Tips for Finding Kid-Friendly Villa Rentals
Renting a villa or an apartment can be a cost-effective way to travel with children. But it can also be filled with pitfalls and problems. Ciao Bambino! editor Amie O’Shaughnessy shares her tips on finding kid-friendly villa rentals.
A villa or apartment rental can be an ideal accommodation option with kids. The space, privacy and kitchen facilities often make the experience easier and, in many cases, more cost-effective than a standard hotel.
Vacation rentals are also an excellent option for multiple families traveling together.
There are literally thousands of rental options published on the Web for the top tourist destinations. The challenge—and risk—is that you can easily end up with a rental that does not meet expectations or worse. Unlike a hotel where it is easy to find user reviews online, rentals are difficult to qualify.
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ONLINE RENTAL OPTIONS
There are two main options for independent rentals (vs. rentals that are part of larger resort property).
Direct From Owner: VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) and HomeAway are two of the best-known resources for skipping the middleman (a rental agency) and booking directly with the owner of a property. The primary advantage of this channel is price; since the owner doesn’t need to pay a margin to an agency, presumably the price will be less, although this is not always the case.
The other big advantage is choice. The amount of inventory presented is extensive on these Web sites, and it is also easier to find rentals in more off-the-beaten-path locations that agencies may not cover.
Conversely, the downside of renting directly through an owner can be significant. You don’t know what you are getting and pictures can be deceiving. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve anticipated a property to be fantastic, only to find that it feels completely different in person and vice versa. There is no scrutiny or quality control for properties listed on these Web sites, and moreover, if there is problem, resolution with an individual owner may be difficult (as opposed to hotels which often fear negative reviews on user-generated sites like TripAdvisor and will often work to resolve issues accordingly).
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The other downside is services. Owners may or may not be able to provide additional services like activity planning, babysitting referrals and housekeeping. Unlike a hotel where you can run to the front desk for support, rentals are isolated. This can be particularly daunting in foreign countries where you may not speak the language and/or understand the local resources.
Rental Agencies: Reputable rental agencies generally vet properties before they bring them into their portfolio. Of course, you need to know you’ve found a reliable agency for this to be a meaningful benefit, but once you do, you can count on the fact that their inventory will meet a minimum quality standard. Of the many blogs and articles written reference various agencies, the most reliable agency recommendation list in my book is Wendy Perrin’s Annual Villa Agent Rolodex. Quality aside, liking one villa over another is like flavors of ice cream—everyone has a different vision of what they want to experience so it is important to look at quite a few options before narrowing down a short list of favorites.
The other significant advantage of using an agency is that it may provide value-added services. Many high-end rental agencies offer full concierge services and some even provide a full-time host to assist with every need. Of course, you will pay a premium for these additional amenities, but it can be well worth it depending on the make up of your group and goals for a given trip.
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WHAT TO LOOK FOR WITH KIDS
Quality aside, liking one villa over another is personal: Everyone has a different vision of what they want to experience in terms of style and atmosphere, so it is important to look at quite a few options before narrowing down a short list of favorites.
Some important attributes to consider:
This seems obvious, but it is really important to have a rough outline of what you want to see in a given destination so you understand the distance from your accommodation. Young kids get impatient with logistics and the time spent in a car or on public transportation.
In Europe, some countryside villas are walking distance to a village, but this is surprisingly difficult to find. An important note is that many villas are down small or rough roads making stroller use an adventure, to say the least (not to mention that cars drive fast there, even on smaller roads with blind corners). Look for a rental within a five to 10-minute drive a village with supplies.
Understand the driving distance to the nearest major hospital. My comfort zone with young children is 30 minutes or less.
Amenities vary greatly by location. Create an absolute priority list and expect to compromise in other areas accordingly.
Swimming pool: Most villas have them. Find out if they are fenced, heated, and have a shallow-end (noting it is common for villas in Europe, even nice ones, to be unheated given the high cost of energy). Also, understand where the pool is relative to the house in cases where a fence is not available.
Flat grass: This is key! Many villas with fabulous views are perched on a hillside with limited open areas for running around.
Kitchen: All villas have them, but you need to figure whether they are stocked with the equipment and supplies you need. If you just anticipate having breakfast there it may not be consequential, but for dinners and more complex meals you will want to understand exactly what is available to use.
Air-conditioning: This can be tough to find in mid-range rentals in Europe. If it is not available, ask if fans are available and if the windows have screens.
Layout: If multiple families are traveling together, it is particularly important to understand how the layout will support sleeping needs, i.e. are there two master bedrooms downstairs and the kids’ room upstairs? They may be ideal or a nightmare. Think about what everyone needs based on the ages of the kids, sleeping patterns etc.
Crib and highchair: Find out if the owner can provide at least a crib. All Ciao Bambino featured properties must provide a crib or portable crib as one of our portfolio requirements, but I’m always surprised by how many owners and agencies don’t offer them and clients find this out too late in the process to do anything about it.
Other items: Is there a TV? If so, is there cable where they can get English channels? Wi-Fi is also increasingly available in rentals. Most villas come equipped with at least a washer, but they may not have a dryer. It’s always nice when a villa owner provides some pool toys, balls and games.
I just had a fantastic experience with a villa rental using VRBO. Our priority was price and we found an owner and home that fit our other requirements.
The most important part of the research was checking references—I checked in with no fewer than five people that had stayed at the property and had a very good idea about pros (and cons) ahead of time. This is critical with an owner-direct Web site, although even if you book through a reputable agency, ask to speak to a reference or two. Ideally, you can connect with references that have stayed at a property with kids.
- Describe the overall experience (good to get a sense of favorite features).
- Is the kitchen well-equipped?
- What is the quality of the bathrooms?
- Are the beds comfortable?
- Are linens/towels provided and if so, what is the quality?
- Is the villa clean and well-maintained?
- What resource was provided for requests and were they responsive?
- What is the driving distance to the shops and attractions in the area? This information may be provided by the owner but it’s nice to get additional opinions.
- What are the caveats or cons? On Ciao Bambino we call this Families Should Know. Every property has them.
It’s not necessary for the owner to have children to make a property a good rental option for families, but certainly you want a sense that kids are welcome—this is particularly important for higher-end rentals with nice furnishings.
Finding the right villa can be an amazing way to settle into a destination and “live like a local” with kids. Happy hunting …
Amie O’Shaughnessy is the editor of Ciao Bambino!, a family travel blog and worldwide guide to the best, family-friendly hotels, resorts, and vacation rentals.
For more family travel ideas, try Taking the Kids: Family Voluntourism.