On this trip, we stayed in over thirty different self catering apartments and houses. It is a great way to travel with children, both because you get far more space than you get in any hotel room, and because you save a lot of money, and eat far more healthily, by cooking, rather than eating in restaurants the whole time. You also get the feeling of living like a local, as you go grocery shopping, and use public transport the way the local would.
That means I’ve done a lot of booking. The hard part about booking this kind of accommodation is that it is unique (unlike a hotel room) and so you will not find individual places listed in any travel guide, or with any travel agent. It takes more research, and you are frequently dealing directly with the owner (for whom it is often their own holiday home).
That, in turn, means that there are a few restrictions on renting. Often, there is a minimum stay of a week. And if the place is in a summer holiday kind of place (by the beach, say), you might be restricted to only renting from Saturday to Saturday. Fortunately, that worked very well for us – we generally stayed for a week or two, and by default, Saturday became our travel day most of the time.
The two websites I have used most in Europe are homeaway, which has a huge list of holiday cottages and apartments, and way to stay, which is mostly for apartments in big cities. Homeaway is a massive group that has been developed from individual sites in different countries. I like it both because it has a huge choice, but also because it is the most easily searchable of all of this kind of sites (for things like internet access, washing machines, and location).
In France, gites-de-france is an official French site that I only found out about near the end of our time in France. French gites are holiday cottages, and most french owned holiday cottages will be listed there, as well as (maybe) on an English speaking site.
In the US, tripadvisor sometimes has a better selection of places, but in most other places it is not as good. I’ve also used a few location specific sites (in Amsterdam, for example, a place that specialised in houseboats)
Basically the more research you are willing to do, and risk (in terms of handing over money) you are willing to take, the more you will get for your money. Research includes original language sites – in Spain, for example, you get a bigger choice if you use the Spanish language sites (which I didn’t do, as I wasn’t confident enough in google translate). Some of the aggregators, particularly for the nicer parts of France, aimed at the US market, seem to have enormous markups compared with similar places listed on Homeaway. But the plus with using one of these is that you know you will get a good place, and they have got rid of the duds for you.
Using Homeaway you are connected directly to the owner, and way to stay is an aggregator who has done some of the work for you (in vetting the reality of the place), but isn’t guaranteeing quite as much quality as an upmarket place like this one (which we didn’t use) which means they tend to be more expensive, but you don’t have to worry quite so much about handing money over before you get there.
I find with any of these aggregators, the best way to find a good place is to choose places with reviews and read them. Negative reviews don’t always mean the place is bad (I saw one review which complained about stairs which were prominently mentioned in the ad!) but they give you a sense of the place by the aspects they like and dislike.
When we’ve stayed in places with rave reviews, we have generally loved them, too (although occasionally we’ve been unpleasantly surprised – Bordeaux for example).
Places with an internet connection (generally listed) and flat screen TVs (visible in the pictures) are generally nicer all round – the owner has put the effort into modernising, and it shows in the whole flat. We also always choose a place with a washing machine, and preferably a dishwasher, too.
All the apartment sites have fairly complete lists of what is in the apartment, and which beds are where, which show you how many rooms there really are (sometimes 2 bedrooms just means one bedroom and a sitting room, but usually it means 2 bedrooms). They all generally include a total size, which is incredibly helpful in understanding how much space you will have. I generally tried for a minimum size of 75 metres squared, but in cheaper places I could splash out (for example our gorgeous apartment in Krakow was 110 metres squared, and felt very spacious).
The key is to understand what is important to you. After a bit of experimentation, for us it is more important to be close to the centre (particularly in a big city) than in a big place. But that is how we live at home, in Australia, as well.
A word of warning. We were almost scammed by one place in the US. The owner’s email had been hacked and without knowing it, we were corresponding with the hackers. I became nervous after they offered to take my credit card details only if I also provided a recent utilities bill to prove it was me. The place itself had some great reviews (which I usually think is a good sign that they are not a scammer). Every site suggests that you phone people before giving them money. Because of time differences and our lack of a cheap mobile phone, I never did that, but I was conscious I was taking a risk, particularly with places that asked for deposits into bank accounts.
Staying in self catering accommodation isn’t for everyone. But for us, I think I will continue to do it any time we are staying in a place longer than a few days. You can live in some amazing places, and you live a bit more like a local than any hotel.