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

Arcos de la Frontera, Spain
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, house, or room in a local's home — is a popular alternative to a hotel, especially if you plan to settle in one location for several nights.

Options for apartment and house rentals run the gamut, from French gîtes to Tuscan villas to big-city apartments. 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.

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. Depending on your host, you might also get to hang out with a local — and maybe even make a new friend.

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 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 somewhere for four nights or longer, it can be worth considering an apartment or rental house (many rentals require minimum stays — typically 3–7 nights; anything less than that isn't worth the hassle of arranging key pickup, buying groceries, etc.). If it works with your itinerary, consider settling in a rental for a full week. 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 lunch, taking advantage of the colorful markets that pop up throughout European cities and towns, and save your money for nice dinners out.

For families, an apartment or house is a huge benefit. Kitchens make it easier and cheaper to dine in and 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.).

Single and Shared Rooms

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 very small space, a shared bathroom, or other "inconveniences," you'll be able to find remarkably affordable deals through services like Airbnb.

Renting a room in someone's home is an especially good option for those traveling alone. You're more likely to find true single rooms — with just one single bed, and a price to match. And if you're up for sharing a room with fellow guests — whether those you're traveling with or strangers — you can find a bed for a price that's lower than the going rate for hostel bunks. Some room-rental arrangements also include use of the house's kitchen and laundry facilities.

Some places allow you to book for a single night. And since you're often staying in someone's house when they're home too, you won't need to pick up a key. Just arrive at the appointed time and knock on the door. If you're staying for several nights, you can buy groceries just as you would in a rental house, or you can rely on restaurants, treating the room like a hotel room.

While you can't expect your host to also be your tour guide — or even to provide you with much info — some may be interested in getting to know the travelers who come through their home. It will likely be clear from the listing whether the hosts might be up for some socializing. (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 especially 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.