Some people have good luck negotiating apartment rentals directly with an owner, and if that's you, check Vacation Rentals by Owner (, a major source in cities all over the world. But after renting a house in the United States from owners who camped out in their driveway during our stay, I'd suggest that an agency is a safer option, especially when renting overseas. Here are a few other tips to help your rental go smoothly.

Choosing a Rental Agency

Whether your agency has an office here or abroad, asking certain questions in advance will help you confirm that it is reliable and the right one for you. Specifically:

* How long has the company been in business?

* Are the agents familiar with neighborhoods and specific apartments? The best agencies are intimately familiar with their properties, since their employees have stayed in them, and know the neighborhoods. This is your chance to ask lots of questions that will help you pin down not just the right agency but also the right apartment.

* What services does the agency provide at your destination? A contact (who speaks English) in the destination city is a must -- someone who, at the very least, will meet you at your apartment and show you around and will be available throughout your stay if you have questions or concerns about the apartment. Other services may include transportation to and from the airport or train station, a starter supply of groceries in the apartment and obtaining tickets to theater, sporting events and the Chunnel.

* What about inventory? Ask specifically about neighborhoods, price range, variety in size and style, minimum rental requirement period and so on.

* What about timing, fees and cancellation policies? Questions should include: How far in advance should one rent an apartment? How much is the agency fee? (Most agencies charge a fee, usually under $100, which is well worth it.) How much is the security deposit? Does the agency require a contract? (If not, keep looking.) How does the agency arrange for you to get the keys to the apartment? Do rentals have to start on a specific day? (Most agencies accommodate your schedule and allow rentals to start on any day.) What is the cancellation policy? (Agencies often encourage you to purchase trip cancellation insurance but don't insist on it; we did not buy it.)

Choosing an Apartment

The rule of thumb is "Know thyself" . . . and your traveling companions. You need to determine in advance those factors that are crucial to having a good stay. Beyond the obvious questions -- how many bedrooms, how many bathrooms, where is the apartment, how much does it cost -- you'll also want to know if the apartment is nonsmoking, air-conditioned and if linens are included (they should be). A few other questions to help you narrow down your search:

* Is the flat near subway and bus stops? Which attractions and shops are within walking distance?

* Any safety concerns?

* If the price seems oddly high or low, what accounts for it?

* Is the street busy? If so, are the bedrooms located away from the noise?

* Which floor is the apartment on? Remember that our second floor is considered the first floor in Europe. Does the building have an elevator or just stairs?

* Can you use the washer, dryer, dishwasher, iron, TV, etc.? Are you allowed to use the phone for local calls?

* What is the personality of the apartment? Who owns it and how is it furnished? Are children allowed?

-- Elise Hartman Ford

Skip the hotel room and hunker down in your own London flat.