Vacation Rental Pitfalls

Sure there are some bad vacation rentals out there, but most of them are good and staying in vacation rentals is a great way to travel – less expensive than most other options and more interesting (IMO).

The New York Times published an article last weekend about one person’s very bad experience with a vacation rental that they rented directly from the owner.

New York Times, Practical Traveler, Skirting the Pitfalls of Private Rentals, by Michelle Higgins, Oct 5, 2008

The comments on the article are interesting (page no longer there). (I posted my 2 cents worth.)

In my eight years of running the Slow Travel site I learned that there are some bad vacation rentals, but most of them are good. We did not receive very many bad or neutral reviews and we did not have many complaints on the forums. Some, but not many compared to the number of people posting on the forum.

Renting from an agency does not guarantee you a good vacation rental. Some agencies are good, some are looking to put “bodies in beds” and don’t care about matching your requirements with their properties. Renting directly from an owner does not guarantee a good experience either, but most owners want to offer good vacation rentals. Read reviews, talk to other travelers on travel forums, ask questions, read the descriptions carefully and look at the photos. Doing this gives you a much better chance of finding a great vacation rental that suits your needs.

I think that vacation rentals in Europe are generally better quality and less expensive than in the US because they have been doing this for longer and have more experience with what travelers want. Many rentals are on family-run farms or estates where the owners are nearby and care about their rentals. These are usually very well priced.

People who complain about vacation rentals sometimes ignore that fact that there are bad hotels too. How many times have you thought you found a good budget hotel in Europe only to check in and find the room is a few inches larger than the bed? Well a vacation rental at a similar per night price is bound to have a few “oddities” too.

Tower near Sovicille, Tuscany

Above is a photo of a crumbling tower in Tuscany, west of Siena, near Sovicille. This was our first vacation rental in Italy, in September 1996. Before that we had stayed in many vacation rentals in Switzerland, England and Ireland and had mostly good experiences. This was our first “bad” vacation rental. The tower was as crumbling inside as it was outside. Each floor was one room. The bedroom was a mattress on the floor of the main room. The living room was dark and had torn furniture. The only comfortable place to sit was at a small table in the kitchen. The whole house was dirty.

But it was a 15th century tower surrounded by acres of olive trees, on the edge of a hamlet, down the road from Sovicille, down the road from Siena. We looked out to the beautiful Tuscan countryside with the towers of Siena in the distance. The day that we arrived, we went to Siena for the first time. I will never forget turning the corner of a narrow dark street and bursting out onto Il Campo. On a hot sunny day I ate my first fresh fig, picked from a tree by the house. There was no dryer (there never is) and walking across the field to the clothes line I trampled on the wild herbs and can still remember their lovely scent. We found a great cafe in Sovicille where we had coffee and cornetto most mornings and simple dinners some evenings. All these were our first experiences of rural Italy, to be repeated many times over the next years, but I will never forget that first week in that crumbling tower.

The owner was an eccentric British aristocrat who owned a huge estate nearby (her daughter owned the tower) and the few interactions we had with her gave us great lines to quote for months after. For example, when we told her that our kitchen sink was not draining she declared it was “a scourge” (she got it fixed for us).

The tower was not expensive considering it was a house and not an apartment on a farm. It had a small swimming pool where we would sit in the water to cool off and look out over the incredible view. We paid about $700 for the week. We rented it from a British company that specialized in “well priced” rentals. A few years later I found the tower listed with a more exclusive British company for over $2,000/week. It looks like they cleaned it up and replaced the furniture.)

The tower was a bad vacation rental that I would not recommend, but it was one of my best travel experiences.

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Pauline Kenny

Pauline Kenny and Steve Cohen are US expats living in Dorset. We moved to the UK in 2010. Read about our move. If you would like to talk about travel, please join us on the Slow Europe Travel Forums.

3 thoughts on “Vacation Rental Pitfalls”

  1. Hi, Pauline,

    Alfred Glossbrenner, here. Emily and I specialize in guiding property owners in successfully offering their second homes as vacation rentals with or without a property manager.

    We saw this atrociously unfair article on Saturday and posted a repost to our site ( on Sunday. As you undoubtedly know, the posts to the relevant NYT blog have been numerous, passionate, and quite articulate. Our article makes many of the same points as those posts, but it adds six steps a vacationer should follow to ensure a great VR experience.

    Here’s the link to the article in our “Free Stuff” section:

    I would be happy to post it here or have you post it yourself if you like, and if you think it might do some good.

    We’re huge fans of slow travel. On our first VR vacation to Italy, we rented a farmhouse in Umbria for a week and spent every day visiting a different hill town. The highlight of each day was pranza. (Oh, my, the food, the wonderful food.!) We’d stop at a market on the way home and buy a chicken breast or something similar to cook at “home” for a light supper.

    One tip I know you give your audience: For heaven’s sake keep a daily journal! We would do this over a glass of wine before dinner, and you can bet we recorded everything we had to eat.

    All the best,
    Alfred Glossbrenner

  2. As a frequent user of vacation rentals (or village rooms as I call them on my blog), I have never had a problem with them. They definitely are cheaper and give you a great sense of the local culture – which is the whole reason most people travel to Europe in the first place. Still, it’s interesting to learn about others’ pitfalls with vacation homes. Thanks for the insight.


  3. I was away on vacation at the time the article was published or I would have responded too. We too had a bad experience renting a cottage here in Ontario on one of our first visits. The owner was recovering from a hard night when we arrived. He had clearly just woken up with a monumental hangover from the previous evenings hard drinking session, and the place was a disgusting mess. He promised to clean up if we could go shopping for an hour or so. After an 8 hour flight and a 5 hour time change, we were very tired, so when we returned and he’d obviously gone back to sleep again, we said it was OK and we would manage. I then spent the next 3 days cleaning.

    Since then, I have become fully involved in the vacation rental business here in Canada and have owned and rented out 7 properties, and written a book on the subject too. Standards are rising and although there will always be a few bad apples, on the whole, owners are doing a pretty good job.

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