What are Vacation Rentals?

Pauline Kenny, February 2004

Rent a cottage in the countryside!

You can find vacation rentals all over Europe, North America, the world! They are villas, houses, cottages, or apartments, on farms, in the countryside, in villages or in cities, that you rent by the week. They are not hotels or B&Bs, but accommodations with kitchens that let you live comfortably for a longer stay. They range in quality from simple to deluxe, in size from a one-bedroom apartment for two people, to a 10-bedroom villa for 20 people.

Americans call them "vacation rentals", but they are known by other names - holiday rentals, tourist rentals, holiday cottages, self catering. In Italian they might be called "agriturismi" (singular: agriturismo, agritourism in English), in French "gites. In German the term is "ferienwohnungen". But they are all the same thing, accommodations set up for weekly rentals (in Europe it is usually from Saturday to Saturday).

Vacation rentals have been popular in Europe for decades. Americans are increasingly discovering this travel alternative, both in Europe and in North America.  In most European countries, but especially in Italy, England, Ireland, France, Spain, and Switzerland, you can find vacation rentals through agencies or rent directly from the local owner.

Advantages and Disadvantages


Vacation rentals are less expensive per night than hotels. You save even more money by doing some of your own cooking. This makes it possible to have a longer and slower trip. We find it tiring to stay in hotels, constantly surrounded by lots of people and eating every meal in a restaurant. With a vacation rental, you settle in and make the place your own. You have more space. Usually you have a private outside area where you can spend a few hours just enjoying the sun, reading a book, recovering from the traveling, thinking about what you have seen, and planning what you want to see next.

If you are traveling with a group of people, a vacation rental serves as a good place to get together and a good base to travel from. Some of the larger villas come with a cook to prepare meals for the group in the villa. But even if you travel on your own, or as a couple, vacation rentals still work well. And, don't forget, you can always do part of your trip in hotels and part in a vacation rental.


Vacation rentals involve more work for you. Most include weekly maid service, but some do not. You clean up for yourself, do your own grocery shopping, make your own meals. There is no room service! Vacation rentals are not for everyone - some people are happier in hotels. Some people want to keep moving, not to spend a week or two in the same place.

You have to prepay your vacation rental, and you may lose your prepayment if you cancel the trip. Most places ask for a deposit of as much as 50 percent at the time of booking (which can be a year ahead). Then you pay the balance one or two months before you arrive. If you cancel your trip after you have put down a deposit on a vacation rental, you may lose your deposit. If you cancel your trip after you have made the entire payment, you may lose the whole amount.

Some of the larger agencies offer cancellation insurance. If you live in the UK and book through a UK agent, some of them require that you purchase cancellation insurance. We have never done this. The money we have saved over the years by staying in vacation rentals instead of hotels is more than we lost on the one trip where we had to cancel.

Your Vacation Rental Host is Not a Concierge

Your vacation rental host will be an estate manager, a key keeper or the owner who  checks you in on arrival day and checks you out when you leave. They will give you a contact phone number for emergencies. They might live nearby, or even in the same building or they may live in a different town. This may be the person who you contacted when booking, but it may not be. You may never see the person you booked with when you are in their vacation rental. Many owners and agencies use local people to manage their vacation rentals. Many times this person will not speak English, so a working knowledge of the language of the country you are visiting is helpful. If you do not speak any of the local language, try to find out how much English the local representative speaks before you go so you can prepare accordingly.

Don't give up on a vacation rental you like if you do find that the local representative and you will have little language overlap. The person or agency you book with may be able to make special arrangements, you may consider this an incentive to learn at least a few useful phrases before you arrive (something you will find helpful in any case) and, remember, checking into your rental is a routine procedure which the local representative will get you through one way or another.

Do not expect the services you would get at a hotel. If there is no phone in your vacation rental, do not expect the host to take messages for you. Do not expect them to help you with local tourist information. Some may provide a list of nearby restaurants, but many do not. You are on your own. Bring good guidebooks. Do your research ahead of time. This is "independent" travel.

If you are staying on a farm or estate, the person who checks you in probably has a full time job running the farm. They expect you to be independent. This does not mean that they will never have time to talk to you and recommend things to do. You will be able to determine when you check in if they will be around to help you, but do not depend on this. Do your own planning ahead of time.

Types of Vacation Rentals

The basic types of vacation rentals are:

  • Villa or house: Large house for large groups, usually located in the country but sometimes near small towns. These can range from basic to luxurious.
  • Independent small house or cottage: 1 to 3 bedroom house usually in the country, but sometimes in a small town. These might be houses, barns or other "out buildings" on a farm which have been renovated for vacation use.
  • Apartment on a farm: Many farms in the countryside have made an apartment or two from the main house or an out building to rent to tourists. These are less expensive than independent houses.
  • Apartment on an estate: This differs from an apartment on a farm in that the farm itself is bigger and there are typically several apartments. An estate usually has a shared swimming pool.
  • Apartment in a city: There are many apartments for rent in cities.

Frances Mayes on Vacation Rentals

A quote from Frances Mayes (author of Under the Tuscan Sun, Bella Tuscany and In Tuscany) with her reasons for staying in vacation rentals (or for owning your own home in Italy) from the May 2000, January Magazine interview with Frances Mayes by Linda Richards, editor of January Magazine (www.januarymagazine.com/profiles/fmayes.html).

"In 1985 I rented a farmhouse there (Tuscany) for the first time. I liked it so much -- found that it changed traveling to be in a different relationship with the place because you're really staying there. You're not just in the hotels and restaurants. You're actually going to the markets and buying suntan lotion and -- you know -- just kind of the normal shopping that you do. So the first night I was there in that farmhouse I saw in the distance this tumble down old farmhouse and I said to Ed: Wouldn't it be fun to get a farmhouse here? And then for the next three years, four years, we rented different farmhouses around Tuscany, trying to get to know different parts. We'd stay two weeks here, two weeks there, a week here, because we liked that area. We kept going back to where we'd stayed first of all and started looking for a place and never regretted it. It's been great."

Staying in a vacation rental for two or three weeks, gives us the chance to pretend that we own a house in Italy. But, with a vacation rental instead of owning our own place, every year we can stay in a different region. Some years we can save money by staying in small apartments and other years we can splurge by renting a small house. And in January when the water pump in the well breaks, we don't have to fly back to Italy to have it fixed!

It is like we are "dating" Europe, instead of "marrying" it. Vacation rentals are a sensible alternative to owning a second home in Europe. One that more of us can afford and do easily.

Read more about vacation rentals and Slow Travel ...

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