Self contained accommodation – a fully equipped home away from home with kitchen, lounge, bathroom and bedrooms is very popular, and many newcomers like Airbnb have jumped on the bandwagon.
But holiday makers have been booking privately owned cottages, villas, and apartments all over the world for decades. All that is new today is the way in which people can find and book that accommodation via big mega-search sites on the internet. But the basic principles have not changed, and neither have the simple precautions that you need to take.
Warning!! This is a very long blog, but if you like many others regularly book self catering accommodation, then stay with me – it will be worth it.
Over the past 30 years I have been involved in compiling my own self catering programs, as well as representing various well known travel companies offering this kind of accommodation in the UK and Europe. At the same time I have been a regular user of self catering accommodation booked through other well known companies.
So I think the best way that I can vividly illustrate some of my major points is by telling you some stories about my experiences, so here they are. Stay with me!
Story 1. In 1987 (yes a long time ago) we became Australian representative for Country Holidays, Britain’s largest and most progressive cottage rental company. The owner/founder was a computer “nerd” who had assembled 8,000 privately owned cottages for holiday rental and loaded live availability into his computer reservation facility – way, way ahead of his time. It was brilliant. We could make bookings for Australian travellers by fax (Ha Ha) and get instant confirmation – it took off like crazy…but we found one problem.
The program had been running for 18 months for the Brits, but we were the first overseas market. The problem was that the owners were not supplying linen of any kind – towels, sheets etc. The locals just brought their own from home when they drove to their rented cottage – easy. But there is no way that overseas travellers would be carting linen with them. It was something the computer whizz had not considered.
There was resistance from some owners who didn’t want to go to the expense of buying linen, but we assembled a list of those who would, and after a couple of years they all fell into line.
Lesson: Never assume that all that you require will be supplied in your cottage/villa/apartment.
Story 2. In 1988 after the success of our cottage rental program we were receiving many requests for self catering apartments in London. No tour operator in Australia was offering such a program so I decided to start one – a brave move I discovered! But with the help of Singapore Airlines I set off to London to seek out such accommodation.
The only source of information was a booklet put out by the British Tourist Authority entitled London Apartments. However as I soon discovered it was simply an advertising publication – you advertise and you get in! BTA was not involved in any way in inspecting the properties and took no responsibility for any of the content! And the owners actually graded their own properties themselves. I was soon to learn what that entails!
So I made a list, made some appointments over a period of about 10 busy days in London and I became The Apartment Inspector.
Firstly I caught the underground to Ealing station to meet the owner of 6 apartments (5 studios and a one bedroom) which he (male owner) had personally listed as first class. Oh dear! It was a total waste of time. The furnishings looked like they had been all bought at different garage sales. Nothing matched, the kitchen was from the 50s, and the bathroom with plastic shower curtain was showing signs of mould! It was 3-star at best.
But, if you had taken the tourist authority booklet as your bible, you would have been very, very upset. Was he being deceptive? No. He just hadn’t travelled much and just didn’t have a clue. And today these people still exist.
I was on a steep learning curve which continued over the coming days. Other problems that I encountered included rude, difficult owner/managers, unrealistic booking conditions, complicated key collection details, unrealistic prices, lack of lifts in tall buildings, and unusual room configurations in “historic” buildings. And there were frequent issues relating to poor cleaning and worn furnishings.
Eventually I found what I wanted including the apartments of my now friend Joan at Avanti Apartments, and came back to Australia and released to the travel trade the very first London Apartments brochure – in 1989. And today I still keep a finger on the pulse, although am no longer actively involved in booking London apartments.
Lesson: Never, never trust self assessment of accommodation. And if you are a tour operator/travel wholesaler you have to go and inspect yourself.
Story 3. On Owners Direct I had found a really nice cottage in the Dordogne in France. The owner was English and I had a number of communications with him by phone and email. We booked it for a week from Friday to Friday in June although he normally only booked Saturday to Saturday. I had an email confirmation of the dates, address, and the mobile phone number of the English lady who was the local caretaker. We were flying into Lyon and collecting a car, so arranged to be at the cottage between 4 and 5 when she would be there to welcome us with the key, and a welcome grocery pack and show us around.
We arrived just after 4 – lovely cottage with huge garden – looked fabulous. But where was the caretaker? So I rang her mobile. It went to voicemail – problem! I rang the owner Ian in the UK – went to voicemail. At 5 pm it was getting time to panic when a passerby stopped. He was a local but English, and offered the information that the caretaker lived in a nearby village – not sure which one. So we started the search.
The next village was about 1 km away and at the church we met the priest who directed me to someone else in that village who was Welsh. Yes, she thought she knew who it was and rang a friend. Yes – look out her window to the next village, and it was the house set back from the road. So we drove down – now 6 pm.
When we entered the garden, there she was with a group of English friends having a great time enjoying a few beers. She was stunned at my appearance – we were due tomorrow she said as it was always a Saturday changeover. She hadn’t read the owner’s email correctly!
So it was mad activity – she went to the cottage to make the beds etc and we went 10 minutes down the road to the local town supermarket to stock up on groceries. We finally got into the cottage at 8 pm – thank goodness!
Lesson: For key collection get as much information as possible – not just a mobile phone number but also the address of the key supplier. And it helps if you confirm the dates/time well in advance directly with them rather than the person who makes the booking. And ensure that they have your mobile number too and you have it switched on! On the day before arrival I would be contacting them again confirming your arrival time.
Story 4: I booked a 2 bedroom apartment through StayZ, the well known Aussie site for booking holiday homes, now a part of HomeAway. I have used them a few times, and normally find them quite good, but this turned out to have what is now a common problem – self assessed property lacking vital information. And I failed to be vigilant and paid the price.
The apartment was on Lake Macquarie north of Sydney, and looked really great and quite classy on the online site. It had its own jetty, veranda overlooking the lake, main bedroom overlooking the lake with large window. It said it had a kitchen with microwave and full sized fridge. And the pictures of the kitchen, with a massive bench top, looked modern and impressive. So what went wrong?
I bought a frozen pizza on the way as it was getting late, and when I got there I discovered there was no oven. There wasn’t even a stove top with hotplates. There was just one of those old single plug–in electric hotplates! Fry-pan was again an old electric plug in one, and there were just 2 power points at the far end of the bench-top – getting worse by the minute. Then I found just one saucepan and very limited utensils!!!
Other problems were no dimmers in the lounge or standard lamps, so it was blinding, like being onstage on Broadway! The bedroom had see-through flimsy blinds so anyone on the lake could see in. To cap it all off, when I went to bed and wanted to read for 5 minutes, there were no bedside tables or lamps. And the overhead lights above the bed were glaringly bright.
In the bathroom the only electric plug was on the opposite wall from the mirror, so good luck ladies when drying your hair!
Next morning I tackled Bob nicely about the inadequacies. His response – “People on holidays don’t want to do much cooking.” What about the bedside lamps? “I don’t read in bed. I just go to sleep.” That says it all – it was decorated to Bob’s tastes, right down to the large pool table in the lounge! Yes the rest of the apartment was nicely furnished, but Bob had no idea of how to deck out such a nice property. It was all done according to his taste and needs. He was not thinking about what others might want. And anyway he had no idea of what they might want.
Bob was a classic case of ” You don’t know what you don’t know”. Ha ha..
And by the way, it was a downstairs apartment under his house. It was very tastefully done, but I heard his footsteps every time he went to the loo several times during the night. I never normally book apartments constructed under houses, but there was nothing on the site to show that it was.
Lesson: Never assume that certain amenities will be in the accommodation, so if anything that you require is not mentioned then ask questions – lots.
Story 5: I was in London last year and in the office of my friend Joan who runs Avanti London Apartments. Joan manages and lets a number of apartments for various owners for short and long term lets and has done so for over 25 years. As we were speaking, one of her long-term tenants (Jason) came to speak to her about a minor maintenance matter and the conversation went like this.
Joan – “I have been trying to contact you about something serious. Other tenants in the building have been complaining to me about having their doorbells rung by mistake on a regular basis by men looking for your apartment. What is going on?”
Jason – Looks at Joan trying to find words.
Joan – “Are you renting out a room on Airbnb? “
Jason – ” Yes”
Joan – ” So where are they sleeping and where are you sleeping?
Jason: ” They have my bedroom and I sleep on the lounge”
Joan: ” So what are you charging them for the bedroom?
Jason: ” 80 pounds a night”.
Joan: ” It must stop immediately. You are breaking the terms of your lease and I could have you evicted. If the owner finds out you will be evicted.”
Jason makes promises and quickly exits.
Joan then tells me that it is a common problem in central London where long term tenants are illegally letting out their rooms on Airbnb without permission from the owners. I have heard about it happening in other cities around the world, so be aware.
Lesson: Ensure that the person from whom you are renting has the authority to rent the property to you.
The Self Catering Checklist – Cottages, Villas, Apartments.
Check dates carefully before booking – and again!
Check the location on a map – is there parking if you require?
Fees – is there a booking fee charged by the rental/booking facilitator? Is there a cleaning fee – look out for this one.
Security Bond – is there one, how much, how do you pay and how/when is it returned?
Additional charges – Are there charges for electricity, gas, linen, extra guests ?
Are there adequate pictures of all rooms in the property? Be wary of “arty” sites with pictures of flowers and bottles of wine but limited pictures of rooms. You need lots of good pictures.
Facilities – read carefully about all facilities and furnishings and ask lots of questions about the kitchen, bathroom and size of beds! Is double bed just a double or a queen? Different countries have different terminology.
Is the property a stand alone or in a block?
What sort of an area is it in – is it a safe and “nice” area?
Does the supplier of the property have the authority to rent to you?
Key collection – is it from owner or caretaker and can you secure their address as well as phone number? Reconfirm arrival day before and speak personally to key provider.
Cancellation charges – some properties have very high charges. What are they and at what point do they click in?
Finally if you have a problem after arrival how easily is it to contact the owner and/or the source through which you booked it – Airbnb, HomeAway etc. Can you obtain a refund if the property has been seriously misrepresented? What is the dispute resolution process?
Remember that all these meg-search sites which now each claim millions of properties have never inspected one of them!! The information on their site is supplied by the owner who has prepared the property to what they believe is a good standard, and then self assessed it. Remember that their tastes and assessment may not be the same as yours, so buyer beware and follow my tips and all will be well…I hope. 🙂 Have a Happy Holiday.
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