Tips For Renting Vacation Apartments Or Homes In Italy And Beyond

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.

10 of the world’s most unique vacation rentals

Imagine sleeping in the renovated fuselage of a vintage 727 airplane in Costa Rica. Or how about feeding giraffes over the breakfast table at a castle in Kenya? These one-of-a-kind lodging experiences, and others, are available through online vacation rental websites like Airbnb, and often for less than the cost of a shoebox room in a budget hotel in downtown Manhattan.

Take, for example, the following sampling of Airbnb’s unique vacation rental listings:
  • Boot and Breakfast (pictured at right). A childhood tale comes to life in Tasman, New Zealand. $225/night.
  • Romantic Igloo. Temperatures in Igloo Village Krvavec in Slovenia hover around 0-5 degrees Celsius – perfect for cuddling. $189/night.
  • Alone on your own Fiji Island. Really get away by booking the private Fijian island of Nanuku. $350/night.
  • Ecopod Boutique Retreat. A low-carbon pod designed in partnership with Zendrome, Berlin, in the woods of Appin, United Kingdom. $241/night.
  • Aircamp Furillen. A vintage Airstream on tiny Furillen Island in Sweden. $204/night.
Airbnb also groups their most notable listings into fun collections, like “Trees and Zzz’s” for treehouse lodgings, “Grape Expectations” for wine country accommodations and “I’m On A Boat” for, well, boats.

For 10 of Airbnb’s most unique vacation rentals, check out the gallery below.


Knocked up abroad: planning travel with a baby

Let’s get this out of the way: you can travel with a baby. Many new parents feel that once they have a child, their travel days are over, but many parents will tell you that the first six months are the easiest time to travel with a baby. Is it easy? Not exactly, but with enough planning and the right attitude, it’s not as hard as you might think. Is it selfish? Probably, but so is most travel. Again, planning, attitude and a good amount of luck factor in to ensuring that you and baby aren’t a nuisance to other passengers and that you and your child have a safe and healthy trip. My baby is too young to remember her early adventures, but she’s learning to be adaptable and sociable, and does well with travel, new people, and noise. Is it fun? Your carefree days of travel may be over, but you can still enjoy exploring new places, indulging in great food and wine (it might just be at a sidewalk cafe at 4pm instead of a trendy restaurant at 9pm), and engaging with locals more deeply than you ever did before baby. Given the patience, resourcefulness, and ingenuity that I’ve developed while traveling with a baby, I’d say it has made me a better traveler, maybe even a better person.

Living in a foreign country like Turkey puts me at an advantage: I deal with a language and cultural barrier every day and everything is much more complicated and difficult than it would be at home in New York. Because this is not our permanent home and imported items are expensive, we made it through the first few months with little more than a stroller, a baby wrap to carry her, and a portable changing pad, so we already travel light. I say it gives me an advantage because I’m already used to the challenges and unfamiliarity inherent in travel. What makes foreign travel daunting (even without a baby) is the foreignness of it all, which has become my normal (after nearly two years abroad, I can tell you that knowing what’s going on all the time is overrated). The skills I’ve honed as a traveler and an expat — problem-solving, thinking ten steps ahead, and planning an exit strategy — are the same I use as a parent; you can apply the same lessons with a child or on the road.Now with a few trips under my belt with baby both solo and with my husband (and more travel planned in the coming weeks and months), I’ve developed some guidelines to help with traveling with a baby. I’ll be posting some additional articles on how to cope with a baby on a plane and on the ground, travel gear recommendations, as well as some destination-specific info, but first: some tips on planning a trip with a baby.

Choose a baby-friendly destination. You may find that people everywhere are much more understanding and helpful to people traveling with babies than you imagine, but some places are more baby-friendly than others. In my experience, Mediterranean Europe is full of baby-lovers, even if the cobblestones, stairs, and ancient infrastructure presents a lot of challenges. Istanbul can be a nightmare to navigate with a stroller, but there are always friendly Turks willing to help. I’ve also heard babies in Latin America and Southeast Asia are treated like rock stars. Generally, countries with a high birth rate tend to be friendlier than others, though I’ve found the United States to be the most difficult in terms of other people’s attitudes.

-Prepare to pare down: There are a lot of great things about having a baby in the 21st century, but people managed quite well for generations without wipe warmers (really, this is a thing?!) and baby gyms. There are a few items I use at home every day such as a bouncy seat, a nursing pillow, and a folding bathtub, but I’ve done fine without them for weeks at a time while traveling. I know at some point down the line, I’ll need to pack a myriad of toys, snacks, and diversions for my child, but infants need very little. It may help to wean yourself off of baby gear in advance of your trip to see how well you can get along with less. Let the baby get used to a travel cot if you plan to use one, try getting around for a day with just a baby carrier, and introduce toys that can be easily attached to a stroller and then stashed in a pocket. Think about your destination: will a stroller be more of a hinderance than a help or can you get along with another mode of transport? Do you need a car seat or can you rent one? What can serve multiple purposes? I carry a thin Turkish towel that looks like a pashmina and I can use it as a burp cloth, nursing cover, baby blanket, and a scarf. The less you can pack, the better. Really all you can handle is baby in a stroller, one wheeled suitcase, and a purse and/or diaper bag. Anything more and you’ll regret it. Also, keep in mind that babies are born everywhere, and there are few places in the world where you can’t buy diapers, formula, clothes, or other gear. Pack enough in your carry-on to get through the first day and night in case you arrive at your destination after shops close.

-Schedule travel around baby: Babies are adaptable, but when it comes to travel, especially flying, make it as easy on yourself as possible. My baby generally wakes up early to eat, then goes back to sleep for a few hours, and sleeps through most of the night. Therefore, I’ve tried to book flights for early in the morning or overnight so she’s awake as little as possible. In the six flights we took to and from the US and domestically, the only one we had any trouble with was a 45-minute Boston to New York flight in the early evening, when she tends to be cranky. It’s hard to comfort a baby when you’re standing in line or getting ready to board a flight, so if your baby is already asleep at the airport, that’s half the battle. There used to be nothing I hated more than getting to the airport at the crack of dawn, but traveling with a sleeping, and more importantly, quiet baby is worth getting up early.

-Consider an apartment rental: With the popularity of websites such as AirBnB (even after the home trashing scandal), renting an apartment for even a short stay is an increasingly viable option when planning a trip. It not only gives you more space and a more home-like environment, it can also help you to get to know a place more through the neighborhood and markets when you buy food to cook on your trip. For a parent, an apartment has several key advantages over a hotel room. Having access to laundry while traveling can be a huge help and reduce your packing load significantly. Likewise, whether you are breastfeeding or using formula, having a kitchen with a fridge can be a necessity with a baby. If you’re set on a hotel stay (daily room-cleaning could be a big help too!), make sure your room has a minibar fridge to stash bottles inside and a bathtub if your baby is too big for the sink, and get info on the closest laundromat.

-Do your research: The last thing you want when traveling is to be standing on a subway platform with a crying baby, after hauling a heavy stroller up a flight of stairs, only to discover the train is bypassing your station. Before I travel next week to Slovenia and Italy, I’m looking up everything from how to cross the border by taxi, to what train stations have elevators, to public bathrooms in Venice with baby-changing stations (though I’ve managed many times on the top of a toilet seat lid and a changing pad). All the stuff about a destination you could wait to figure out until you arrived before you had a baby will help you a lot to plan in advance. Here’s some examples of things to research before you go, the more prepared you can be, the better.

Stay tuned for more tips on travel with a baby, in the air and on the ground plus destination guides for foreign travel with a baby. Waiting for baby to arrive? Check out past Knocked Up Abroad articles on traveling while pregnant and what to expect when you’re expecting in Turkey.

High finance for HomeAway says a lot about travelers

As the travel industry claws its way back from the depths of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent consumer credit hangover, bright spots are already beginning to emerge. And unsurprisingly, it’s the non-traditional sort that seems to be leading the charge. After all, stung by layoffs, pay cuts and other personal austerity measures, we’ve had to find ways to spend less while still traveling. So, it’s no surprise that HomeAway got popular … and that investors are rewarding it.

What does all your HomeAway use mean?

Well, for starters, it translates to $216 million raised in one day. HomeAway went public yesterday, and its shares shot up 49 percent to just over $40 each. Now, the vacation rental company is worth $3.2 billion. Trading at 19 times 2010 revenues, HomeAway’s valuation is more generous than that of Priceline (8.1X 2010 revenue) and Expedia (2.3X 2010 revenue).

So, what’s all this financial stuff have to do with us, the traveling public? To me, it signals behavior. For HomeAway to be valued so richly, investors must see a lot of potential. Look for more people to look at the vacation rental alternative to hotel rooms and other traditional lodging options.

Share a vacation rental, go to Tahoe for free with PackLate

If you’ve ever spent time scouring for rooms on couchsurfing or making friends on airbnb, the folks at PackLate might have a contest for you. In an effort to spread the good word about vacation rentals and the inventory that they carry, a few of their brass are spending Valentine’s Day weekend in a property in Tahoe — and they’re inviting their Facebook fans along for the ride.

Eight of their lucky fans will get a free hookup at Tahoe next weekend in a real-world, adventure-budget-travel bonanza that will 98% probably be an awesome trip and 2% turn into a Real-Worldesque drama fest. Either way, it’ll be fun for us to watch. Since it looks like they’re equipping all of the tennants with flipcams the video will make it out to the community eventually.

There’s still time to enter the contest over at Facebook as of today, Friday February 4th. They’ll be picking candidates to join them in Tahoe over the course of the day.