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Renting a villa in Italy, France or Spain isn’t just for millionaires. Perhaps surprisingly, villa rental can be more reasonable than staying in a hotel, especially if you’re a family a larger group (though being a millionaire does help if you want to rent an entire Tuscan village from the Ferragamo family).

Early morning sunlight rises over the patio of an Italian villa in Chianti, Tuscany, Italy
Early morning sunlight rises over the patio of an Italian villa in Chianti, Tuscany, Italy

There are just five simple steps:

1) Decide if a villa vacation is for you. The pros are that you’ll have a base for a week or two that you can come back to each night. You can stay in all day, lounge by the pool or in the garden, take in the culture somewhere else, eat in or out… all up to you. The cons are that there’s no daily maid service or other hotel amenities, you are in the same place (so visiting places far from base means a longer round trip), and you have to keep the place reasonably clean and tidy. You’ll likely be doing cooking yourself if you stay in, though you can also hire a cook — and in some places you can also hire a maid if you want more frequent cleaning. Personally, I am happy to trade hotel amenities for a more relaxed and flexible vacation.

2) Pick a country and general geography — South of France, Tuscany etc — based on the kind of things you want to do and see. Get a few guidebooks to places you think you might like to go. My personal favorites are the Dorling Kindersley “Eyewitness” travel guides (DK guides), and the Rough Guides. I like the DK guides because they’re chock full of photographs so you can get a better idea of what a place is really like, and they’re also a good starting point for planning photography trips. The Rough Guides are impeccably researched with good writing on places, history, art and contemporary life, with great vignettes on the famous locals. However, although brimming with great maps to get you around, they are sparsely illustrated when it comes to photos.

3) Decide whereabouts you want to be in relation to the places and things you want to see and do. For example, if you really want to spend your days soaking up the world’s greatest collection of renaissance art in Florence, don’t base yourself in a cute-but-remote villa in the rolling hills of Chianti 20 minutes drive from the nearest major road. Mightily obvious, perhaps, but consider this: we were enjoying a dinner of incredibly fresh pasta with a great Brunello di Montalcino wine in a small enoteca (wine bar) walking distance from our Tuscan villa. The owner was friendly and keen to share his knowledge of the local wines and the chef smiled shyly from her kitchen. Two women walked in and headed straight to the bar and asked for Martinis, which the owner couldn’t make because he only has a license to sell wine. They were fed up having found no decent shopping all day. Their base was in the middle of rural, hilly Chianti, at least an hour from the nearest Prada store. They had yet to find a bar that could make a Martini and would have been far happier in at hotel or apartment in central Florence or Rome.

The top of your private medieval tower provides the perfect platform for sun-bathing. San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy.
The top of your private medieval tower provides the perfect platform for sun-bathing. San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy.

4) Put together a group that can get on well with each other. Villas work better financially when you can spread the cost out across more people, and farm and country house conversions abound in Tuscany and France. This means there are plenty of villas for rent that can sleep 8, 10, 12 or more. However, you should consider carefully who will vacation with you: do you really want to spend a week or two with them in the same house? It’s tempting to add friends-of-friends to make up the numbers and keep costs down, but consider how well you know these people and whether you’ll get on. A tense atmosphere is the last thing you need on your vacation.

5) You know where you want to be and what is important to you and your fellow guests, and what size of place you need. So how to find a suitable villa? Our first villa rental was though ItalianVillas.com, subsequently purchased by the AAA and now part of AAA Travel. They were a great choice primarily because they really knew their stuff: they had been to all the properties shown on their site, and you could call them and talk to someone who can tell you if a property is right for you.

A good agency will share advice on the vagaries of Italian homes that are sometimes surprising. For example, you can’t turn on the heating in September just because it is cold — you must wait until after a certain date in October when the Italian government has decided it’s OK to turn on your heating (!) So put on a sweater and see if you can find wood for a fire instead. The point is to find an agency that knows its product. Avoid agencies that do not or are just “aggregating” traffic. They are not interested in whether you have a good experience — they’re after the commission (as much as 50%) and on to the next deal.

The only remaining thing to check is the villa location, as sites are often vague when it comes to the specific location (“10 minutes from Siena” doesn’t cut it). You need to know this so you won’t be stuck miles from all the things you want to see and do. In the age of GPS and Google Maps there’s no excuse anymore for vague locations. Plug the name into Google Maps and see where it is relative to roads, railways etc. Through the magic of satellite imagery, you can also avoid unpleasant surprises, such as renting a pretty villa right next to a large-scale “industrial” farm (this happened to us once, though we didn’t let it ruin our trip).

Advanced villa rental

Renting directly is a substantial cost saving to going through an agency — 40-50% less — but you need to know what to look for and what to expect. This is the value that a good agency can bring and why they’re a great idea if you’re new to villa rental or a particular area. After we had rented twice with ItalianVillas.com in Tuscany, we knew enough about what to expect to rent directly from villa owners. We found new places to stay a stone’s throw from a villa — like Vignamaggio, the place in the photo below.

Chianti, Europe, Greve, Italy, Toscana, Toskana, agricultural building, ancient, architectural, architecture, building, dark green, deep green, edifice, edifices, farm house, farmhouse, haze, horizontal, horizontals, landscape, mist, old, scenic, structures, travel, tuscany, weather
Farmhouse at Villa Vignamaggio, Greve in Chianti, Italy

You might also consider hiring a cook. For some, this conjures images of impossibly expensive executive chefs, but in fact it can cost the same or less as an evening at a good restaurant.

A few years ago we rented with friends in Tuscany and wanted a cook to come 2-3 times a week to make dinner for all 12 of us. We have rented several times from the owners, a retired Italian executive couple, and they knew a cook who grew up in a family that owned a restaurant. She was phenomenally good, turning out four course meals of traditional, simple Tuscan cuisine with whatever was freshest and best, all for about 30 Euros a head.

She cooked on the first night when everyone was tired and cranky from a day spent crammed on planes and in security lines, which helped everyone to relax and start to enjoy the vacation. We either cooked for ourselves or ate out on the other nights, and having her come by every few days was a great way to bring everyone together throughout the trip.

So when you’re planning this year’s vacation and have re-started your heart after peeking at the Dollar/Euro exchange rate, consider villa rental. With a little planning, it can give you relaxing, fulfilling vacations that you’ll remember for a lifetime.

Chianti, Europe, Italy, Piazza, Sienna, Toscana, Toskana, afternoon, ancient, brick, campo, contrade, costume, day, daylight, down, eagle, flag, italian, medieval, old, people, portait, shadow, siena, throw, tradition, traditional, tuscany, twirl, vertical, view, wave, yellow
Flag throwers from the Eagle contrade of Siena cast shadows on the Piazza Del Campo during afternoon practice. Chianti, Tuscany, Italy.
Advanced mobile phone usage in Lucca, Italy
Advanced mobile phone usage in Lucca, Italy

Part 1 of 2 articles: the second covers cellular data in Europe

Last updated: January 2016

To many Americans, staying in touch with a cell phone or tablet while in Europe can seem difficult and expensive. But savvy travelers know it doesn’t have to be. Having a phone while you’re there can be a major time saver and convenience. This article tells you how to stay in touch and save money.

Why don’t US cell phones “just work” in Europe? For various reasons, the United States developed and deployed wireless technologies that were incompatible with those deployed in the Rest Of the World, which went with a standard called GSM (“Global System for Mobiles” – one of the reasons why Europeans use the term “mobile” and not “cell phone”).

This meant that for many years, the only option for US travelers to Europe was to rent a GSM phone, which was expensive and inconvenient. No one could reach you on your US cell phone number; you had the hassle and cost of receiving and returning the phone, and both phone rental and calls were astonishingly expensive.

GSM comes to America (AT&T and T-Mobile)

Today, you can buy US mobile phones that use the GSM system from AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile. Many (but not all) of these phones will not “just work” in Europe. The US uses different radio frequencies to the rest of the world, so you need a “World Phone” that is designed to work in the US and outside the US. The most popular smartphones all work internationally: the Apple iPhone series, the Samsung Galaxy series and the Google Nexus phones. As a rule of thumb, the cheapest phones are generally those that do not support international roaming.

The net? Make sure you buy a phone that clearly states is can be used internationally or is called a “World Phone”.

What if I’m on Verizon or Sprint?

Verizon and Sprint use a system called CDMA (it stands for Code Division Multiple Access — incomprehensible to the average human.) However, Verizon in particular has figured out that it is losing a lot of profitable international traffic as a result, and now has phones that support both CDMA and international GSM frequencies. Verizon used to call these Global Phones, but now it just ensures that all of its smartphones have full global roaming.

Verizon has a specific international phone page here, and examples of Verizon global smartphones at the time of writing include the iPhone 6S/6S Plus, 6/6 Plus, 5S, Samsung Galaxy S series and Motorola Droid. One older phone gotcha: Verizon iPhone 4 (not 4S) is CDMA-only and will not work in Europe.

The net: if you’re on Verizon or Sprint and you have iPhone 4S or later, you can use your phone in Europe and get 2G, 3G and even 4G LTE if you have an iPhone 5S or 6.

The cost of calling internationally

AT&T charges $1.00/minute for voice calls while roaming with its most expensive international roaming package, and $1.29 without any plan at all. If you buy up to the larger international plans, the cost per minute drops to $0.50 or $0.25/minute. T-Mobile is the stand-out leader in International Roaming, however, with its $0.20/minute charges and you can roam on all the same networks as AT&T when overseas.

Verizon charges $1.79/minute for calls unless you explicitly buy an international bundle for $40 that includes 100 minutes and 100 texts. Usage beyond that is charged at $0.25/minute and $0.25/text (incoming texts are free). Its international plans page is here.

Sprint copied T-Mobile in April 2015 and now offers $0.20/minute calling and unlimited texting when abroad.

Using data and mobile apps internationally

With many more people owning smartphones and using apps, having access to lots of data is increasingly important when traveling. With modern smartphones supporting 3G and 4G LTE data internationally, the issue these days is less likely to be the speed and is more likely to be the limits of your international data plan.

Once again, T-Mobile is the stand-out leader here offering unlimited 256Kb/sec data internationally for free. Now 256Kb/sec (0.256 MB/sec) is not very fast — just about good enough for basic web browsing, but certainly nothing like your typical app expects. So T-Mobile also offers high speed data plans for additional cost, without a bandwidth throttle. Sprint has copied this approach, and does the same thing.

AT&T revamped its international mobile bundles in October 2015 to make them more competitive with T-Mobile and Sprint. All plans feature unlimited texting and unlimited Wifi roaming with AT&T partners in Europe. The following prices are all for 30 days:

Passport: $30 for 120MB of data, $0.25/MB over that, and $1.00/min for voice

Passport plus: $60 for 300MB of data, $0.20/MB over that, and $0.50/min for voice

Passport pro: $120 for 800MB, $0.15/MB over that, and $0.25/min for voice

If you run out of data inside the 30 days, you have to buy another package all over again to get more data — and it replaces the current package. You can’t add two packages together and pool the voice minutes, for example.

Cutting the cost of calling with pre-paid

Call charges on a European pre-paid GSM phone can be up to 80% less than rental phones or roaming charges on your own account, and incoming calls are free. Think $0.10/min instead of $1.29/min. You visit any phone store, buy a pre-paid phone and pre-paid minutes of talk time. There are disadvantages: you can’t use your own cell phone number any more, and you will need enough local language proficiency to buy “recharge” or “Top up” cards and activate them using a telephone menu. Also, due to billing limitations, many pre-paid GSM phones will only work in the country where you purchased them. But if you are willing to put up with the extra complexity, this approach can save you a lot of money.

Clearly, a drawback of this kind of pre-paid is that you need to buy a phone you may never use again, unless you travel to Europe often. So why can’t you use your own GSM world phone for pre-paid service?

Pre-paid using your own GSM world phone

In the GSM system, your phone number and other identifying information are stored on a little chip: the Subscriber Identity Module (SIM). It’s a fingernail-sized smart card that slides into the back of your GSM phone under the battery (on most models), or the side or the top (iPhones). When you buy a European pre-paid GSM phone, it contains a “pre-paid SIM” issued by the carrier.

But if you own a US GSM phone, you typically can’t just take out the SIM from your US carrier, buy a pre-paid SIM from a mobile phone store and put it in your own phone. Why? Because your cell phone carrier won’t let you, and they have “network locked” your phone to stop you doing this.

Many people buy GSM phones from their wireless carrier, since they offer a steep discount from the actual price of the phone, in return for committing to a 2-year contract. A 64GB Apple iPhone 6 costs $299 with a 2-year contract on AT&T, and $799 without one. AT&T wants you to use the SIM that they issued to ensure they capture all your usage during the contract, in return for the discounted phone. Also, international roaming offers great profit margin compared to domestic “minute bundles”: AT&T charges up to $1.29/minute for a call that costs $0.10/minute (or less) on a pre-paid SIM on exactly the same network.

How to beat network locked GSM phones

The good news is that beating locked cell phones has gotten a lot easier in the last year. Here are your options:

  1. Buy an unlocked phone directly from the manufacturer or T-Mobile
  2. Buy a semi-unlocked phone from Verizon or Sprint
  3. Get your phone unlocked

1. Buy an unlocked GSM phone from the manufacturer

All the major manufacturers now sell their phones on Amazon.com and other online retailers, and also directly from their own web sites. You’ll pay the full price up front for the phone, but it’ll work out cheaper than buying it over time from the carrier over time.

With the launch of the iPhone 6S, Apple took this one step further by offering a new installment plan where you pay the price of the phone over time but can upgrade every time a new iPhone comes out (typically every 12 months). The plan also includes AppleCare extended warranty and support. If you do the math, you’ll see it costs more over 2 years vs. just buying the phone outright, but you also get AppleCare and the ability to upgrade.

T-Mobile only offers full price “pay up front” pricing, and the phone is completely unlocked, so if you buy one from T-Mobile it’s just like buying from the manufacturer.

2. Buy a semi-unlocked phone from Verizon or Sprint

Verizon and Sprint don’t use the GSM system on their domestic networks but all modern smartphones are designed to work anywhere, offering both CDMA and GSM capabilities in a single hardware design. That simplifies manufacturing (fewer models to make), but it also means Verizon phones can also work on GSM frequencies “for free” off the phones that also work on their CDMA networks. So they’ve come up with phones that are semi-unlocked: they will work just like an unlocked phone with any international SIM card, but won’t work with a US SIM card (e.g. one from AT&T).

The net: you can slide out the Verizon SIM card and put in a European SIM card on an iPhone 6/6S and it’ll work just fine.

3. Get your phone unlocked

All network-locked phones can be unlocked, because locking is implemented in software.

Help is at hand for AT&T iPhone owners: AT&T will also unlock your iPhone, and AT&T says it will do this for phones that are off-contract (i.e., when you have completed the minimum 2-year term). On AT&T’s web forums, there are reports from those who are simply longtime AT&T customers having their phones unlocked before the end of the minimum term. In short, it’s worth a try. Here’s the link to the AT&T iPhone unlock request page.

You can also use an unofficial unlocking service, either at a store or on the Internet. Some unlocking services also provide after-sales service: if Apple releases an iPhone software update that invalidates their unlocking, they will unlock the new software for you at no extra charge.

There are hundreds (possibly thousands) of web sites offering phone unlocking services and equipment, and independent mobile phone stores in Europe will also do it for a small fee. Typical costs range from free to $25.

 

 

An important footnote on SIM cards: iPhone 4, 4S and iPads up until iPad 3 use “Micro SIMs” that are smaller than a regular SIM. Most SIM cards now come in a dual package — a standard-sized SIM that can be turned into a Micro-SIM by breaking off the plastic surrounding the metal contacts. The iPhone 5, 5C, 5S, 6, 6S, iPad Mini and iPad 4 and iPad Air use a new, even smaller and thinner SIM card called a “Nano SIM”. If you’re buying a pre-paid SIM card at a store, have them install it for you right then and there. Not only do they have the right tool to get the SIM card out of your device, but you can also be sure they gave you the right sized SIM card, and that it works.

Apple iPads are unlocked by default

All Apple iPads are not network locked. Wireless iPad versions come with a SIM for use in the US, and to use elsewhere you will need to buy a micro or nano SIM from a local wireless carrier. Don’t lose it (they’re tiny) as you’ll need it when you get back to the US. Get the local mobile phone store to install the SIM for you because sometimes they get the SIM size incorrect, selling you a Micro SIM when you need a Nano SIM.

Verizon 3G iPad 2 is CDMA-only and does not work in Europe, any iPad later than that works in Europe with the appropriate SIM card.

Skype and other voice over the Internet options

With smartphones becoming more powerful and now offering apps like Skype and Google Voice, it’s possible to get free calling if you are in a reasonably good WiFi hotspot (such as your hotel). Call quality depends on the WiFi network performance and Internet connection congestion at your location. If it’s busy and everyone is Skyping, you’ll get poor quality. But when it works, it’s a great alternative and can offer better voice quality than a regular call.

Handy tips for a phone-stress-free European trip

  • When buying a GSM phone to use in Europe, make sure it’s a “world phone” or to keep it really simple: just get an Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy.
  • Before you leave, call your carrier or log in to the website and turn on international voice and data roaming. It’s turned off by default. Even if you bought a world-phone when you signed up for service, and/or told the nice sales or activation person that’s why you went with them. It is turned off by default as an anti-fraud measure.
  • Sometimes, you cannot call US 800/888/877/866 numbers from foreign phone networks. So find out the non-800 number for your cell phone carrier’s customer support before you leave. That goes for any other 800 numbers you may need to call when overseas (e.g. your credit card company).
  • Calling 611 or any other “short code” (in industry lingo) may also not work, so don’t rely on it. Find out the international number for customer service.
  • To call internationally when outside the US, you need to know the country code of the place you’re dialing. The US country code is 1 — pretty simple. France is 33, Italy is 39, the UK is 44… there’s a whole list.
  • To call internationally from a mobile phone, enter a plus sign (+), followed by the country code, followed by the number. For example, to call 415 555 1212 from Europe, you’d dial +1 415 555 1212 on your phone. Finding the plus sign on the keypad of your phone can be hard… keep looking, it is there somewhere! You might need to hold a key down to get the plus sign. If that doesn’t work, try using 00 instead — this is the International standard code for international calling, and works on both mobile and landline phones across Europe. In my example, you’d dial 001-415-555-1212.
  • When calling from a non-mobile phone (e.g. a payphone or hotel phone) remember that the international access code in Europe is 00, not 011. For example, to call 415 555 1212 from a payphone in Europe, dial 00 1 415 555 1212. This convention also works on mobile phones.
  • When making an international call to any European phone number that begins with a zero, omit the zero — unless you are calling Italy. For example, to call the UK number 01606 54321 from France, you’d dial +44 1606 54321. + is the international prefix, 44 is the country code, then the number with the leading zero omitted. Italy is the lone exception — if you need to call there don’t drop the leading zero.
  • Enjoy your trip, and don’t forget to call home!

What about e-mail, data etc?

See part 2 of this article series, which covers mobile data services.

Links

The GSM Association:A trade association that also maintains world-wide GSM coverage maps showing all carriers and frequencies used.

 

Millions of people rent cars every year, but if you’re not familiar with renting in Europe there are a few things that will smooth the path of your vacation.

Tip One: Car rental might not be necessary

In many European capitals and major cities, it is often advantageous not to have a car – parking is difficult to find and expensive, and moving around by car can be slower than public transport at busy times. Unlike the US, many hotels do not have their own parking. So when in Rome, Paris, London, Florence etc. don’t rent a car if you intend to just sightsee in the city itself. If you need to get out to visit another town or city, consider taking the train or even a bus. Services in Europe can be fast, frequent and reasonably priced.

When it comes to a larger geographical area like Tuscany or the Dordogne, then you are going to need transport to get about, and a car is the most efficient way to do so. I say this as someone who really likes to take good public transport, and often takes not-so-good public transport. It is possible to get around by bus in areas like Tuscany, but boy is it a logistical challenge and fundamentally you will get to spend far less time enjoying the area. When you have limited time to vacation, spending it on a bus is false economy. Buy carbon offset to cover the CO2 emissions of the car (and your plane ride, while you are at it) if you feel bad about that aspect.

Tip Two: Two smaller cars may be better than one giant car

Resist the urge to rent a large car or van, even if it is appealing because you have a large family or group on the trip. Get a couple of smaller cars instead. Larger cars are rarer in Europe because running them is more expensive, and also European towns and cities were not designed for cars at all. As well as being expensive to fuel, large cars are hard to maneuver in narrow streets designed for nothing wider than a horse and cart.

On one trip, we were staying a few nights in Florence and then heading out to Villa Vignamaggio. We were to stay at Hotel Brunelleschi, squeezed into the centre of the ancient city of Florence. The area is so old, the hotel is built around a Byzantine tower with Roman remains in the basement – it even has its own museum. The streets leading to it are really, really narrow: even the taxi driver had a hard time getting his small Fiat around the final bend. Some kindly Italians stopped to guide him back-and-forth as he edged the car around the corner. With even a small SUV or Minivan you’d be wedged between two buildings several turns back.

Florence cathedral from the Brunelleschi roof terrace

Incidentally, we’ll probably never stay at the Brunelleschi again. Not because it was bad – quite the reverse: it is a truly historic hotel with charm, good rooms, friendly staff and a fantastic location. Dan Brown is to blame: it’s where his characters Langdon and Sophie agree to rendezvous at the end of The Da Vinci Code for a night of passion. I could be wrong about the last bit, but it doesn’t seem like they’re planning to discuss iconography. At any rate, ever since then prices have gone up, up, up and you practically have to be Dan Brown to get in.

Tip three: Use your credit card rental car insurance to save money

Many credit cards offer extensions to basic rental car insurance to cover accidental damage and/or theft – far more cheaply than the rental car company. You are already paying for this in your annual card fee and/or interest, so make use of it. Check the website of your card supplier to find out what they offer, and read all the small print so you know what is covered, and what isn’t. We recently discovered that Amex no longer insures larger cars and SUVs, for example.

We’ve been unfortunate enough to claim on American Express insurance a couple of times. Our rental car was vandalized in Toulouse, France — not badly, but bad enough for a hefty charge from the rental company. After sending in the paper work Amex did their investigation and paid up some months later. Insurance is getting simpler in places like Italy where there are a lot of claims – all rental car companies now mandate you buy comprehensive cover.

The insurance cover you probably don’t need is for personal possessions. Most people’s belongings are covered by their household insurance policy, but there are exceptions for expensive stuff like cameras and lenses and jewelry. Read your policy to see what is covered and don’t buy coverage twice. In general, the best policy is to take anything remotely valuable out of the car as any kind of car trouble tends to ruin your day.