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Friday, January 20, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Who holds the keys

Seattle Times travel staff

There are hundreds of vacation-rental agencies, from multinational companies to mom-and-pop businesses. And tens of thousands of individual owners around the world list their vacation rentals through Web sites.

Western European countries have a long tradition of vacation rentals and abundant choices in cities and countryside, but you can find a home-away-from-home in New Zealand, South Africa, Costa Rica, Thailand and beyond. Here are some places to start looking.

Italy

The Italian countryside, especially Tuscany, is one of the most popular areas for vacation rentals by Europeans and North Americans.

The U.S.-based Parker Co. has more than 350 rentals in Italy: www.theparkercompany.com or 800-280-2811.

A major company for Italian rentals, based in Tuscany, is Cuendet, www.cuendet.com with hundreds of listings of country villas and city apartments.

Rome-based Sleep in Italy has rentals throughout Italy, including many Rome apartments, www.sleepinitaly.com/ Roman Homes, www.romanhomes.com, also is based in Rome and has rentals throughout the Italian capital.

Seattle-based My Italian Vacation offers rentals in Italian cities and the countryside, www.myitalianvacation.com or 888-465-1460.

For the Italian countryside, including the ever-popular Tuscany, an "agriturismo" rental can make an excellent base. Farmers and country-house owners rent out everything from luxury apartments in centuries-old renovated farm buildings to spare rooms in a modern farmhouse. The Web site www.agriturismo.comis a guide with hundreds of listings/links. For useful comments on agriturismo rentals by travelers, see www.ricksteves.com/graffiti and click on "Italian Agriturismos."

France

The French capital is full of vacation rentals. I found one through Vacation in Paris, a New Jersey-based company that rents dozens of Parisian apartments, www.vacationinparis.com or 800-403-4304.

Some of the many other options include www.parissweethome.com, a Switzerland-based company and the Ashland, Ore.-based www.athomeinfrance.com, or 541-488-9467 (it also offers rentals in Spain).

For French countryside rentals, Gîtes de France is a national federation of more than 50,000 properties offering rural vacations, many budget-priced, in self-catering apartments, B&Bs and more. www.gites-de-france.fr/eng/

Or find a villa in Provence and elsewhere in southern France (plus luxury apartments in Paris) through the Pennsylvania-based Just France, www.justfrance.com or 610-407-9633.

For those who'd like a little more support with a vacation rental, the Pennsylvania-based Untours company offers vacation rentals in continental Europe along with transportation and an airport escort. www.untours.com or 888-868-6871.

London and beyond

A useful resource for finding vacation rentals in Britain is the government's Visit Britain tourist office. Go to its Web site at www.visitbritain.com/, then click on "accommodation" to find links to rental companies and individual owners.

Another approach is to do a Web search for "self catering" and the name of your destination in Britain in order to find links to rentals.

One of the biggest companies is Barclay International Group with rentals throughout Britain, www.barclayweb.com or 800-845-6636.

Other excellent options for British rentals are the National Trust and Landmark Trust, organizations that safeguard historic buildings and estates throughout Britain and rent out hundreds of them to vacationers, from cozy farm cottages to 500-year-old castles.

For the National Trust, see www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk (A company associated with the National Trust, called Inntravel, also rents houses and apartments in continental Europe, including Switzerland, Italy and France: www.inntravel.co.uk) The Landmark Trust, a nonprofit British group, rents historic buildings to vacationers throughout England, Scotland and Wales, www.landmarktrust.co.uk You'll need to buy its handbook (which can be ordered via the Web site) to get details on the rentals.

North America

Ski and beach resorts offer an abundance of vacation rentals, from budget apartments to luxurious homes.

One of the easiest ways to find rentals is by contacting the visitors/convention bureau of the area you're interested in; most have listings of vacation-rental agencies and can give advice on areas.

Another option: Do a Web search for the destination's name and the term "vacation rental." For instance, a Google search for " Hawaii vacation rental" will turn up hundreds of listings for rental condos and houses throughout the islands.

A sampling of agencies:

• In the Pacific Northwest, Oregon's Cannon Beach has many vacation-rental homes/agencies listed at www.cannon-beach.net/ (click on lodging).

In Washington's Methow Valley, many vacation homes are listed through Methow Valley Central Reservations, www.methowreservations.com or 800-422-3048.

• In California, the Palm Springs area has an abundance of vacation rentals, from condos on the golf courses to luxurious homes with private pools. Among rental agencies is Vacation Palm Springs, www.vacationpalmsprings.com or 800-590-3110.

• In the Southeast, the Hilton Head area of South Carolina has become a beach-house rental Mecca for family reunions and groups of friends: Get listings at the chamber of commerce Web site www.hiltonheadisland.org/ (click on visitors) or 800-523-3373.

Worldwide rentals

For worldwide rentals, browse online directories such as www.vacationrentals.com It has thousands of listings in Thailand, the Caribbean, Mexico, South Africa and beyond. For a similar worldwide directory, see the Web site of Miami-based Rentalo, www.rentalo.com.

For luxurious rentals, Hideaways International is an upscale travel club with villa/apartment rentals in the Caribbean, Asia and Europe; a membership fee is charged: www.hideaways.com or 800-843-4433.

Rent from owners

Many individual owners pay to list their rentals on Web sites of companies that act as a clearinghouse. You can browse through the site, then rent directly from the property's owner.

Such rentals often are cheaper and sometimes more congenial since you deal directly with the owner.

However, such individual rentals generally are not overseen nor inspected so you'll need to safeguard yourself. Pay by a credit card (which gives you some protection under U.S. fair-credit laws); get a written copy of the rental agreement, with refund/cancellation terms spelled out; get a street address of the property so you can locate it and check on it independently.

To find owner-direct rentals:

• Vacation Rentals By Owner has thousands of listings worldwide at www.vrbo.comincluding in Washington, from the San Juan Islands to Lake Chelan and the Methow Valley.

• Owner Direct Vacation Rentals lists about 7,000 properties worldwide, including many condos in Hawaii at www.ownerdirect.com

• For British Columbia ski resorts, the Allura site, www.alluradirect.com, lists hundreds of rentals, from condos to houses, in Whistler and other resorts.

Kristin Jackson: 206-464-2271 or kjackson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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