THE thought of renting a villa may fill you with visions of Tuscan sunsets and sprawling gardens -- or with fears of being left a pauper after paying the bill. But with more affordable choices available, there's rarely been a better time to rent. And let's face it, villas are fun.
Whether it's a Caribbean beach house or a vineyard manor in France, renting a villa enables you to explore at your own pace. Usually removed from tourist-packed hotels, villas give you a deeper glimpse into culture and countryside. And with the right tools, it can be done for less. Here are some tips before you book:
* Know the lingo: Searching for the right villa is like looking for an apartment. Words don't always mean what you think they mean. "Cozy," for example, translates into "something small," and "distinguished" means "something old."
"Three words that would make me the most worried are 'simple,' 'basic' and 'rustic' ," said Suzanne Cohen, founder of Suzanne B. Cohen & Associates, (207) 622-0743, www.villaeurope.com. "I'd also run very quickly from the word 'remote.' "
Likewise, be wary of "peaceful" -- unless you don't mind driving two to three hours to a major road.
* Ask about extra costs: When booking a villa, ask whether heat, electricity, phone calls and food are included in the price. Also ask whether an in-house staff is included. Often an agency will decrease the price if the renter doesn't want a housekeeper or chef. Also make sure you know what the rental terms are, including payment requirements and cancellation policies.
* Prepare a wish list: When considering a villa, make your expectations clear to the rental agent. Ask about a modern kitchen, if you plan on cooking. Other concerns might include beach access or a pool, proximity to neighbors and the town. Is there an English-speaking contact in case of an emergency? Is there air conditioning? "Many Americans are stunned to find there's no air conditioning, especially in Europe," Cohen said.
* Shop around: Don't be surprised to find a variety of prices. The key is to find something that fits your budget. Often, that means traveling at certain times of the year. "When traveling to the Caribbean, you can save up to 60% of the winter price if you were to go after April 15," said Sylvia Delvaille-Jones, president of Villas and Apartments Abroad, (800) 433-3020, www.vaanyc.com. "You can get the same accommodation and the same level of service from the staff at more than half off the price."
Also ask whether the agent has partial-occupancy rates. "If we had four people staying in a house for six," said Delvaille-Jones, "we would tailor the rate to work with the customer."
* Ditch the car: Because villas are typically off the beaten path, vacationers often rent a car for trips to the grocery store or to visit local attractions. By cutting out the car, vacationers can save hundreds of dollars. Rental agencies can refer you to local cabdrivers.
* Know your rental agent: Find out how long an agency has been in business, and ask for references from other renters. When looking at property photos, ask when they were taken -- and if they're all taken from the same angle, request more photos.
And determine whether someone has recently inspected the property. "This is to see how the upkeep of the property is," said Janet Torre at Villas of Distinction, (800) 289-0900, www.villasofdistinction.com. "It's important that an agency maintain the integrity of all its properties."