Travel slowly, staying in vacation rentals (villas, farms, cottages, apartments)
What to Expect in a European Vacation Rental
Staying in a vacation rental in Europe is different from staying in a hotel. You should be fully aware of the differences before you decide if this type of travel is for you.
Vacation Rentals Come with Most Things You Need for the Week
Vacation rentals come equipped with everything you need to live comfortably: sheets, towels, pots and pans, dishes, and cutlery. The house or apartment is cleaned before you arrive and when you leave. Some household supplies (dish soap, soap, toilet paper) may be left, but do not count on it. Check your place when you arrive to see what you need, then head out to get your own supplies. Food is usually not provided.
Some places may offer, at an extra charge, to get some groceries for you.
Some Vacation Rentals are Summer Cottages
Vacation rentals come in all shapes and sizes and levels of quality. Some are beautiful homes, others are more like summer cottages. If you want a higher level of luxury, it is readily available, but you will pay more for it.
These simpler vacation rentals can be a great bargain for travelers and are more commonly found in the countryside or beach areas. They are not kept spotlessly clean and the furniture can be junky. Maybe there is no telephone, TV or radio. The towels are not fluffy and brand new. Even within these simpler vacation rentals there is a great range; some have lovely, but simple furniture, others might have worn, more junky furniture.
If you book with a reputable agency, they will be able to tell you the level of quality for their listings. If you know you are getting a good price, but the place is simple or rustic, it is a fair tradeoff.
No Air Conditioning
Most vacation rentals in Europe do not have air conditioning (although this may change after the summer 2003 heat wave). Air conditioning is an American convenience, encouraged by our cheap electricity rates, and is not as popular in the rest of the world. However, in Europe, homes are designed to stay cool without having air conditioning - the way we used to build our houses in the US (and the way we should be building them now). Older homes (hundreds of years old) have thick stone walls that keep the house cool. New construction is done with thick bricks that also provide good insulation. Many homes are situated on hills to catch the cooling breezes. They often have a covered porch or loggia, so you can sit outside in the shade to relax or eat your meals.
You don't need air conditioning if your vacation rental is in the countryside. Getting a place with a pool may be the compromise you need to keep cool in the hot summer months. Close your window shutters during the day to keep the house cool and open them in the evenings. Take naps in the afternoon, during the hottest part of the day. In Italy in the countryside, the towns close down after lunch until about 5pm, while everyone escapes from the hottest part of the day (they also do this in winter, which makes no sense to me, but that is what they do!).
No Window Screens
More important than the lack of air conditioning is the absence of window screens in many vacation rentals, especially in Italy. As more Americans travel to Europe, this is changing, and you can find window screens, but many places still do not have them. When you keep all the windows open for that cooling breeze, the bugs fly right in. On a recent trip we were sleeping in a room with two windows that we kept open and a bat flew in. That provide some great late night excitement for us (Steve took care of this, while I stayed hidden under the sheets).
I do not know why window screens never became popular in Italy (I am not sure if they are more popular in other European countries). Maybe it is because some Italians like to keep their windows closed at night and think breezes bring bad health. They do keep their doors open during the day, but have those strips of plastic hanging down to keep out bugs. (I love those doorways of plastic strips. You can buy them in the hardware stores - I have considered it. But they are around $35 and would be bulky to carry home. And at home we have screen doors!)
Mosquito coils and other bug sprays are popular. We do not like to use chemicals to keep the bugs away and have spent many uncomfortable nights in houses in Italy. In one place on the coast we had to sleep under mosquito netting, but still got badly bitten. Some travelers bring tape and screening with them to put on their bedroom windows (not a bad idea!).
Every year more vacation rentals in Italy have window screens. If they
have screens, it will be noted in the description. When we rented a lovely
apartment on an estate a few years ago, the owner was going around stapling
screening to the slatted wooden shutters because the booking agency told her
she had to install window screens and this was the cheapest and easiest way
to do it. This is not a good way to install screens: you have to close the
shutters and block out most of the light to have the screens in place and
the screening is loose at the edges and bugs get in. You may want to ask what
type of window screens are installed.
Household Appliances, Big and Small
Read the vacation rental listing to see what appliances the place has. If they are not listed, ask the owner or agency. Do not expect all the mod-cons (modern conveniences) that we have in the US.
Phones: Many vacation rentals do not have phones. You need a phone to check your voicemail back home and make local dinner reservations. For this you can use the public phones you will find in every village. We like a phone in a vacation rental so we can dial into the Internet with our computer for email, but each year more Internet Cafes are springing up in Europe so you can travel without your computer.
The key-keeper or estate owner cannot be expected to take messages for
you or let you use their phone. I leave the phone number of the agency or
the main contact for the vacation rental for our house sitter to use for emergencies
only. If you really need a phone, either pick a vacation rental with a phone
or rent or buy a cell phone while you are there.
Television: Most vacation rentals have no television set or have one that gets only local channels. These are not in English (unless you are in England), but can be fun to watch and will help you learn the language. If the vacation rental has satellite TV, you will receive some English-language stations: CNN and NBC (special version for Europe). Sometimes you can get BBC Europe, which has some good shows. You also get French, German, and Spanish programs. It's always fun to watch ER in German!
Radio: Some vacation rentals have a radio, but you will only have access to English-language stations if it is a shortwave radio (unless you are in England).
Dishwasher: You may find a dishwasher in larger places, but you will probably not find one in apartments or small cottages. You probably will not find a garbage disposal.
Microwave: Most places will not have a Microwave.
Other Kitchen Things: You will find a toaster in your kitchen in England, but only rarely in other European countries. You will find a tea kettle in England, but only an espresso pot in Italy, and a Mr. Coffee type machine in other countries.
Clothes Washer / Dryer: You may find a clothes washer, but not a dryer. Or you may find a washer/dryer combined - yes, the one machine does both! Washing machines in Europe are different that our usual top-loading US style. They are smaller, are front loading (but you can stuff a lot into them), and have a longer wash cycle (1 - 2 hours).
Vacation rentals are cleaned before you arrive and when you leave. Usually there is no cleaning service provided midweek. If you are staying for longer than one week, it may be cleaned on the normal changeover day, but this does not always happen - it depends on the place. Ask about this when you book.
You are not expected to clean your vacation rental when you leave, but it is common courtesy to leave it somewhat tidy. Put out the garbage, leave your used sheets and towels in a pile, don't leave dirty dishes. If you moved furniture, return it to its original placement.
Bed Linens and Towels
Every vacation rental we have stayed in has been supplied with bed linens and towels. Usually the beds are made and the towels are either on the beds or in the bathroom. Some places do not make up the bed for you, but leave the sheets out on each bed.
In some countries, there may be an extra charge for "renting" the bedding and towels. We have occasionally encountered this in Switzerland and I have seen it in Italy (but it is not that common).
There is Always Something!
A vacation rental is not your home. It is used by many different people. It is not going to be setup exactly as you wish it were. And, there is always something! It might be the window that has a screen nailed onto it so that you cannot open the window (like the Hawaii vacation rental I am in right now - why would anyone do that?), or the very small parking space, or the badly placed table that you always bump into. There is always something - because life is just like that!
Expect the unexpected. Staying in a home setup by someone else breaks you out of your routines. So does travel to a foreign country. This is good; routines are for breaking. Have a great vacation!
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