Ciao, tutti! (Sorry, my lame attempt at getting back into the Italian swing of things.) Speaking of our upcoming trip, this week has been a great lesson in budget traveling for FFF. While we’d like to think of ourselves as seasoned travel pros (especially when it comes to Florence), we stomached a bitter humble pie as we realized we might have paid a deposit for a possibly imaginary apartment.
When traveling to Italy on a budget, renting an apartment instead of a hotel room is our preferred way to stay. You can make yourself at home, there’s a kitchen for preparing your own meals, and, if in the city, you’ll enjoy the surroundings of a real Italian neighborhood. Plus, many two-bedroom apartments can cost less than a single hotel room per night, making it highly affordable for group travel. While you’ll miss the maid, concierge, and breakfast service of the Four Seasons, a good rental agency or landlord will act on your behalf to book museum tickets in advance and give you tips for navigating town.
Note the good part, which is the crux of our concern. Because so many travelers find this budget-stay option preferable, the rental market is filled with fraudulent landlords who want nothing more than to swallow up your deposit. They might go so far as to have you show up in Italy on their doorstep, only to send a different agent to tell you the apartment you were promised is actually not available; instead, you’ll be squeezed into another underwhelming option. When you’re picturing Duomo views and end up in a dirty, 5th-floor walkup, your dream vacation feels more like a nightmare.
We’re lucky that we started to notice signs before arriving that we might’ve mistakenly entered into a trap. Our landlord was unresponsive for over a month, had no direct phone number listed on his website, and kept asking that everything be paid in cash. It all came to a head this week, when we had to cancel our reservation and use the bank to get our deposit money back. On top of that, we were scrambling to book another place to stay (difficult to do on short notice during the height of tourist season). To sum up our feelings over the past few days? BLURGH.
So with the caveat that every situation is different and we can only speak from our limited experience, here are the 10 tips we think everyone should know before booking a vacation rental in Italy:
1. Start your search on trusted websites. Flipkey.com wins high praise from us; when it came down to the wire, we were able to find an excellent solution to our apartment woes using this site. It’s TripAdvisor’s rental arm, so it’s jam-packed with reviews from fellow travelers that can help guide you in the right direction. Plus, if you pay through the site, they will guarantee your payment up to $10,000! So basically, it’s the stuff dreams are made of. Other excellent sites to check are airbnb.com, slowtrav.com and VRBO.com.
2. Cross-check your findings. It never hurts to be too safe. If you find a great listing one place, be sure to check for landlord reviews on multiple other sites. For example, our sneaky landlord was listed on Flipkey, but once we started searching other sites, it became clear that he not only had a history of poor reviews, but he had a history of yelling at customers via comment replies! Moral of the story: don’t stop at the first site. We now cross-check everything on slowtrav.
3. Scour the landlord/agency’s site. Many renters are individual owners who don’t have the resources to produce a state-of-the-art website. But any good landlord will list full contact information, allowing you to get ahold of them easily. Make sure there is a direct phone number listed and not just a contact form or a Skype name. Also, search the site map for an FAQ section that clearly outlines the payment process. Is there a sample contract posted? We’re on a roll! The more information you can find without having to ask for it, the better off your experience will be.
4. Ask for a detailed quote. In Italy, any visiting person can expect to pay a 2-euro “tassa di soggiorno,” or stay tax, for each night in the country. If you do not see this tax listed on your quote, ask where it is. The tax is an easy way to tell if the landlord is illegally booking you for your stay; any legitimate booking will include this tax. Also, now’s your chance to see if utilities and cleaning fees are included in your total; if they aren’t, ask to make sure those won’t be extra charges you’ll be slapped with at the end of your stay.
5. Pay your deposit by credit card. When you’re ready to book, you can expect to pay around 30% of your final bill as a deposit. Never, however, send a money-wire; instead, book through PayPal, Flipkey, or another payment option that lets you use a credit card. This past week, PayPal has been a great help in recording our complaints and retrieving our deposit. While we hope it never will happen to you, it’s always best to have help to turn to when needed.
1. Agree to only pay in cash. If cash is your only payment option, that’s a red flag you’re headed down a dangerous path. Accredited agencies and landlords will allow for multiple payment types and will try to best accommodate your preferences. If you’d like to pay your balance in cash at check-in, that’s wonderful! But make sure you’d have the opportunity to pay otherwise as well.
2. Be scared when asked for personal information. In Italy, all tourists have to be registered with the local police department for the extent of their stay. Therefore, your landlord or agency might ask for the amount of people in your group along with names and ages. Upon arrival, expect to hand over copies of your passports or passport numbers so the landlord can complete the registration on your behalf. If you’re not asked for this information, it’s a clue that you’re stuck in an illegal situation, as your landlord doesn’t want the police to know he’s running a rental business.
3. Ignore the “too-good-to-be-true” feeling. If you can’t believe that you could get a palazzo flat with terrace views of the Bargello for such a cheap price (ahem), that’s another glaring red flag you’re headed in the wrong direction. Why would such an amazing place go for such a low price? We’re guessing the landlord is not an adorable Italian nonna who loves hosting visitors. Instead, listen to your gut and be extra suspicious. You don’t have to rule it out entirely, but make sure to cross-examine the landlord using the tips listed here. And if in the end you end up paying a few extra euros for a more modest apartment, never forget that while rent payments are never fun, peace of mind is priceless.
4. Feel like you’re annoying/demanding/difficult. The only person who will advocate for you is you! Ask questions and demand responses. The good landlords/agencies will be armed with information and paperwork to assuage your fears; chances are, they’ve handled the same concerns from other clients. But if your landlord is dismissive and ignores your requests, drop him like a hot potato. If he doesn’t have answers now, he most likely won’t have your promised apartment, either.
5. Worry. Finding housing in a different, and often unfamiliar, country can be nerve-racking, but if you follow the tips above, you’ll be able to quickly separate the winners from the leeches. And once you do commit to a quality landlord or agency, you should have a fistful of paperwork and a credit card statement to back up your claim. So in the unlikely case something does happen, you can be confident knowing you have the right documentation to plead your case.
…Those were some tough tips we learned first-hand this week. And yet we’re feeling much better heading into the weekend due in large part to our new best friends, apartmentsflorence.it. Their company tagline is “We take care of you,” and did they ever! In less than 24 hours, we had found their site through Flipkey, poured over their FAQs, read the fine print in their sample contract info, Skyped with the absolutely wonderful Christine, put two different properties on a 48-hour hold, and finally chose a winning spot. Also, we’re thinking Christine might be an angel (or at least nocturnal), because she answered questions at all hours of the day and night to make sure our process went as smoothly as possible. And it must be fate, not coincidence, that we’ve landed in a place that suits our needs better than the last and is only two blocks from a secret bakery. So lame landlord, be gone! We’ve moved onto bigger and better, and now we’ve got this blog post to show for it.
The countdown continues…three weeks!
*All photos are property listings from apartmentsflorence.it. They didn’t sponsor this post; we’re just really grateful for them!