By Rick Steves
Whether you're in a city or the countryside, renting an apartment, house, or villa can be a fun and cost-effective way to delve into Europe. A short-term rental is a great alternative to a hotel, especially if you plan to settle in one location for several nights. Options run the gamut, from French gîtes to Tuscan villas to big-city apartments in the heart of town. Prices vary depending on the season, size, location, and quality of the accommodation. For stays longer than a few days, you can usually find a rental that's comparable to — or even cheaper — than a hotel room with similar amenities.
Apartments and houses for rent are generally roomier than hotel rooms and come with kitchens and common areas to gather in; some have laundry facilities. Rentals can be especially cost-effective for groups. Two couples traveling together can share a two-bedroom apartment, which often ends up being less expensive than a pair of hotel rooms. Groups of backpackers find that splitting the price of a cheap apartment can cost less than paying for several bunks at a youth hostel. You can further your savings by cooking your own meals instead of going out. If you enjoy eating in restaurants, consider stocking your kitchen with breakfast food or picnic-lunch supplies and saving your money for nice dinners out.
For families, an apartment is a huge benefit. Kitchens make it easier and cheaper to dine in and feed picky eaters. Laundry machines let you do the family wash. With more than one room, parents of younger children can hang out and chat while their kids slumber (as opposed to being trapped in a hotel room with the lights out at 8 p.m.). If you have teenagers, you can leave them to eat dinner in the apartment while you go out to a restaurant — they'll feel independent (perhaps enjoying a little screen time without parents), and you'll get a night on the town with your partner.
In general, I find that if you're staying somewhere for four nights or longer, it's worth considering an apartment or rental house. Three nights is borderline. To me, anything less than that isn't worth the extra effort involved in settling into an apartment (arranging key pickup, buying groceries, figuring out the neighborhood without the help of a hotelier, etc.). Plus, many apartments require minimum stays — typically three to seven nights (note that you'll likely pay more per night if staying less than a week, and you can sometimes negotiate better deals if renting for longer). If you can work it into your itinerary, consider settling in a rental for a full week. This gives you an opportunity to really get to know the town and take advantage of day-trip possibilities. (Good home-base cities are also ideal apartment-rental cities.)
The rental route isn't for everyone. First off, you're generally on your own. While the apartment owner or manager might offer some basic assistance, don't expect them to provide all the services of a hotel reception desk. If you like fresh towels and daily sheet changes, stay in a hotel. Your apartment likely won't be serviced or cleaned during a one-week stay unless you pay extra (though places generally have cleaning supplies — ask about this when you check in). Remember that the lack of these services is what keeps rentals affordable.