Travel slowly, staying in vacation rentals (villas, farms, cottages, apartments)
What is Slow Travel? (overview)
Who are Slow Travelers?
Slow Travelers go to Europe to experience different cultures and lifestyles, but they do it differently than most tourists. Instead of staying in hotels or B&Bs, they stay in vacation rentals - apartments, cottages or houses that you rent by the week. Staying in your own temporary "home", even if just for a week or two, lets you experience a place more intensely because you get involved in the community where you are staying. You shop for groceries and supplies in the local shops, stop at the same cafe every morning, see the people in your village or neighborhood each day. My husband and I used to travel in Europe staying in hotels, but once we tried vacation rentals in Switzerland in 1988, we were hooked. Now this is the only way we travel.
You can find vacation rentals all over Europe
Vacation rentals have been popular in Europe for decades. Americans are increasingly discovering this travel alternative. In most European countries, but especially in Italy, England, France, Spain, and Switzerland, there are apartments in towns, apartments on farms, and houses in the countryside that you can rent through agencies or directly from the local owner. Americans call these places vacation rentals, but they are also known by other names. The Italians call them "agriturismi"; the Brits call them "self catering accommodations"; the French call them "gites"; the Swiss and Germans call them "ferienwohnungen" - but they are all the same thing, properties set up for weekly rentals, usually from Saturday to Saturday.
Have your own home in a foreign country
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 after you leave. Food is generally not provided so you will need to shop for basic groceries when you arrive. You may need to purchase toilet paper and paper towels. Some rentals provide a welcome basket with a few basics. We always check into our vacation rental, have a good look around to see what is needed, then head out to the shops.
Vacation rentals come in all shapes, sizes and prices
Vacation rentals range in quality from very simple apartments on working farms that might rent for $500 or less per week to luxury villas that sleep 12 or more and rent for $5000 or more per week. Vacation rentals are for everyone: single people or couples who want more of a home atmosphere, families who need to be able to spread out to keep the children comfortable, large groups who want a place where they can easily be together, foodies who want a place to cook with ingredients from the local markets, people with special diets who need to do some of their own cooking, people on longer trips who want to have a place where they can settle in so they are not on the go all the time.
You won't have a concierge or a front desk
Staying in vacation rentals is very different from hotel travel. You are on your own; there is no concierge to reserve restaurants or museum tours for you. Do your own research, read your guidebooks, make your day trip plans. There is usually someone nearby that checks you in and out and is there for emergencies, but they expect you to be independent, not to rely on them to plan your day. Many times this person will not speak English, so a working knowledge of the language of the country you are visiting is helpful (but not absolutely required; the essential communication always gets accomplished one way or another).
Think in one week segments
The majority of vacation rentals in Europe rent from Saturday to Saturday. You check in Saturday afternoon and check out the next Saturday morning. We plan our trips around this. From the US, we fly into a major city and spend a few days in a hotel, then pick up a rental car and drive to our first vacation rental. We plan our trips in one week segments; a week in southern Tuscany, a week in central Umbria, a week in Rome, booking a different vacation rental for each week. If you have time, stay more than a week in one place.
Book six months to a year ahead
Europeans routinely book vacation rentals a year ahead, so some of the best places fill up quickly. Start planning six months to a year before your trip. Most places require a 50% deposit at time of booking with final payment when you arrive or a month or two before. Do your research, find a good place and book it. This leaves you plenty of time after you have booked your trip to do some in depth reading about the area and plan your activities.
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" and gets 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 I can book directly with the owner.
Slow Travelers have rewarding and memorable trips
Staying in a vacation rental instead of a hotel makes your whole trip different. You have your own home, you can spread out and settle in, take a day off and relax in your house, do some of your own cooking, shop for your groceries and household supplies in the local markets. We explore the area close to us instead of doing long day trips to see the "highlights". That way we get to know one area very well. On our next trip we base ourselves in a different area.
So many times I hear from people who did one trip to Europe, seeing as many cities and countries as they could, but then never traveled to Europe again. Why? Because the travel was exhausting, because all the cities and museums blurred together, because while it was exciting and they felt they accomplished something, they really did not take the time to savor what they were seeing. I would rather know one small corner of a country well than see the highlights of the country.
Slow Travelers assume that they do not have to see everything on one trip, that there will be other trips, that they will probably return to Europe again and again to experience what is there.
A three week Slow Trip - Florence, Tuscany, Umbria, Rome
Here is a Slow Traveler's typical itinerary for Italy.
- Leave midweek and fly into Florence, spend 3 nights in a hotel getting over your jetlag and seeing the city.
- On Saturday, pick up a rental car and drive to your first vacation rental for a one week stay in southern Tuscany. For your first driving experience in Italy, driving out of Florence is easy and you can be in southern Tuscany in about two hours. Spend your week visiting the hill towns and touring the wineries. Don't forget to visit Siena!
- On the next Saturday, check out and drive to your second vacation rental for a one week stay in central Umbria (an easy two hour drive). Spend this week visiting the Umbrian art towns and touring the countryside.
- On the next Saturday, check out and drive to Chiusi, a town on the border of Umbria and Tuscany where the main train to Rome stops. Drop off your rental car here and take the train into Rome for a last few nights.
Use the Slow Travel community as a resource
Back when most vacation rental agencies still had catalogs, I created a web site called "Slow Travel" as a way to meet other people who traveled this way and to exchange information about good vacation rentals and good vacation destinations. Since the site started in 2000, it has grown to be a real online community. We have over 800 vacation rental reviews for places all through Europe, we collect hotel and restaurant reviews, we publish trip reports, and we have a lively message board where people work together to plan their trips.
I use the web site as a resource for booking my trips. I read the vacation rental reviews and book places that other people have liked. I go to the message board and post my planned itinerary to get other people's advice. If I am going to a new area, I ask questions of the people who have already traveled there.
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