Traveling With A Kid? Rent Apartments, Not Hotel Rooms

DINARD, France — It took me four tries and 15 minutes to log onto the Wifi in our stately, spacious apartment in this Brittany beach resort.  But then, the code to get in had 38 characters.

It took something of a scavenger hunt to even get into the place.  First we were directed to a lockbox outside a locked Home Services agency on a street barely a car wide. Kathy  found a pull-off a block away. After calling agent Julie, I found the lock box was — well — locked.  My code to get in didn’t work.

‘J’arrive,” said Julie on my second telephone call, rattling off more in French at a speed that eluded me.  By the time she did, 10 minutes later and after I’d bolted into a nearby hotel in search of une toillete, I’d extracted the key.  Or at least a key. Luckily I showed it to her: It was for the wrong apartment.  She muttered under her breath and raced into the agency for the right one.

Staying in other people’s apartments can be complicated, especially, as is often the case with rentals for online agencies like HomeAway and VRBO, the owners aren’t anywhere nearby.

In Chamonix, where our gracious hostess did live upstairs, our GPS took us up a private road to her lovely home in the shadow of the beautiful Aiguille du Midi. Fantastic, but what, I wondered if we hadn’t had that GPS?  In Annecy, we arrived in the midst of the town’s biggest summer festival, found the garage three minutes from our apartment full, circled back a few minutes later (there was no parking anywhere else) and nabbed a space.  Then we rolled our bags down an incredibly steep hill and found the door next to along line of people waiting to buy ice cream.  And now this.

Yet even with such petite crises, Kathy and I wouldn’t trade our wonderful apartments on this vacation for any hotel.  At least not one we could afford.

In Paris, for for the price of a three-star hotel  room, we stayed in a small, well-equipped one-bedroom on a pedestrian street that faced a courtyard.  It was a block from one of the liveliest squares in Paris, the Latin Quarter’s Place de la Contrescarpe, filled nightly with street musicians playing all genres.  A bottle of wine awaited us.

In Chamonix, our apartment beneath the home of our gracious yet discreet landlady, Marie-The, had two bedrooms, cowbells and other accoutrements of the alps, a fully equipped kitchen for cooking and a patio on which we breathed fresh mountain air and looked up at the alps.

Our urban pad in Annecy spilled onto the city’s busiest pedestrian street, a block from the canal and old jail. And yet its ancient walls — it backed up to a 15th century chateau — were so thick that we heard little noise at night, even during the biggest festival of the summer, La Fete du Lac.  In the back we had a two-tier terrace. On the first, where we ate breakfast daily, we listened to the sound of running water (the neighbor had a koi pond) and enjoyed our landlord’s plantings. On the upper terrace, we watched the sun set over the city to the west and, on our last day, a 70-minute fireworks display that ended the festival.  What hotel room offers accoutrements like this?

Yet it is our final apartment here in Dinard, in its somewhat faded but still sumptuous elegance, that has been the best. Mirrors, marble fireplace, a picture window with a sweeping view of Dinard and the ocean, the sound of sea gulls in the morning, the panoramic sunset, the sound of laughter below.  And space galore for our grand-daughter Devon, 11 going on 16, our inspiration and traveling companion who, as good as she is, really needs some getaway time and space as a pre-teen.

More than anything else, it is the need of downtime space, for kids and their parents (or in our case grandparents), that argues against squeezing four people into generally undersized hotel rooms in France and other European countries.  We have some grounds for comparison. Three times, during one night stays on this trip, we have taken hotel rooms. Two were really nice, their price comparable to the cost of our apartments (for us about 150 euros a day, all included).  In reality, however, the hotels cost  more because apartments come with at least refrigerators, a place to put food for breakfast and lunch and snacks, even if you have no interest in cooking at home.

Be forewarned, however. Apartment hunting and hopping takes care and plenty of planning.  No question: Picking apartments through HomeAway or VRBO or Airbnb can bring its share of adventures, not all of them pleasant.  Act impulsively and your actions can be as treacherous as driving through the streets of Paris.  I confess that over the years we’ve picked one or two clunkers in our many trips to France.  But on this three-week vacation, we have picked four winners.

Here are some tips to minimize your chances of making a bad choice:

  • Start early.  In this Internet age, the best apartments book months in advance. We booked in late fall and early winter for July and August. It’s possible to cancel with a full refund until a month or two before your booking date.
  • Read the reviews. What did people like? And what do they warn about?  Noisy? Leaky shower? Look elsewhere.  How many reviews are posted? When were the most recent? What’s the average score? The average reviews in the places in which we’ve stayed ranged between 4.5/5 and 4.8/5.  The Paris apartment had nearly 200 reviews and a rating of 4.8.  This one in Dinard had but six reviews, averaging 4.5.  So I was a bit cautious. It is idiosyncratic (note the Wifi and scavenger hunt). The photos, however, closed the deal. And they were true to the view and apartment.
  • Look closely at the photos posted on the site. These can show you what’s special and what’s strange, how the space is laid out, what the facilities are for cooking (these vary widely).
  • Stay in one place at least three days. As noted, getting into an apartment can be an adventure. It’s not worth renting for a night, not even two. I recommend spending three or four days at each location, the first to settle in and see what’s around you, then two or three to explore the special places around.
  • Pay attention to square footage.  As expected, the bedroom of our Paris apartment barely held a bed. Kathy and I used the excellent pullout in the main living area so Devon could have some privacy. But at under 300 square feet, this place could barely accommodate three of us. Our apartment here in Dinard is at least twice as large, positively spacious.
  • Check where the apartment is on the map One drawback of apartment rentals is most sites won’t give you the exact address until about a month before your arrival. You can, however, get an idea of the neighborhood.  Look closely on Google maps to determine what’s around. How busy is the neighborhood? Is there a brasserie, a boulangerie, an ice cream place nearby?  If you’re in a city, where is the closest subway and park? We are walkers and active sightseers. We hate staying in the suburbs but do like quiet. Searching maps can make this possible.
  • Notice what floor you are on.  Five years ago Kathy and I rented a four-story walk-up flat in Paris. No elevator. This is not unusual. Given that we are now 70, I doubt we today could have this apartment, which was quite charming and smack in the center of the tony Marais.  In France, the premier etage(first floor) is actually the second floor because the ground floor is the rez de chaussee.
  • Pay attention to parking. It will likely be your biggest headache.  We avoid parking on the street because we’d rather pay an extra $10 to $15 a night to coming back to a dinged car. Some apartments, of course, include parking.  Determine whether you’ll have free parking and, if not, where the nearest pay garage is.
  • Pay close heed to pictures of the kitchen area.  How well  apartments are equipped for cooking varies widely. Some offer little more than a burner or two, a microwave, a small fridge and a single set of plates, cups and silverware for four.  Others have ovens, four burners, cooking utensils, spices and more.  We had no intention of cooking in Paris or Annecy so the relatively spare kitchens didn’t matter much.  Kathy did cook in Chamonix and has here in Dinard so we’ve relished the range of cooking utensils available.
  • Watch for hidden costs. Though apartment rentals are a good deal, they aren’t as good a deal as they make themselves out to appear.  Taxes, service fees (money paid to the rental site), and cleaning fees can push up the actual rental cost 20 percent or more. That beautiful apartment for 95 euros a night likely is closer to 120 a night.  Next time around, we’ll comparison shop prices on HomeAway, VRBO and Airbnb.  We’ve always used the first two. But I’ve recently heard that with the merger of HomeAway and VRBO, prices for the same apartment now are sometimes less expensive on Airbnb.

I’ll be calling Julie again today to figure out how to return the key.  No lock boxes, I hope. Then there’s the matter of our car. On our arrival, we found a space in a garage six or seven blocks away. But when we tried to take it out yesterday, the gate wouldn’t raise after we paid. Soon, a small cluster of French tourists gathered around, called the remote management company  for us and solved our problem. I speak moderately good French. But in a crises, it helped to have native speakers assist us.

Hotel desk clerks, of course, usually speak some English. The person responsible for that leaking shower or broken air conditioner is in the same building.  If you like to move fast and avoid any friction, by all means take the safe course. We’ve found that the two best French chains are Logis de France (charming with small rooms) and Mercure  (a bit fancier and more standard).

We, however, won’t abandon our apartment experiences because of the occasional headaches they cause.  In the slow lane, they’re all just part of the adventure.


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