Short-term rentals: travel like a local with a home away from home

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Though there is something alluring about arriving at a hotel for a spell away from home – the ritual of the check-in, the decorum of the liveried porters, the exploration of the room service menu – there are also the inevitable down-sides.

Your bedroom, which looked so roomy on the hotel photograph, is more poky than palatial, and far too small to comfortably fit your family of four. The decor, though described as contemporary minimalist chic, is the same old collaboration of muted tones and Egyptian cotton thread-counts you have seen a thousand times before. And pretty soon, in the case of an extended stay, you find yourself longing for a simple slice of toast or a pot of tea without telephoning down to the kitchen to procure one.

It was once the case that short-term rental apartments were only an option where hotels were non-existent, expensive, or generally rather grim. Twenty years ago, arriving by train to then lesser-visited Eastern European destinations such as Prague or Zakopane meant braving a whole host of doughty matrons clad in floral polyester on the platform, each brandishing a photo album filled with snaps of their apartment-for-hire: Formica kitchens, glossy pine beds, deep shag carpets and an army of knickknacks were then the order of the day.

Today, however, short term rental apartments (frequently without a bunk bed or Formica counter top in sight) make the perfect alternative to hotel malaise, and are on offer almost everywhere in the world, from the beach-fronts of India to the back-streets of Italy. Not only does eschewing a hotel and opting for an apartment allow you considerably more elbow-room and the flexibility of cooking for yourself (no more $15 room service cheese sandwiches), but it also allows you unparalleled integration with locals – and not just the little old ladies on their Czech railway platforms.

Step out of your Chelsea flat whilst in London, and you will instantly feel at home browsing with Londoners in the boutiques of the King’s Road. Rent a studio apartment in Istanbul, and sip coffee on your balcony within sight of the minarets of the Blue Mosque. Mingle with your next-door-neighbours at the 'brown cafe' (local pub) just downstairs from your Amsterdam pied-à-terre. In no time at all, wherever you are in the world, you will undoubtedly start feeling at home.

How to find a short-term rental

In the hunt for a perfect vacation apartment, a quick search engine trawl will reward you with a plethora of rental agencies and independent holiday lets. Travellers to the UK might find it worthwhile examining options on Holiday Rentals, whose client-reviewed offerings include a stunning 19th-century converted water tower in Greenwich and a cosy, contemporary one-bedroom flat just around the corner from the rather larger Buckingham Palace (itself as yet unavailable for holiday lets).

Owners Direct meanwhile, offers apartments further afield, including stone-walled homes in Montenegro’s Lustica Peninsula, thatched cottages in Zanzibar, and a luxury apartment in downtown Buenos Aires. Craigslist too, offers hundreds of listings, updated constantly, in most of the world’s major cities along with numerous further-flung spots.

Not every place, however, makes for the ideal short-term apartment stay. Maui, Paris and New York City are three major destinations whose governors have all recently legislated against just such rentals.

Whilst ostensibly put in place to thwart unscrupulous real estate agents, critics of such legislation claim it forces tourists into frequently overpriced and under-par hotel accommodation, and robs independent apartment owners of a valuable source of income. Nevertheless, unscrupulous operators remain, and it is vital to use common sense when arranging an apartment let: seek out references or reviews online, think carefully about paying in full for your stay in advance, and research the specific area of your apartment carefully ('conveniently located', after all, can mean right above the bus station).

Other short-term stay options

More adventurous souls, moreover, might wish to examine various other options on offer in the sphere of short-term lodging. Apartment-swaps are becoming increasingly common, with Craigslist once again providing a valuable point of contact for would-be swappers.

And for those not requiring an entire apartment at their disposal – but wishing to capitalise on home comforts and contact with locals – there are both home-stays (www.airbnb.com) and couch-surfing (www.couchsurfing.org and www.globalfreeloaders.com), allowing you to take up residence at even closer quarters with locals, and live out the 'When in Rome' maxim, wherever you happen to be on the planet.