I never expected washing dishes to be a highlight on my European vacation. But for three mornings in a row in Amsterdam, I woke up early and darted to the kitchen. From the bow of our houseboat, I could bask in the sun through huge windows, clean up from the night before and watch as tour boats navigated our canal. Tourists smiled and waved at me, and I smugly did the same.
"Ha, they think I'm a native. Suckers!" I'd think.
And for those few days, I was. This was the type of experience I craved for my recent trip to Europe. I'd been several times before and wanted to experience life there beyond the sights. I wanted authenticity: to go to markets, prepare food, relax on a deck and soak it all up.
So hotels were out and stays in homes were in. With a bit of searching and planning, my boyfriend and I rented an apartment in Paris' trendy Bastille quarter and a houseboat in Amsterdam's artsy, upscale Jordaan. You don't have to know the language to book or communicate with your contacts (typically, owners or managers who oversee a property or two) but as with all travel, it helps.
Here's how we did it.
BEFORE YOU GO:
Know what you want: Thinking about the experience you want will steer you as you browse through what could be hundreds or more listings. Do you want space to store your stuff and sleep, or do you see spending time in the apartment as part of your vacation? If so, you'll want to look for one with a living room, decent-size kitchen, maybe a deck or balcony. We knew we wanted a houseboat with a deck in Amsterdam since canal life is such a part of that culture. But we decided not to pay for pricier Paris flats with balconies.
Know where to look: Start searching online well in advance. There are hundreds of listing sites, many of them focusing on specific cities or countries. So hunt around for options specific to your destination. We used the Amsterdam-only listing service http://www.apartments-unlimited.com/ for our houseboat, and also looked at http://amsterdam.citymundo.com/. But for Paris we used VRBO, which stands for Vacation Rental By Owner and has rentals in dozens of countries. The site is owned by vacation rental giant HomeAway, which has many other listing sites on its main page at http://www.homeaway.com/.
We decided to go with vetted websites, where listings put up by people who own these properties as second homes or investments are approved and maintained, rather than a site like Craigslist.org, where anyone can put up anything. But vetted sites often entail an additional booking fee or extra cost added in to your initial payment (sometimes half or more of the total cost).
Book fast if you're traveling during peak seasons, such as the spring and early summer. I wanted to recommend our Amsterdam houseboat to friends traveling there later this summer, but it's already booked for most of the season. And rightly so.
Research before you book: Since you're likely not familiar with the city, go through guides and websites to figure out some activities and places to visit there. Map it out and see how convenient it will be from possible apartments or houses. Do you value being able to go back for a quick shower or to drop off souvenirs? (Staying in hotels, which are located centrally in many cities, may make this easier than apartments.)
Weigh the costs: Apartment stays can cost more than hotels. Don't think of it as a way to save money, unless you spread the cost among several people. Our three nights on a houseboat came to nearly $640 (450 euros) and three nights in the Paris apartment ran $510 (360 euros). That's more than we'd spend per night on hotels, typically. But we valued the experience and factored that in. Also, because we had apartments we were able to buy groceries and produce at local markets and save money on eating out. And often your apartment will have Internet access, which can be costly at hotels. So that's a bonus too.
Ask questions: You'll most likely be able to contact the owners or managers directly from listings. Ask what public transportation stops are nearby. How would they describe the neighborhood? Also, if you don't see reviews online, ask why. There were no reviews for our flat in Paris, which made us nervous. But I emailed the manager who told me the place was newly rented. (And now the apartment has at least one review.)
Don't be afraid to ask for exceptions to stated rules. Many places require a minimum number of nights, stated on their website listings. In both of our stays, four was the minimum but we were allowed to stay for three nights each time. These types of properties are often managed by individuals who may be more flexible than businesses.
WHEN YOU'RE THERE:
The check-in: Because there's no hotel staff waiting for you, the manager or owner will arrange a meeting time with you beforehand. But delays or simply getting lost en route may make you late, so make sure to have their number handy.
But calling can be tricky. If your cell phone works in another country, you're lucky. Ours didn't, so we bought a prepaid phone in France. But we learned even within Europe, phones may not work from country to country without buying a new SIM card (which can be $30 or more). We opted for pay phones when we arrived in the Netherlands to call our host. But pay phones — if you can find them — do not always take coins. It was a frustrating half- hour before someone finally told us to buy a phone card. Look for them inside train stations, airports, street kiosks or convenience stores.
Look around: Don't just rush off to the sites that may have brought you to the city. Spend time in the new neighborhood, walk the streets and get a feel for it. Notice signs listing concerts, attractions and events. See what the locals are doing or where they're hanging out. Talk to your new neighbors and the contacts at your apartment. In both of our stays, our contacts put together listings of favorite local attractions and restaurants, which we would not have found otherwise.
To market: Look for local markets in cities big and small, run a few times a week selling everything from locally grown produce to antiques. You're shopping with locals and eating local food. The Sunday farmer's market in our Paris neighborhood was a trip highlight, just behind my dishwashing. We waited in line for fruit samples with the locals and got a street performer to play Edith Piaf on a hand-cranked street organ. And had we stayed in a hotel, we would never have ended up with a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of strawberries because one sneaky salesman pretended not to understand when I asked for a half-kilogram in French. Only now do I realize that's exactly what we wanted.