A Villa Of Your OwnFor A Week

Thanks to the Internet, European vacation rentals from Tuscany to the Costa Brava are easier to find from afar

Slide Show >>

You've just finished a leisurely gourmet dinner, washed down with the best local wine. Now you and your guests are enjoying coffee on your terrace overlooking...a Tuscan vineyard? A lavender-scented Provençal hillside? The Aegean or the Costa Brava?

Living like this--for a week, anyway--has never been easier. For decades, Europeans have planned their summer holidays around a rented vacation house, whether a humble country cottage or a luxurious villa staffed with cooks and housekeepers. Instead of bouncing from one hotel room to the next, they settle in for a nice long stay to unwind and soak up the local ambience.

Before the Internet, this quintessentially Old World experience required considerable resourcefulness or money to plan from afar. But now, tens of thousands of European properties, once advertised only by word-of-mouth or in local-language publications, are listed on English-language Web sites. A bevy of rental agencies with names such as "Tuscan Dream" and "Villa Vacations" has sprung up to service fast-growing demand. Without leaving your desk, you can browse through photos, compare prices, read other travelers' reviews, and book the vacation rental of your dreams.

The hard part is knowing where to start looking. "It's really daunting," says Kathy McCabe, editor of travel newsletter Dream of Italy (dreamofitaly.com). "You could say 'Tuscany,' but there are something like six different areas in Tuscany."

Before starting your search, consider a few basic questions. Town or country? A secluded country estate may lose its charm if you have to drive 20 minutes to buy your morning croissants or two hours to the nearest museum. Coastal or inland? If you absolutely must have a beach nearby, count on paying at least 50% more than for a comparable house an hour's drive inland. "On the Côte d'Azur we're talking a minimum 15,000 euros [about $19,000] a week for a three- or four-bedroom house," says Janette Gimbert, managing director of the Royal Villas Europe, which handles upscale rentals around the Mediterranean (royalvillaseurope.com).

Most experts advise first-timers to book through a travel or vacation-rental agency. "An agency will work with you to determine what you are looking for," while offering extras such as booking tours or hiring a chef to prepare your meals, says Pauline Kenny, founder of slowtrav.com, a Web site offering tips, travelers' reviews, and classified ads for European rentals.

How do you choose an agency? Reputable ones should be willing to supply references from previous renters. They should also provide numbers you can call for English-language assistance in case of emergencies such as plumbing and electrical problems. If you've already pinpointed the region where you want to rent, find an agency specializing in that area, which will probably have a wider selection of offerings and better-informed staff.

Sure, agencies charge extra. That's why more seasoned travelers often rent directly from owners who offer their houses online, often while listing the same property through an agent who rents it for 50% more.

France has an especially well-organized system for such rentals, or gîtes--a term that covers everything from converted garages to châteaux. Stu Dudley, a retired software executive from the San Francisco Bay area, has rented 22 gîtes over the past decade, including properties with swimming pools and drop-dead gorgeous views for less than $1,000 a week. More than 44,000 houses are listed on www.gites-de-france.fr. The site has an English version, and you can search houses by location, price, and amenities. Most can be booked online. The downside of renting directly from owners: the higher potential for unpleasant surprises, from a lumpy bed to a noisy nearby road.

Almost all European properties are rented on a weekly basis, from Saturday to Saturday. Although dishes and cutlery are supplied, household items, such as toilet paper and soap, and kitchen basics, such as salt and coffee, usually aren't. You sometimes have to rent towels and bed linens, and you usually pay extra for a cleaning service at the end of the rental. Most European villas have neither air conditioning nor window screens, so do research on the local climate before choosing when and where to rent.

Some surprises are pleasant. A house I rented in France's Dordogne region was next door to a cave decorated with prehistoric drawings of human and animal figures. The site wasn't listed on local tourist maps, but a small sign in front of the gate directed us to the house of the caretaker, an elderly neighbor who sold us tickets for the equivalent of a few dollars and let us inside to look around.

With a bit of planning, you can join the growing corps of satisfied renters. People who have rented, Dudley says, "never want to do the hotel thing again." One big attraction for Dudley and his wife is the chance to prepare meals with foods bought at local French markets.

Don't delay if you're considering a rental for this summer. Choice properties are often booked up a year in advance. So pour yourself a glass of wine, boot up the computer, and start surfing.

By Carol Matlack, with Daniel Carlin in Paris

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.