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How to Search for a Vacation Rental

Pauline Kenny

There are two ways to book vacation rentals:

  • use a vacation rental agency
  • rent directly from the owner

Use the Internet to plan your trip. Before the Internet age, I found ads for vacation rental agencies in travel magazines and then called the agencies to get their catalogs. Then I spent weeks looking through lovely catalogs with descriptions and photos of vacation rentals. Or I contacted the tourist office for the region I was interested in and booked through them.

But the Internet has changed all this. Now I go to Google, search on "vacation rentals Tuscany" (or whatever country/region I am interested in) and get pages of listings for agencies and places I can rent directly from the owner. Instead of flipping catalog pages, I flip through pages on web sites. I can book with an agency that represents many places and prescreens their listings or book directly with the owner.

The Internet has also made it easier for individual owners to create a web site for their own place. Many estates in Tuscany used to be available only through agencies, but now they have their own web sites and do their bookings themselves.

Of course we recommend that you use the Slow Travel web site to do your search. Go to the Vacation Rentals section and read reviews of places that people have stayed in, then go to our vacation rental listing section and look at the listings for the country/region you are interested in. Start with our SlowTrav Favorites, agencies and properties for whom we've received several positive reviews from people we know. Or go to our Classified Listings and see the places we have listed.

Use a Vacation Rental Agency

Personally, I feel the best way to find and book your vacation rental is to use a reputable agency. In a good agency, the representatives know their listings, travel regularly to Italy, have a good understanding of what people expect from vacation rentals, and will honestly tell you which of their listings would suit you. They also represent only good listings. This saves you endless hours of searching. They have done the upfront work of finding the good vacation rentals. They travel frequently to the areas they represent and can advise you which areas you will like best.

But, not all agencies are good. Stay away from agencies who have an "butts in seats" attitude or who do not know their listings. Consider it a red flag if the representative you contact seems mainly interested in your travel dates; they may offer little genuine advice to help you make your decision, instead recommending listings that are available for your date range (whether suitable to your needs or not). A good agency will either spend time with you helping you make your choice or will provide a web site with all the information you need to make your decision. Good agencies will cheerfully provide a detailed description of any of their listings you are interested in, accompanied by several photos.

Before the Internet, each agency had a catalog that they mailed to you. You looked at the descriptions in the catalog and picked a few places that sounded like what you wanted. Then you phoned the agency, discussed the various places, checked availability, and booked the place.

Some agencies still work this way today, but most have a web site that duplicates their catalog. Some are more extensive (for example, some sites have availability calendars), some are just an online version of the catalog. Some newer agencies have dispensed with the printed catalog altogether and only show their listings online.

Advantages to booking through an agency

  • Vacation rentals are preselected. The agency has standards they apply and they do not carry below standard listings.

  • If something happens to the place you have booked, they can move you to another one of their listings.

  • If there is a problem, you usually deal with the owner or key keeper, but if the problem cannot be resolved you can turn to the agency you booked with.

  • With some agencies, you can do one-stop shopping; they will book air travel, car rental, hotels, and vacation rentals. You can book your whole trip through the one agency.

  • Most agencies now either have a US representative or are well used to working with Americans and have worked out an easy way for Americans to send payment.

Disadvantages to booking through an agency

  • Sometimes you pay a higher price because you are dealing with a "middle man". Try to avoid the agencies that add a huge percentage to the price.

Rent Directly from the Owner

Some owners of estates with several vacation rental apartments or houses have their own web sites.  There are also many web sites with listings by owner. These are usually owners who have one vacation rental: an apartment in their house or a second home that they live in some time and rent out other times.

Renting from the owner is fine if you know the place is good (maybe it is reviewed favorably on Slow Travel or they are one of our "SlowTrav Favorites"), but it can take endless hours searching for rentals from owners. You have to make many inquiries, talk to many different people. But, if you have the time, you might get a great place for less money than through an agency.

How to find rent from owner listings

  1. Look through the Slow Travel listings by region where we list several estates where you rent directly from the owner.
  2. Look at our vacation rental reviews. Many are for places that you rent from the owner.
  3. Check out the Classified Listings section of our site where people list their vacation rentals for rent.
  4. Google "vacation rental" or "villa rental" or "apartment rental" and the area or town where you want to stay.
  5. Go to one of the many rent from owner web sites. The Slow Travel  "listings" section includes some of these sites.

Advantages to booking directly with the owner

  • You usually pay a lower price because you are not going through an agency.

  • You create a relationship with the owner, who is the person you will be dealing with when you are in the vacation rental. (This is not always the case; sometimes you are dealing with an absentee owner. I have spoken to some people who booked a vacation rental in Tuscany thinking the owner lived on site. They found on arrival, however, that the owner lived in Rome and the local key keeper spoke no English.)

Disadvantages to booking directly with the owner

  • You may not get the best advice, since the owner only represents their own place (and will not be impartial).

  • The vacation rental may not be up to standards set by some agencies.

  • If something happens and your booking falls through, you are not easily moved to another place.

But Don't Search Too Hard, Agencies Can Help You!

Martin from Italian Vacation Villas (www.villasitalia.com), December 2001: "Some people really tie themselves into absolute knots in the search process. They collect piles of catalogues, ask questions, go to message boards and chat rooms, and fret and fret and fret... We've been through the process ourselves and know everyone wants the absolute perfect place, but there is a point at which one just drives himself/herself crazy and, it seems to me, takes the pleasure out of the trip. I actually start to feel sorry for them. I think the ones that suffer this most are those that are the most serious web surfers. They find lots of private places on the web that look nice to them but then start to wonder whether they will be getting what they pay for, etc.

For sure, working with an agency is going to cost an individual more than going with a private rental. (We deal with private owners and know the difference.)  But, if the person is working with a reputable agency and has realistic expectations in terms of budget to the place they want, the very things they are worried about are minimized.  This might sound self-serving, but it is something that we watch and watch and watch."

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