Italy is an addictive place. You get a taste of it, and you want more. Indeed, one could spend a lifetime exploring Bella Italia and still not see everything. But with the Euro still relatively strong against the Dollar, it isn’t the most budget friendly travel destination for American travelers.
If you want to spend a week or more in any one town or city in Italy, you’ve probably considered renting a furnished apartment. Below you’ll find some tips for navigating the selection process and making the most of your experience.
Weigh your options- and your baggage. If you travel light, and don’t mind packing and unpacking frequently, renting an apartment might not make sense, unless you plan to spend a significant amount of time in one place, i.e. at least a week. Some landlords in Italy will rent by the night, but most do not. If you have kids or are less mobile, using one place as a base makes sense.
Take a look at the places you want to visit and look into the logistics of making day trips from your base. In some cases, the places you want to visit might not be easy or inexpensive to do as day trips. In choosing your base, try to find a place that’s a transportation hub and is big enough to have a wide variety of restaurants. Car rentals can be prohibitively expensive in Italy, especially if you can’t drive a stick, and gas is pricey, so finding a good hub and choosing your rental home or apartment near public transport is especially critical.Consider looking before you leap. There are a host of great sites for browsing vacation rentals, including Trip Advisor’s FlipKey, VRBO, HomeAway, Wimdu, AirBnb,9 Flats, Owner Direct, BB Planet, Ancora Italia, and a host of others. Depending on how long you plan to stay in a place, how risk averse you are, and how important it is not to unpack multiple times, you might consider booking a hotel or B & B for a night or two and then checking out apartments in person before you commit. You can make contact with owners through the aforementioned sites, set up appointments, and pick the one you like best.
This option is more time consuming, but if you want to make sure you find a place you like, it might be the best idea because it can be hard to gauge what an apartment is like based on website photos. (It’s amazing how misleading photos can be in some cases) When you’re on the ground, you can also gauge what the neighborhood is like, and you might be able to negotiate a better deal in person. That said, if you’re traveling during the high season in Italy, you might end up getting leftovers if you wait until you arrive to book.
Watch out for events and major holidays. If you plan to find an apartment after you arrive, contact the local tourism office and find out if there are any major events, festivals or conferences going on at the time you’ll be there. If you arrive in town during an unusually busy period without a reservation, you might be out of luck.
Make a list of the amenities you need. In contacting a host of different property owners, it’s easy to get mixed up with who promised what, so make a list of the things you think you need. For example, number and size of beds required, WIFI, A/C, shower with bathtub, crib, washing machine, (you won’t find dryers in Italy) dishwasher, etc.
Double check their location on Google maps. A lot of owners will try to be vague on the exact location of the apartment and won’t reveal the exact address until you pay them. Don’t accept their assurance that the place is centrally located on face value, and multiply all time estimates by 2. So if they say it’s a ten minute walk to town, assume it’s 20 to be on the safe side. (At least)
Clarify Internet capability if you need it. If a place advertises WIFI, you can expect it will generally be fast enough to send and receive email, but if you need to do more than that, it’s best to let the owner know that you need to work while you’re in the apartment. Ask them how fast and reliable their Internet connection is. If they’re noncommittal, and you need reliable Internet, look elsewhere.
WIFI can be very hit or miss in Italy, and you might find yourself sitting in your windowsill searching for neighbors’ unsecured connections. If you check out the place in person, I highly recommend bringing your laptop or mobile device and doing an Internet speed test on premises. If they have a modem, bring your own Ethernet cord and plug in- you’ll get better speed.
Watch out for Italian beds. Most mid range and high-end hotels in the U.S. have very high quality beds. Do not expect that level of comfort while renting apartments in Italy. In Italy, box springs aren’t commonplace and many apartment owners skimp on quality when it comes to buying mattresses. I’ve slept in beds that are about as soft and comfortable as the Rock of Gibraltar.
You can ask owners how comfortable the bed is and they will invariably tell you it’s comfortable but some are more convincing than others, and if they hesitate and waffle, you can bet that the bed isn’t very comfortable at all. Of course, the only way to find out for sure is to go check the place out in person, or comb the online reviews of the place.
Don’t be afraid to haggle. Depending on the situation, you might be able to get a substantial discount if you ask for one. The closer you inquire to your date of arrival, the better your chances. If an owner’s apartment is vacant a couple days before your arrival, an offer of 75-80% of their asking price might sound better to them than getting nothing for the week.
Clarify what’s included in the price. Some apartments charge extra for utilities, and items like heat can be very, very expensive in Italy. If you have to pay extra, get a firm range on how much the utilities might cost up front. Many owners also charge “cleaning fees,” so it’s also best to clarify that up front as well.
How equipped is it? Most apartment rentals will include enough supplies to do some basic cooking, but what’s included varies wildly. Some places will expect that you buy your own soap, toilet paper, napkins, paper towels, etc. and some will not. If you’re only going to be there for a week, and need to go out and buy lots of essentials, the cost can add up quickly, but if the place is very well equipped, it can save you a lot of time and money.
Try to avoid payment in full, if you can. Even places that look great can sometimes have lots of problems that aren’t immediately apparent. If you’re staying in a place for a while, ask if you can pay for the first night or two up front and then pay the rest later. That way, if there are serious problems with the apartment, you have some leverage to extract yourself from the commitment. I’ve found that owners who have the best places tend to be fine with this arrangement, while the ones who have dodgy places are the most likely to object and want full payment immediately.
Ask how things work. Some landlords will assume you’ll figure out how all the various appliances work, but I think it’s always a good idea to walk around, test everything and ask questions before they leave.