I started planning the trip a little over a year before we were to leave. Considering the cost of airfare, it seemed that to only travel to Venice for a week wouldn’t be cost effective. Why not include another stop as well and make it a 2 week trip? But where to go? Of course the Big Three are Rome, Florence and Venice. But I started looking at other locations like Tuscany, the Amalfi Coast, Sicily, Salerno, and The Italian Riviera. Yes, I was all over the map until common sense, logistics and cost won out and it was decided that the Big Three would be the perfect trip. However, I really wasn’t too excited about Rome. It seemed so spread out, so busy, so much traffic, but I would concede to the idea ‘It would be silly to go to Italy and not see Rome.’ I had a feeling that Florence would be more my style but, the real interest for me was Venice.
I did a ton of research and planning on where to stay in each city as well as what type of place to book. Things are very different in Italy than they are here. I’m sure it is much the same in other parts of Europe too. Hotel rooms are very small, not at all what Americans are used to. Hotels refer to rooms as Matrimonial, more often than not, 2 twin beds pushed together, and Twin Rooms. I found most places were classified as Twin. That being said, the beds were pictured as being so close together that there was just enough room to walk in between. That’s really um, cozy? Did we want to spend 2 weeks like this? Since there ended up being 3 of us, we would really need to rent something like a Suite, or 2 rooms. For the price of these rooms it seemed very costly for a hotel room and a Suite was really expensive, but what else were we to do? Until I got it in my head to rent apartments. I had never done anything like this before when travelling so I didn’t have any idea how to go about it. Was it safe? How do you really know what you’re getting into? Where do I start? I asked some questions in Travel Forums on what people’s experience had been renting as well as about traveling alone as a woman (at one point I was going alone). I got extremely positive feedback on both subjects. I had bought Rick Steves’ Guidebooks for each city and in each, he mentioned some websites that were reputable for renting apartments, so that is where I began my months long project.
Oh my….the options were endless!! Searches were not bringing up hundreds of choices but sometimes, thousands. Good grief, where to start???? Over time I learned how to navigate my way through choices to tick off as to price range, what type of apartment, location, amenities, bedrooms, bathrooms – bath or shower, what floor was the apartment on? That too is different than at home. The ground floor is considered the first floor, making what we refer to the first floor, the second floor. Was there an elevator if there were several floors? More often than not there isn’t an elevator as these are ancient buildings, many of which are preserved for their original construction and adding an elevator, isn’t allowed. Still even narrowing my searches, each city turned up hundreds of choices on each website. It took several months and endless hours of web research to narrow it down to a few choices in each city. I had started in July of 2014 and took a break around Christmas, only to start up again after the Holidays, making the final decision in March of 2015. To do due diligence is not for the faint of heart! Although, I am very detail oriented so I did more than some people might do. I always cross checked as best as I could with Google searches. Trying to find as many references to each apartment trying to assure that it was legit. I mean how do you know? I’d heard horror stories of people getting to the location and there being no apartment, or it existed, but was a private residence with the owners knowing nothing of it being rented out! Now what? You’re in a foreign country, don’t speak the language, have spent 10-12 hours on a plane overnight, you’re tired, and have no place to stay, let alone know where to find a hotel. This could be extremely daunting if you didn’t check things out first.
I did searches on the apartment managers using Google and Facebook. Were these people really who they said they were? Once I found them, I would search even further on their Facebook page. For instance were these people who they say they are? Was there any information about them on their page? Did their page show them as a 20 something, and the photo on the apartment listing show them in their 40’s? Did the ‘about’ section of the apartment listing say they managed several apartments for a specific company and their Facebook page said they did something else? Did they have photos of themselves and/or family? Could I find their family members if I did a Google search on them? Could I find these family members on Facebook? Did the information on their Facebook page, match up with what the apartment manager had said on his/her page? If I went to one of their Friends pages, was that manager shown there as a Friend? What about pictures? Did this person show up in pictures? Was their a circular reference to everyone? Or did it end at the manager’s Facebook page leading me to believe they were ‘made up’ acquaintances. Yeah, I pretty much felt like a stalker with everything that I was doing!
I read all the current reviews by people, and a few older ones, but was much more interested in recent reviews. Were there any recent reviews or was the newest review 2 or 3 years old? If a review mentioned something negative, did others reference the same thing? Did reviews of the same apartment on a different website mention these negative things? If able to, I clicked on the reviewers names in hopes of it leading me to that reviewer and something about them. Had they done other reviews of other hotels and/or apartments? Where were they from? I looked more closely at people from the US to be honest as we have different expectations than Europeans do. Keeping that in mind, if someone complained about the double bed because it was really 2 twins pushed together, I didn’t take that as a negative since that is the way it is done in Italy. Complaints about the shower being small, again, that’s the norm, so that isn’t necessarily a negative point. If I was able to click on a person’s name and it actually showed any information, were they really a sister/brother of the Manager and simply posting as someone else? I read reviews on every website, comparing notes, comparing pictures of the apartments, locations, details etc. Yup, I found apartments listed on different sites and not all of the information was the same, or a photo of the bedroom looked nothing like the photo of the same bedroom, or any other bedroom, on the initial website. That bedroom that looked out over the Duomo in Florence on one website, looked at a brick wall on another. I used Google Maps and Street View. If I ‘walked’ down the street, could I find the apartment? Did it look like the picture on the listings website? What kind of area was it really in? Was it surrounded by parking lots, yet listed as on a beautiful side street? Did it say it was walking distance to the City Center, yet miles outside of the City Center? Did the listing show that the living room looked over a canal, and there was no canal near that building? Could I find the exact address? Of course, as I found out especially in Florence and Venice, street numbers do not go in order, and street names in Venice change sometimes from block to block. So again, it took time to really try and trace a route to the building I was looking for.
Once I verified to the best of my abilities with as many sources as I could, then I contacted each manager, asking specific questions about the apartments. Did they answer in a timely manner? There were some that never answered, some didn’t answer all of the questions I asked, and if I asked again, I got no response. Some were very vague in their answers. All of these were immediately taken off the list. I had tried to find property listings as far as ownership but never got anywhere with that. How were bookings handled? Was there a deposit? What were the cancellation policies? How was payment made? Could it be done by Credit Card or PayPal? If a wire transfer was required, that property was not considered. I felt like I’d done my homework and done the best that I could to feel comfortable in the rental choices.
In the end, the websites that I relied on were Home Away, their sister site, VBRO as well as Tripadvisor. I have been a member of Tripadvisor for years and rely on it for making specific choices on where to stay on every trip. I am happy to report that each apartment we rented, was exactly as shown on the website’s photos, matched the descriptions, were very clean, and we were met just as was pre-arranged. There was a bit of mild confusion in Florence, but that was mainly due to our not speaking the language. A phone call and all was resolved immediately. We didn’t find any hidden fees upon arrival, and since upfront payment of deposits were done using Pay Pal, they didn’t have any banking information to charge anything extra once we left. In fact, other than in Rome, we simply left the keys and locked the door behind us. All transactions were handled easily and efficiently.
It seems an apartment vs a hotel is the way to go. For less money, or very close to the same amount, you can get an entire multi-bedroom, furnished apartment, kitchen, washing machine, not to mention the privacy and being able to ‘live like a local’. True, no one comes in each day to clean your room or do your dishes and you give up the convenience of a Concierge, but in the end, finding things out on your own is part of the experience and part of the fun!
I think you’ll agree from the photos below, that the choices were good ones.
View from one of our terraces in Rome – The Piazza del Popolo
The view from our back terrace
Our apartment in Florence, we stayed in the Oltrarno
And finally Venice – we stayed in the Dorsoduro
I’d love to hear your feedback and any experiences or advice on renting in Florence, Venice or elsewhere in Italy.