George Clooney, P. Diddy, Beyonce and Jay-Z -- thanks to the tabloids, even the most casual gossip fans know that when these mega-stars travel, they're just as likely to rent a private villa as to hole up in a hotel room. But villas -- rentable, privately owned homes that often come fully staffed -- are within the regular traveler's budget, too.
Earlier this year I spent a long weekend with five other couples at a villa overlooking a glorious body of water near Montego Bay, Jamaica. The six-bedroom manse, which came with a huge pool, live-in driver, chef and maid, is beyond my means, to say the least. But dividing the nightly rental by 10 guests meant that it ended up costing about $110 per person, including all meals and gratuity. That's about the same price I paid the previous year for a nearby all-inclusive resort. For those seeking a similarly unusual vacation experience, a few things to know:
The same-old Hyatt in Argentina, or the tony Estancia Los Alamos? Hm . . .
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PUBLIC OR PRIVATE? While there are private rentals all over the world, the word "villa" is generally applied to homes in the Caribbean and Europe. "In Africa, they call them bush homes and private safari lodges, and in South America they are called haciendas or estancias," says Nicole Fernandez, an agent for Uncharted Outposts, an Atlanta-based travel and safari company that focuses on custom trips to exotic destinations. Wherever you opt to go, your choice will be between booking through an agency or booking privately through the property's owner (both can be found online). A private rental may cost less, but should anything go wrong, you might not have the recourse an agency would give you. If you do go through an agency, Fernandez suggests you "ask your travel agent if they've been there" and can give you the first-person skinny. Another tactic: Ask for references from previous guests of the property.
IT'S ALL YOU. While, as Fernandez says, villa rental is a personalized experience that "pulls you away from mass tourism, chain hotels and the buffet line," it also means that you may have responsibilities you'd never carry at a hotel, such as shopping for your own food and providing your own transportation. You may also be at some distance from the nearest bar or restaurant, and your house may or may not come with a car. So before renting, be sure to get a full and mutually agreeable definition of amenities and terms on the table, says Peter Greenberg, travel editor for NBC's "Today" show and author of the "Travel Detective" series. "Your understanding of 'staff,' 'room,' 'air-conditioning,' 'heating' might be different" from that of the person you're talking to, he says.
MONEY MATTERS. "If you are looking for an economical travel alternative, villas are a way to go," Greenberg says. But not every property is cheap: They can rent from $100 to upward of $10,000 a night, depending how posh you want to get, how many people are in your group, and where and when you travel. For example, the D.C.-based company Italian Vacation Villas (www.villasitalia.com) lists one nine-bedroom property in Tuscany for about $7,100 a week during the summer high season, but for almost half that, $4,000, in the spring low season. Right now, off-season, selection is smaller, but prices are even lower. In the Caribbean, you'll find the opposite: Prices are high now but will drop 15 to 40 percent after mid-April. One more thing: You may have to factor tips, food costs and car rental into your final budget. Isabel Gonzalez
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