If you're after that idyllic week or two in a European villa retreat, there are a few key rules to follow
Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so many nights in hotels – usually alone, on business – that when I take my own holidays, I prefer to rent a villa. It’s a chance to relax with my family, away from noisy resorts and crowded tourist sights, far from unctuous hotel staff and loud-mouthed reps.
When you rent a villa you enter your own private domain. My ideal is a whitewashed hilltop house where I can drink wine on the terrace as the sun goes down, steaks on the barbecue and my kids running around and splashing in the pool.
But even in this idyllic setting, things can go wrong. If you want to guarantee a perfect villa holiday you need to follow a few rules.
- Should you book with a tour operator or independently? An operator offers protection if something goes wrong, and in most cases you now have the choice of a package deal with flights or ferry, or accommodation only. To find a villa specialist, try the Association of Independent Tour Operators. It's cheaper to deal directly with owners. Although you have less recourse in the event of a dispute, you can at least ask detailed questions before booking.
- Use the web. Printed brochures tend to carry only brief descriptions of properties. Online you’ll find more pictures and, in some cases, user reviews. Study the photographs: look for tell-tale distortion around the edges of an image, suggesting that the photographer has used a wide-angle lens to make a small room look bigger. Ask for a floor plan.
- If you’re booking independently, nail down your flights first. You’ll always find somewhere to rent, but peak-season flights sell quickly, with fares on Saturdays – the most common changeover day – much more expensive. At most properties you won’t be handed the keys until mid-afternoon, so if you have a baby or toddler you may prefer not to book an early-morning outbound flight. One way to avoid the expense and hassle of a Saturday arrival is to book-end your villa stay with a couple of nights in a hotel
- Read between the lines. That 'charming rustic cottage' could be an unrestored wreck. If a villa is '10 minutes from the beach', ask whether this is by car or on foot. If local shops are 1km away, enquire about the walk – it might be on a busy road without a pavement. Find out about traffic noise, the proximity of neighbours and where the owner lives. A few owners now supply Google Earth coordinates so you can study satellite images of the area.
- If you’re travelling with children, check the facilities. Most villas have televisions, but not all have UK satellite channels. Is there a DVD player? If you have toddlers, check the pool has a shallow end of 1m or less and either steps or a shelved entrance. Does the pool have a fence or hard cover? This is a legal requirement in France but not elsewhere in Europe.
- A pool can make or break a villa holiday. A 5m pool is fine for small kids, but not for swimming lengths. If you want to swim, look for a length of 10m or more. If you’re travelling early or late in the season you’ll need heating, which usually costs extra – ensure it’s turned on before you arrive.
- Get a printed inventory to find out what you need to pack – and settle any potential disputes over what’s included. Some villa owners supply pool towels, but won’t allow you to take them to the beach. If you book online, print out the relevant pages and take them with you.
- If you’re sharing, establish the sleeping arrangements before arrival. A villa advertised as 'sleeps 8' may only have 3 bedrooms and a sofabed in the lounge. The usual protocol is that the person who books gets pick of the bedrooms.