It's a rainy day in Istanbul and we don't mind spending it in our apartment. The kids are sitting on the living room floor drawing, the stereo is humming Turkish music and the view of the Bosphorus keeps diverting my attention away from typing.
By renting a vacation home instead of staying at a hotel, we've fooled ourselves into thinking we are Istanbullus. Our family has been traveling around the world for five months and has spent only a handful of nights in conventional hotels. We travel to experience local culture, not to be coddled by hotel facilities. We want comfort but don't want to dig into the kids' college funds to afford it. We enjoy traveling together, but can't be in cramped spaces without a fight breaking out. For these reasons, whether we're in a place for a few days or a few weeks, we are much happier in a home than a hotel.
A vacation rental comes with a key to a local experience
If you're taking a trip to experience local culture, then a vacation rental will get you much closer than a hotel room. Instead of looking to a guidebook or a concierge for tourist-approved recommendations, we seek input from homeowners and neighbors. Staying in a rental encourages local behaviors, such as grocery shopping, using public transportation or going to the bank, all of which put you in closer contact with the local way of life. Our homeowner in Lisbon volunteered to babysit for us so that we could check out her favorite restaurant. It was a no name place where no one spoke English, but it was the most authentic meal of our stay. The interiors and architecture of a vacation rental are usually more personal and fitting for the local culture than standard hotel décor.
We pay less and get more from a vacation rental than a hotel. Consider our place here in Istanbul: A 320 square foot family suite at a four star international hotel chain in our neighborhood costs $573 a night for a one week stay. Our 970 square foot two bedroom apartment is $100 a night for the same duration.
In Penang, we stayed at an ultra-luxury two bedroom beachfront apartment with a private beach, pool, tennis court, playground and daily maid service for $110 a night. We couldn't find a single decent hotel room for that price on the island that could comfortably fit us. The value of a vacation rental is even more justified if you're not the type of traveler that uses the overhead services that come with a hotel. We don't really make use of a concierge, have no issues carrying our own bags, and don't mind forgoing evening turn-down service. Many vacation rentals come with some cleaning arrangement so you're not left handling a mop on your holiday. An added bonus of a vacation rental is not worrying about the added taxes and tips, including the awkwardness of who to tip when and how much.
Vacation rentals are almost always larger than hotel rooms. Many come with fully equipped kitchens, washers and dryers, and even home offices. That means that one of us can watch a movie, another can read a book and the kids can nap without us disturbing each other. As a foodie, I like having a kitchen when travelling so that I can try my hand at the local cuisine. When we rented a cottage in Down East Maine, I was able to immediately turn the organic blueberries we bought into a pie, which we enjoyed on our balcony overlooking the water. Room service isn't delivering our breakfast in bed, but we can whip up a fresh and healthy meal at any time of day or night without coughing up big bucks. The vacation rentals we've had come fully stocked with everything from linens to toilet paper, which means that we pack no differently than we would if we were staying in a hotel.
Renting a vacation home has become almost as established a practice as booking a hotel room. There are several sites that aggregate listing around the world, each with its own advantages. The two that we use most often are HomeAway, which specializes in renting second-homes when not in use by their owners, and Airbnb, which has a mix of standalone and shared accommodations. Tripadvisor provides the same depth of information for vacation rentals as it offers for conventional hotels and has started aggregating listings from other rental sites. There are numerous other sites, some which focus on regions as Interhome does with Europe, and others that focus on specific countries. The listings also detail amenities and services, such as cleaning arrangements and internet access, as well as reviews.
We tend to gravitate to places with reviews as it helps confirm whether the place is as advertised and if there is someone helpful on hand to provide us with local knowledge.
Vacation rentals aren't for everybody or for every vacation. There have been times when we've wanted to be pampered by hotel services, such as when we craved a spa after climbing the Himalayas, or didn't want the added work of researching rentals when we were transiting for a short time through Ankara and Kuala Lumpur. There are situations when a vacation rental just doesn't provide the same experience, as is the case for a unique heritage property hotel or remote luxury hotel.
We've found that vacation rentals are plentiful in larger cities and second-home areas but harder to come by in small towns or off-the-beaten-path places. Finding the perfect rental can take some patience and research, so it can be a more challenging alternative to a hotel when planning a last minute trip. Unlike a hotel room, vacation rentals usually require a minimum stay of at least a few nights. In our experience, the longer we stay, the harder it is to leave to our new home.