gourmet file: a cook's guide to the web

Budget Cooking Vacations

budget cooking vacations

Culinary Travel on the Cheap

International cooking classes and culinary tours are more popular than ever. In fact, the May 2008 issue of Gourmet Magazine is dedicated entirely to cooking class vacations. While these programs are enticing, they tend to be expensive. But just because you're on a budget doesn't mean you can't enjoy a fantastic culinary travel experience.

All you really need is a kitchen

My philosophy is that any vacation can be a culinary vacation as long as you have a kitchen and access to excellent local markets. An affordable way to do this is to rent a self-catering apartment or house in the area you want to visit. I have done this many times in Italy and France, renting properties directly from owners via the internet. Vacation home rentals almost always cost less than hotels, often significantly less. Having a kitchen enables you to indulge in the fantasy of living in another place, shop for ingredients in the local markets and cook in your own kitchen.

Another advantage of renting directly from an owner is that the owners are local people who are happy to share their personal recommendations with you - favorite restaurants, shops, services and sites - often places you won't find in guidebooks.

International vacation homes rentals - free listing sites

There are many web-based listing services where property owners advertise their vacation home rentals. (Be warned! Browsing for vacation rentals online is addictive.)

Here are some of the major listing sites:

Holiday-Rentals - a well-established vacation home rental site based in the U.K. with extensive European and other international listings.
Cyber Rentals - a U.S. vacation home rental site with listings mostly in North America, with some other locations as well.
VRBO - a huge site with property rental listings all over the world.
Homelidays - a large French website (with English translation) with listings primarily in France and Italy.

If you plan to rent in Europe take a look at the reviews section on the Slow Travel website, where travelers post their comments about properties they've rented

You can also try Googling "self-catering vacation rentals" plus the place you want to visit and you will find plenty of listings. Last year we did just that and ended up renting a lovely apartment in the center of Dijon, France from Dijon Rent-A-Home, run by a husband/wife team (Beatrice & Max) who own & manage several apartments in Dijon. I would highly recommend renting from them if you want to explore the Burgundy area of France.

Downsides and risks of self-catering rentals

Most self-catering rentals require a one-week minimum stay, although sometimes you can arrange a shorter stay, particularly in the "off season." Also, usually there is a time limit for cancellations, so you can't cancel at the last minute. You will have to make your own bed and wash your own dishes since most don't include daily maid service. Finally, renting directly from an individual owner doesn't guarantee the predictable standards of service and accommodation that you would find at say, a chain hotel. Below I've included some tips for finding the best vacation rentals.

Tips: what to look for and look out for

Find out how long the owners have been renting the property. Chances are if they have been renting for a while, they know what they're doing and have worked out any problems with the property.

Read the customer reviews and comments posted on the rental websites. You can also contact the listing service directly to see if renters have filed complaints about the property owner.

Ask yourself the following: Does the listing include detailed photographs and written descriptions about the property? If you email the owner with a question, does he or she get back to you in a timely way with detailed information? Is the owner friendly and professional? Do you get a sense that the owner is managing the rental as a business, rather than as a casual sideline? Hopefully the answer to all these questions is "yes."

Pay attention to the details of the listing. A one-bedroom apartment advertised as "sleeps 6 people" does not comfortably sleep 6.

Make sure to ask questions. For example: What is their cancellation policy? Are there markets, restaurants, and shops nearby or will you have to drive 30 minutes to buy a loaf of bread? Is the location near sightseeing that interests you? Is there street noise? Is the home suitable for children, or older people who might have trouble with stairs?

Hope this inspires you to plan your own self-catering cooking vacation. Happy culinary travels!

Releated: Gourmet File's guide to recreational cooking vacations with links to international cooking classes & culinary tours.