By Rick Steves
Renting an apartment for your European vacation — whether in a Tuscan villa, French farmhouse, or a flat just above the bustle of London — can make a lot of sense for certain travelers. If you're one of them, the following tips can help smooth the way for a great stay.
Finding an Apartment
Sources for rental accommodations include websites that put you in touch with the owners or managers of a range of properties (from a single room to a plush villa), and rental agencies, where a go-between facilitates your rental.
Websites such as Airbnb, FlipKey, Booking.com, and VRBO let you browse a wide range of properties. TripAdvisor has an option for searching just vacation rentals, and each listing comes with TripAdvisor's voluminous user reviews. But keep in mind that, for the most part, the listings are unvetted. It's up to you to determine if a holiday house meets your particular needs in terms of location, features, and amenities.
Owners pay a fee to list their places and include photos and loads of other information (number of bedrooms and bathrooms, amenities, parking availability, nearby attractions and services, etc.) to help you make your decision. Reading reviews from previous guests can help identify trouble spots that may be glossed over in the official description.
These websites collect payment when you reserve but only release the funds to owners after you've checked in, a method of reducing fraud. A booking fee is generally built into the price. Most sites allow guests to rate hosts — and sometimes vice versa. To help renters feel safe, some sites require hosts and guests to be "verified" by providing a government-issued ID and connecting their profiles to online social networks. Hosts can gain elevated status, such as being "certified" or named a "superhost," through a track record of good service.
If you prefer to work from a curated list of accommodations, consider going through a rental agency for homes and apartments. Using an agency is convenient, the places they list have been screened, and their staff will work with you to find an appropriate accommodation. For instance, if you're traveling with a large group or aren't sure what neighborhood you want to be in, it might be easier to convey your needs to a rental agency and let them do the legwork. Agency-represented apartments typically cost more, but this method often offers more help and safeguards than booking direct.
Agencies such as Interhome USA and the more upscale RentaVilla.com list places all over Europe. Other agencies concentrate on a certain region or city. For example, Prague Stay focuses on apartments in Prague, while France: Homestyle lists rentals throughout France.
Narrowing Your Options
Before you commit to a rental, be clear on the details, location, and amenities (see my list of suggested questions in the sidebar).
Check out the location on a map — one person's "close to downtown" is another's "boondocks." I like to virtually explore the neighborhood using Google Street View. Also consider the proximity to public transportation, and how well connected the property is with the rest of the city. Factor the cost of commuting to your sightseeing into the overall price. If you plan on driving, ask about parking.
Make sure you're aware of the property's amenities and quirks. Don't be afraid to ask questions. For example, what floor is the apartment on? Is there an elevator or is it a walk-up? Does the kitchen have a microwave, coffee maker, and so on? Is there a washer/dryer? How dependable is the Wi-Fi? If the owner or agency is anything but helpful, skip to the next place on your list.
Read reviews. If there's one complaint, you can ignore it as being from a grumpy renter. But if four or five posters comment on the same problem, pay attention. Be aware that reviewers on aggregator websites are a diverse lot, ranging from high-maintenance travelers to rugged backpackers, so expectations — and resulting opinions — may vary. A booking agency's posted reviews are almost certainly curated to weed out particularly negative ones.
Think about the kind of experience you want: Just a key and an affordable bed…or a chance to get to know a local? Some hosts offer self check-in and minimal interaction; others enjoy meeting their guests. Read the description and reviews to help shape your decision.
Confirming and Paying
When you make a reservation, expect 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 or upon arrival (possibly in cash). The easiest and safest way to pay is through the listing site, which can process credit-card payments and offers some degree of fraud protection. Be wary of owners who want you to take your transaction offline to avoid fees charged by the rental site; this gives you no recourse if things go awry. Never agree to wire money — this is a key indicator of a fraudulent transaction in the making.
Before you finalize a booking, read the rental agreement, which usually includes the house rules and the cancellation policy. Rentals can have much more rigid cancellation policies than hotels (such as 30 or 60 days, and some portion of your deposit may be nonrefundable).
Get directions. Make sure you nail down directions to the rental prior to your arrival. Apartments, especially those in big cities, can be tricky to find. House numbers often have no obvious correlation to one another (for example, in Italy, #28 may be directly across the street from #2).
Know how to get in. Some owners will send you a combination to a keypad door lock or a lock box where they keep the key. Others will want to arrange a time to meet in person so they can give you the keys and show you around. This is your opportunity to ask for neighborhood tips. But once the owners leave, you probably won't see them again.
Read the manual. The rental property usually comes with an "instruction manual" containing information on how to operate the appliances and suggestions for local restaurants, shops, and sightseeing. The property owner's suggestions can point you to authentic local restaurants and activities you may never stumble upon otherwise. Patronize nearby mom-and-pop grocery stores, butcher shops, pastry shops, and bakeries.
Leave it like you found it. When departing, leave the place clean and in good condition — or you may lose some or all of your security deposit. Some owners may ask you to do minimal cleaning before you leave (for instance, stripping off bed linens or emptying the fridge).