Friday, 22 January 2016

Savvy self-catering

A shared pool in Gozo
Self-catering is the only way, in my humble opinion, to holiday with a family.  It's cheaper, it offers more freedom and the whole family can relax in the knowledge that they are in control of the holiday, tailoring your holiday to the family's specific tastes and save money in the process.  The internet makes the search for the perfect holiday so easy and, between them, websites such as Tripadvisor, Homeaway, Airbnb and Owners Direct have thousands of homes waiting for some temporary tenants.

Complete with our own frogs in Memphis, Tennessee
However, with so many search engines and brochures offering self-catering accommodation, choosing the right property can be time-consuming and ploughing through all the choices can sometimes be overwhelming.  So, how to pick with a wise eye?  As a family, we always self-cater, occasionally interspersing the holiday with a night in a hotel here and there, so I have plenty of experience in the ways of choosing a decent holiday rental.  Dotted throughout this week's blog are photos of properties we've had the pleasure of staying in - houses we could never afford to actually buy in places we've always wanted to live!

A historic shotgun house in New Orleans, Louisiana

So, here are my tips for picking wisely...

Be flexible.  Be willing to hire a place away from the hustle and bustle of the hubbub.  Sometimes, travelling a little down the road from the nearest town can reap rewards, offering a place with more garden space and perhaps a pool for less cost.  Also, don't rule out apartments instead of villas or cottages.  A funky penthouse apartment might offer stunning panoramas from the rooftop garden or a townhouse might put you directly in the action of the city.  Obviously, the exact location of your home-from-home will depend on whether you wish to hire a car or not. 

Original slave quarters in 'The Deep South'
As mentioned in my previous blogs, it's worth looking for flights to random places.  Not only are off-the-beaten track airports cheaper to fly to but these regions also usually offer more reasonably-priced accommodation, with less demand from holiday-makers.

Danish delight
Also, if you're a complete control freak like me, another way to guarantee the perfect holiday rental is to google map the address of the accommodation.  From looking at a bird's eye view of the address you can see what's in the immediate vicinity.  Yes, the photos of the house look stunning but has the owner captured the essence of the landfill site next door?  This extra (okay, slightly obsessive) veneer of research does ensure that you know exactly what you're getting when you land in foreign climes.  This method can also help with transport questions - is there a bus stop nearby or is the rental in the middle of nowhere?

Search engines such as tripadvisor are invaluable for the discerning independent traveller.  The search criteria for your rental property can be honed and tweaked until you have selected your preferred combination of preferences.  Need a pool?  Need wifi?  Need a dishwasher?  You can funnel your choices until your perfect composite is realised.

Swimming pools are essential for a fun family holiday and, with a bit of canny research, you can pinpoint your accommodation search to include pools.  Don't always be so quick to plump for a private pool though.  A shared pool in a complex can be just as fun and will ensure that there are other children to entertain your bundles of joy.  Our holiday in Italy last summer was a truly restful week, made perfect when we realised that the holidaying family next door had 'matching' kids.  We took it in turns to watch the children swim whilst we sunbathed, unbothered, for hours, dozing away whole afternoons and reading some truly trashy novels.  Bliss!

Italy, complete with trampoline
Before packing, do check what's included in the price.  Very often, self-catered options provide towels, bed linen and toiletries, saving you space to fit another sundress in your luggage.  Also, do check that utilities are included in the total price.  You don't want to arrive in Madrid in the middle of August and have to pay extra for an air-conditioning unit.  And, more often than not, the kitchen is usually complemented with basics such as dishwasher tablets and condiments.  Many places now offer a 'welcome pack' as standard which normally includes bread, milk, juice and a bottle of the local alcoholic tipple. 

A tip that might, in the first instance, seem penny-pinching can save you a fortune on your holiday costs.  My advice is to find a property rental with a washing-machine.  With this facility at your disposal, you don't need to pack as many clothes.  Not having to pack as much means that you can travel with a small cabin case instead of hold luggage; this simple measure can save each traveller in the region of £50 on luggage fees with carriers such as Ryanair and EasyJet.  Even British Airways European flights now charge for hold luggage so it's advice worth thinking about.

Home made doughnuts from our neighbour in Croatia
Staying in a hot country means that your washing will dry instantly on the line so it's really no hardship to do some clothes washing a couple of times during your fortnight away.  Besides, a couple of loads of washing done on holiday means that you're saved the arduous domestic chores upon your return to the UK. 

If you do pick a place with a washing machine, a further tip is to take some washing tablets/sachets with you in your luggage.  You'll only use a few and it seem pointless to have to buy a big tub of Persil whilst on holiday.  Equally, I always take a few dishwasher tablets with me in my cabin suitcase to avoid the unnecessary cost of a bumper pack.

If TV is important to you, make sure that the accommodation has channels which will satiate your need for entertainment.  Personally, I love the fact that the kids have to watch and listen to TV from around the world.  One of my favourite memories from holidays last year is us all settling down to watch 'Bonanza' in Croatian every evening at 6 o'clock while dinner was being prepared and don't get me started on how excited I was when the 1980's Australian series of 'The Flying Doctors' was found on a channel during our Danish foray!  We've also shared in the televisual treat of the King of Norway's 70th birthday celebrations in 2007 - a five hour 'Big Brother' style coverage that will stay, indelibly, imprinted on our memory; what I can't tell you about the monarchy of Norway ain't worth knowing!

Our own beach in Maine, USA
Once you've entered your search criteria, you'll be presented with plenty of places to choose from.  At this point of your search, it's well worth 'sorting' the results by 'number of reviews'.  Anyone can put some fancy photos of their new bathroom on the internet but not everyone can find 100 friends who'll give them a positive review of their property!  Read reviews carefully.  Look for signs of the hosts being genuine and upstanding people.  I always like to see the hosts mentioned by their name in the ratings; I think it shows a genuine approachability and friendliness of the property's owner/manager.   Also, reviews help hugely by giving advice on the locality: bus route advice, local restaurants and even nearby playgrounds.  The independent travelling community is expansive and people will go out of their way to help and advise.  Even complete strangers will answer your queries - I once emailed a woman (through tripadvisor) to ask what her weather had been like in the time of year she'd visited Cape Town.  Her advice beat that of the travel agents hands-down and, seeing (from her profile photo) that she had similarly aged children to me, I was able to ask pertinent questions and she was more than happy to help me out. 
Our cute cottage on the shores of Lake Ontario
And, once you've enjoyed your holiday, don't forget to leave a review of the property yourself.  If you can help fellow mums and dads have a restful (and easy-on-the-wallet) break, then why not spend a few minutes penning a summary of your stay? 

Iceland apartment

If you're a little wary of 'going it alone' and favour the security blanket of a tour operator, perhaps search for a house whereby the owner lives upstairs or just across the way.  Eager-to-please hosts will help you with travel plans and local information.  Increasingly, in the competitive world of the holiday rental, householders will even pick you up from the airport free of charge.  We're off to Athens at Easter and 'Con' is going to meet us at the airport and even said he'll drop by the supermarket on the way back to his apartment so that we can get provisions for the week.  Indeed, if you pick your property wisely, you'll possibly end up making new international friends. 

For further 'security', look for British owners.  If you're worried or tentative about trying out your Croatian, stick to UK managers so that you can factor out the language barrier.  Having said this, I've never had any problems with my pidgin English and part of the fun, in my eyes, is learning snippets of conversation in a new tongue.  Another bonus of having British landlords is that expectations and standards will be similar.  You know what you're getting and this can be reassuring for some who like their creature comforts and shy away from cultural variation.

Don't leave anything to chance when renting privately.  Ensure that you have contact numbers, full names of the people you're dealing with and addresses of the property in which you're staying before you leave the UK.  Know when and where you're meeting the owner/manager and never be afraid to ask stupid questions.  At the end of the day, you're paying for a service and you expect value for money.

Photographs are a sure-fire way to ensure that you pick a place that suits you.  For a week, you can live in your ideal or dream house.  For me, a week in a cluttered house with trinkets and fanciful decoration would drive me wild so I always seek out the sleek minimalistic style which I crave at home.  Sounds silly I know but I always look at photos of the bed linen to ensure that I share similar tastes with the owners - I have been known to rule out a house due to its orange duvet cover and saggy-looking pillow!
Cheers to our Canadian rental
Another aspect that I always look out for when picking properties is photos of children in the owners' profiles, particularly those who look the same age as my own.  If you know that the landlord has children of their own, you know that they'll be understanding of the noise and chaos that will no doubt ensue.  Also, ready-made playmates are not to be sniffed at.  As you sit with the owners, sharing a few bottles of local wine under the shade of the majestic cypress trees, whilst the children race around your new friends' garden, you'll be pleased that you chose the property based purely on its family shot! 

The view from our bedroom window in Italy
Holiday off-season.  Sometimes, holidaying in the winter months can bring massive bargains.  The weather might not be so hot but the property will be and you'll see the sights without the hordes. 

Another tip for timing holidays well is looking at when your country of choice has their summer holidays.  Scandinavian countries, well known for their expensive accommodation costs, finish the school summer break in the middle of August, leaving the last fortnight of the UK hols to be cheaper.  We stayed in a wonderful chalet right on the beach last summer for a fraction of the cost (£50 a night) it would have been in the summer.  Complete with canoe, bikes and barbecue, it had every facility imaginable for the perfect family break.  After-dinner strolls along our own stretch of Nordic coast made the cost of having our own Danish bolthole negligible. 

A gated community in Gozo
Obviously, never pay the full amount of the rent up front.  A reasonable deposit will be required but ensure that you have contact details for the owner and exchange a few emails before committing yourself.  Do they answer your emails promptly?  Is the tone of their emails appropriate?  Are they helpful (and patient) with inane questions?  Do you get a good 'feel' for them?  Search engines such as tripadvisor allow you to pay by credit card for your accommodation which is good as you'll be covered should anything go wrong.  Try to avoid owners who insist on bank transfers.  It's time-consuming to get to the bank and expensive to transfer other currencies from your UK bank account.  What appears to be the cheapest deal can sometimes rocket in price once you add bank fees.

Perfecting his backhand in Paris
Other ideas
An even cheaper method of self-catering is to swap houses with friends or trusted acquaintances.  With so many of us living our lives through Facebook, your friends' (and their friends') houses are at your disposal.  Why not offer your house out for a week in the summer in exchange for accommodation elsewhere.  You'd be surprised at how many takers you have of your offer.  Why not target friends you know who live by the coast or a friend who lives in a cool city?

Chantilly cottage
There you have it.  Advice built up over a fair few holidays.  Having your own pad abroad really does add a dimension to the family holiday.  

Oh, and if you fancy a week at mine, do get in touch...

No comments:

Post a Comment