Amazing apartment rentals -- and some budget options, too

By Maureen Jenkins, Special to CNNPublished 19th February 2013
Yes, room service is nice. A valet to tend to the rental car and a bellman who takes care of the bags are convenient, too.
But if you like the notion of returning "home" after a long day of sightseeing rather than just staring at the four walls of a hotel room, renting an apartment can be just the ticket. That's true whether you're visiting a city or town across the country or across the world.
Granted, a rental apartment isn't quite as carefree as a full-service hotel, but what you give up in service you're likely to more than make up in experience.
And the financial savings of renting a "flat" can be significant. Many elegant, wonderfully furnished apartments will cost you less per person, per night than even an average hotel room in world-class cities. You're likely to be able to afford a much nicer rental apartment than you can per night at a four-or five-star hotel. So why not trade up when you're on vacation?
Here are five things to keep in mind when renting tourist apartments on the road, whether you go through full-service agencies or do-it-yourself sites such as HomeAway:
How accessible and convenient is this place?
Probably the best reason for renting an apartment rather than a hotel room is that even if just for a few days, you get to experience life as residents do.
That not only means stopping in at the corner cafe and picking up fresh produce at the nearby market but being able to easily access public transportation or parking if you're renting a car. Find out if you can easily get to restaurants, pharmacies and recreation, whether you're in a city or a less urban area. Ask your rental agent or the apartment owner these key questions about your temporary 'hood before you sign the contract.
You're likely to save cash if you do at least a bit of your own cooking while on the road, and a flat with even a small refrigerator and stove-top burners expands your culinary options. But you want to make sure you can easily get to food shops, local markets or grocery stores.
This writer rented a cozy one-bedroom apartment in Buenos Aires from Reynolds Propriedades in the trendy Palermo district, largely because of its short walking distance to the Subte, or subway, several bus lines, restaurants and shops.
What will my living space be like?
One of the main benefits of booking a rental apartment rather than a hotel is the extra space you'll likely get. That's especially true in many expensive world-class cities -- think New York, Paris, or Tokyo -- where a cramped but still pricey hotel room might be smaller than 200 square feet.
Before booking an apartment, you'll want to inquire about the number of beds and their layout. Are they Murphy beds that stash in the wall when you're not using them or twin beds you'll have to shove together to create a full-size one? Is the furniture high-end or assembled knickknacks you might find in a college dorm?
What amenities are provided in its kitchen? If first-class appliances and cookware are a priority, confirm this in advance. Are basic spices, coffee or tea available for your use, or will you have to buy even these staples? And does that charming, centuries-old apartment building have an elevator or only flights of creaky and winding stairs? Knowing these details upfront can eliminate unpleasant surprises once you check in.
Which perks do you pay extra for -- and which are included?
Some apartments tack on automatic cleaning fees, even if you won't still be around to benefit from said service because the housekeepers come once you check out. Others include some housekeeping during your rental, but only if you're there for one week or longer. Be sure to inquire about phone charges, especially if you're renting overseas.
With per-minute rates that can eat up your precious vacation cash in a hurry, look for flats such as those operated by Parler Paris Apartments and Riviera Experience in the gorgeous Cote d'Azur town of Villefranche-sur-Mer that provide free WiFi and international long-distance calls to dozens of countries, including the United States and Canada.
What happens if I need or choose to cancel?
While rental apartments offer travelers wonderful flexibility once they check in, their cancellation policies aren't usually as fluid. Rental agencies and services, many of which are actually small businesses, aren't able to refund bookings or accept last-minute cancellations as hotels do.
Vacation rental apartments -- even when they're maintained by larger rental services -- often are owned by individuals or families. They're counting on the income your rental will bring, so canceling with short notice could cost them cash if they can't rebook the property quickly.
That said, if you are looking to book an apartment close to the date you're traveling, ask about last-minute deals and off-season specials -- rental services and owners may slash fees in order to get heads in beds. But if you're worried about losing your prepaid deposit or rental fee, consider purchasing travel insurance before you leave home.
Are customized, hotel-like services even available?
So you've chosen to rent an apartment for all the great reasons above, but perhaps you don't speak the language in the country you're visiting. You're geographically challenged, would get lost inside a paper bag and need help getting around town. Or you're dying to book that super-hot small restaurant you read about but need help nabbing a reservation.
In these cases, a hotel concierge would be really handy -- but you're staying in a flat. Some upscale apartment rental services happily provide their guests with concierge services on demand (and often at an additional cost, but not always). For example, Santa Barbara Vacation Rentals in Southern California offers a free grocery shopping and delivery service for guests who complete a list 72 hours before check-in, and the items will be waiting in the unit when they arrive.
Starting at 125 euros a day, Parler Paris Plus in France will create personalized itineraries. They can also plan private yacht or helicopter rides along the Seine River, book Paris market or antique tours or for 75 euros an hour will run errands and purchase gifts for those guests who'd rather spend their Parisian hours being tourists.