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VACATION VILLAS

This Palace Could Be Yours

It's easier than you think to rent a place abroad--and getting easier

Ann Waigand and her husband and their two children did a modest amount of sightseeing during a recent stay in France's Loire Valley. But not the usual kind. For example, one evening Waigand, who publishes the newsletter Educated Traveler, and her family took a leisurely 15-minute drive from their house to watch the sunset over Chambertin, a 15th-century chateau, the roof of which Leonardo da Vinci designed to look like the skyline of a city. Generally, though, the Waigands stayed closer to home--in this case, a restored 19th- century pigeon house on the grounds of an estate. By the end of the week, everyone in the village knew everyone in the family. "If you are sick and tired of sightseeing," Waigand explains, "[renting] is the perfect antidote; you just live."

Renting a villa has long been part of a typical vacation for Europeans, especially the British. And with the growth of world-wide vacation home rental agencies in the United States, Americans too are finding it easy to get in on the act. No longer does one need to know foreign languages or have years of expatriate experience. Many agencies can make all the arrangements here--even down to car rentals.

What's the allure? Instead of trying to take in a whole country in a couple of weeks of frenzied traveling, or staying in look-alike resort hotels with other travelers, renting abroad immerses travelers in the day-to-day life of the natives. Renters may not enjoy the services of a hotel, but they will enjoy the privacy of their own place and amenities such as private garden or pool that go with an established residence.

There's also an economic incentive to renting abroad, according to Gail Richards of the travel newsletter the Hideaway Guide: "The myth is that renting vacation homes abroad is only for the rich and famous, [but] many British and European vacation homes are affordable for the middle-income bracket."

Indeed, in comparison with most resort hotels, where a single room can run $100 a day or more, vacation home rental offers substantial savings. The typical rental for four to six people is $700 to $1,200 per week in season--about $30 per person per day--and even less in the off-season. You also can save money on budget-busting restaurants by shopping at farmers' markets and eating at home (at least most of the time).

For the best deals, travelers should rent in an area that is not "in season." Condos in the Costa del Sol in Spain that cost $600 a week in August, for example, cost a mere $200 a week in January. In ski areas such as the Swiss Alps, prices usually dip in the summer and are especially cheap in the spring and fall. In Europe, the farther south and the farther inland one goes, the cheaper the prices will be--except in July and August, when roving hordes of northern Europeans in search of sun and beaches drive up rental prices by 30 to 40 percent.

Europe isn't the only place one can rent a vacation home. In fact, it may not even be the best place. Mexico and the Caribbean offer vacation homes equipped with American appliances and American standards of cleanliness. In Europe, many homes, especially in rural areas, may not have the amenities that Americans are used to. Most rural French farmhouses and even chateaus don't have air-conditioning, washing machines, or even screen windows. The service in Europe also tends to be much less attentive; in the Caribbean and Mexico, property agents usually are at your beck and call.


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