Rental vs. Hotel: When’s an Apartment Smart?

Large room suite
For groups of friends, renting an apartment or house is a fun, more sociable option.
By Rick Steves

A short-term vacation rental — whether an apartment, a house, or a room in a private residence — is a popular alternative to a hotel, especially if you plan to settle in one location for several nights. Rental options run the gamut, from French gîtes and Tuscan villas to big-city apartments and basic rooms in a local's home. You can usually find a rental that's comparable to — or even cheaper than — a hotel room with similar amenities.

The rental route is a great way to experience Europe on its own terms, but it 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 all the services of a hotel reception desk. If you like daily access to a breakfast room, fresh towels, and a sheet change, stay in a hotel. In a rental, breakfast is up to you, and your apartment or room likely won't be serviced or cleaned during a one-week stay unless you pay extra.

Some rentals, especially rooms in a local's home, are very casual affairs, without the professionalism (or privacy) you'd expect in a more formal hotel environment. Rentals often require a minimum-night stay and long lead times on cancellations. Choose a hotel instead if there's a decent chance your plans might change.

Apartments and Houses

Whether in a city or the countryside, renting an apartment, house, or villa can be a fun and cost-effective way to delve into Europe. In general, if you're staying in one location for several nights, it's worth considering an apartment or rental house (shorter stays aren't worth the hassle of arranging key pickup, buying groceries, etc.). This gives you an opportunity to really get to know a town. Renting an apartment can be a particularly good strategy if you're choosing a home-base city from which to take day trips.

Apartment or house 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 even less than paying for several bunks at a youth hostel. Having a place to cook can further your savings. Stock your kitchen for breakfast and simple home-cooked meals, taking advantage of the colorful markets that pop up throughout European cities and towns.

For families, an apartment or house is a huge benefit. Kitchens make it easier and cheaper to feed picky eaters. Laundry machines are especially handy. 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.).

Rooms in Private Residences

Renting a room in someone's home is another alternative that can be much more affordable than a hotel, homier than a hostel, and just as comfortable as either. Most people informally renting out rooms are in it to make a few extra bucks, not to run a full-fledged lodging business with the infrastructure and expenses that drive up costs. If you're willing to accept a small space, a shared bathroom, or other "inconveniences," you'll be able to find remarkably affordable deals through services like Airbnb. Some places allow you to book for a single night.

Staying in a private residence is an especially good option for those traveling alone, as you're more likely to find true single rooms — with just one single bed, and a price to match. Some room-rental arrangements also include use of the house's kitchen and laundry facilities.

While you can't expect your host to also be your tour guide — or even to provide you with much info — some are interested in getting to know the travelers who pass through their home. (If you're interested in staying less as an anonymous lodger and more in the spirit of cultural exchange, see my tips for bunking with locals.)

Rural Rentals

Having an entire farmhouse, countryside cottage, or villa to yourself is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in rural Europe. Often the owners have renovated an original rambling farmhouse or medieval estate into a series of well-constructed apartments with private kitchens, bathrooms, living areas, and individual outdoor terraces. They usually share a common pool and other amenities, and breakfast may be included.

Many of these vacation properties (casas rurales in Spain, Ferienhäuser in Germany, gîtes in France) are available only for a traditional Saturday-to-Saturday rental. Especially for stays in July and August, when much of Europe is on vacation, it may be difficult to rent a place for a shorter time. Europeans often reserve their favorite spot a year in advance, so you may have to hunt around to find an opening. (Fortunately for Americans, the British are some of the most avid seekers of weekly rental property in Europe, so there's usually plenty of English-language info.) It's wise to book several months in advance for high season (late April to mid-October).

Although a week might seem like a long time, one of the joys of staying that long in one location is il dolce far niente (the "sweetness of doing nothing"). Settling in one spot gives you the chance to let the days unwind without a plan. A walk at sunrise may find you in the company of the local farmer as he trims his grape vines, or the neighboring grandmother who is lovingly tending her small garden. In the evening, breathe in the fresh air as you sip your wine, and perk your ears and nostrils to the sounds and scents of the countryside. This is your chance to slow down and enjoy.