After you’ve decided where to go and how you’ll get there, the big question is where to stay. A hotel is still the most popular choice, but there are other options, and plenty of savvy travelers are choosing to rent an apartment or house. My recent trip to France is a good example of the pros and cons of hotels vs apartments; my husband, John, and I stayed in two of each.
Our one-bedroom, upper floor apartment in Nice, on the Mediterranean coast, was ideal in many ways. Plane trees lined the street of lovely apartment buildings—Nice is noted for its fine architecture—just a short walk to the beach. We had a king-sized bed, colorful sofa and cushions, books and paintings, wifi, and a tidy little kitchen. Sliding doors opened to a vine-covered terrace with a rooftop view. The price was reasonable. We saved money on meals, did our own laundry, and felt at home in “our neighborhood.” What could be better?
The apartment in Paris was equally pleasant. Top floor, skylights, nice bedroom and kitchen, private square away from the tourist-crammed areas but easy walking or bus distance to everything we wanted. Cafes around every corner, outdoor markets, shops, city life, all close by. The price was higher, but you have to expect that in Paris.
Both apartments were fine, but there were indeed a few problems, and that’s the difference. Since were were on our own, with only a smattering of French, we had no hotel concierge to turn to when we needed help with restaurant recommendations, bus and taxi information, event tickets, and figuring out euro-tech appliances. Our charming landlords helped where they could, but they didn’t live on the sites and weren’t always immediately available for our questions (how do you operate that dishwasher again? And the oven seems locked! etc).
A hotel provides an extra level of security. Maid service, fresh towels, items upon request, local advice—these can mean a lot to a weary traveler. Apartments provide initial necessities such as toilet paper, detergent, coffee and tea, but the renter usually supplies replacements. Then there are the more troublesome issues, such as the train strike that stopped us in our tracks (haha) when we were leaving Nice. A hotel clerk probably would have known about the strike and provided some suggestions. Another advantage to a hotel is that a reservation can usually be canceled without penalty, even close to the arrival date. That’s less true of a rental.
We loved our hotels: the Escale Oceania in the heart of Marseille, where we’d stayed before and were welcomed back; and Val Baussenc, on the edge of the village of Mausanne in Provence, another return visit. Hotel Escale Oceania, part of a chain, is on La Canabiere, the main street leading to Marseille’s Old Port. From our little balcony we could see the boat-filled harbor and the hill topped with the grand Notre Dame cathedral. Our room was small compared to a spacious apartment, but comfortable—plus maid service and a helpful desk clerk.
Val Baussenc is a dream of a place, with a quiet atmosphere, lovely swimming pool, spacious lawns and garden, and a good restaurant (I’m now a fan of crumble de pintade , a small casserole of quail in cream sauce under a crumb-and-butter topping). The friendly staff provided brochures and maps and was happy to store our picnic for the next day in the restaurant’s refrigerator.
Maussane, a few minutes’ walk from Val Baussenc, has several cafes, a pretty central square, and an outstanding restaurant, Le Clos Saint Roch. More on this another time, but I can’t resist mentioning the ravioli frit farci d’epinard –crispy ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta, served on tomato concasse and topped with delicate strips of fried eggplant skins. Perfection.
My Advice on Choosing Between an Apartment or Hotel:
First know your needs. Some are obvious—if you can’t climb stairs, you’ll need a place with a lift, not always available in European buildings; if you don’t speak the language at all, be sure the contact person speaks yours. Other questions to consider–will you use a kitchen, do you want linens changed often, can you find your way around the area fairly easily, will you know what to do in case of an emergency, do you need the security of someone on the site 24 hours a day?
If you decide to rent, expect to spend some time filtering through the online choices. Three major agencies, Vacation Rentals By Owner, HomeAway and Airbnb, have systems set up for easy navigating and viewing the apartments and homes. Most are just as they’re shown on the website, but the adage applies: if it sounds too good (and cheap) to be true, it is. Also, the site charges a fee and usually a refundable security deposit. Often there’s a minimum stay of 3 nights or a week. The usual payment is a deposit of one-half the total cost to reserve the rental, with the rest payable upon arrival. Cancellation cost is at least the agency’s fee and sometimes more. After finding the places that meet your requirements (for me they include a quiet location, a lift, and a bit of a view) comes the harder part, narrowing them down to the one that’s just right. So far, it has always been worth the effort, as our most recent trip showed. We have stayed in hotels, apartments, condos, villas, and rooms in private homes, and while some were better than others, we’ve been satisfied 90% of the time. That is mostly the result of advance research and knowing what we want.
As rentals have become more common, they’ve raised wider issues. Should apartments be let on a regular basis, competing with hotels, without paying various fees and taxes? How are health, insurance, sanitation, and safety regulations affected? These questions have to be addressed, and some changes are already in place. More lie in the future, as travelers continue to look for variety in appealing lodgings.
Written by and photos by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com