credit cards and will instead ask you to make your deposit securely online via PayPal, or to send a personal check.
Be warned: You're renting a place sight unseen, so check for scams before sending money. You can do this by searching online for the lister's name, address, or email to see if anything suspicious pops up. For a fee, VRBO, HomeAway, and GreatRentals offer a rental guarantee that protects you for up to $10,000 if you're the victim of fraud, or if the owner misrepresented the property (for example, if your 200-square-foot studio facing a dumpster looks nothing like the photos of the spacious two-bedroom apartment with "lovely garden views" you thought you were renting). The fee for the guarantee starts at $39 and depends on the price of the rental.
Most places will provide you with a rental agreement (either via email or a website), which usually includes the house rules and the cancellation policy. Read the document carefully and clear up any questions you have with the owner or agency. Rentals tend to have much more rigid cancellation policies than hotels (30 days is common, but it can be longer), even in circumstances beyond your control. For example, when the volcano erupted in Iceland in 2010, one of my staffers had to delay her trip to Spain by a few weeks. While the apartment she had booked in Madrid was able to accommodate her new itinerary, she was still charged for the original dates (even though she ended up staying two fewer nights). Some homeowners might be more lenient and let you out of your contract in an emergency. It's always worth asking.
If you think your plans might change, consider staying in a hotel, where you can usually cancel just a few days beforehand without paying a penalty. You can also protect your investment by purchasing trip-cancellation insurance.
Apartments, especially those in big cities, can be tricky to find. Unlike hotels, you can't expect taxi drivers and people on the street to be able to point you in the right direction. Make sure you nail down directions to the rental prior to your arrival.
You'll also need to arrange a time and place to meet the property owner or manager and pick up the keys. That person will show you around the rental and may be able to give you tips about the neighborhood (grocery stores, pharmacies, and good places to eat). But once they leave, you probably won't see them again.
On departure, it's generally expected that you leave the place clean and in good condition. If you don't, you may lose some or all of your security deposit. Some places may ask you to do minimal cleaning before you leave (for instance, stripping off bed linens or emptying the fridge).