Renting a villa is a great way to visit a country and to have a holiday. Firstly, it gives you a chance to "live like a local" and really get to know a new place. Secondly, villa holidays work well for multi-generational family getaways who need a holiday experience to suit all ages. Thirdly, they are great for families with children and for groups of friends who want to bring the cost down. Lastly, for anyone who wants privacy and plenty of space when abroad.
Tuscan villas can seem both daunting to book and potentially expensive. They are neither of these but getting the right help with your choice of villa is crucial. The fundamental difference between staying in a hotel and renting a villa is that in a villa you will be self-catering and will have much more privacy than in a hotel. Staying in a private holiday villa means you won't have staff coming into your room, you will have the house and kitchen to yourself and can manage and control your daily schedule.
'Villa' has now become a "catch-all" term for holiday properties but it encompasses a wide range of standards. The original term 'Villa' meant a country residence. In Tuscany, important Florentine or Sienese families would go on Villeggiatura in the summer, leaving the city to stay in their elegant country residences. These Villas were large, formal buildings, often with a farming estate attached. Villa Donati at Montestigliano is a good example.
The term 'Villa holidays' started when private owners would let friends and later paying guests borrow their Italian or French properties. Often these homes abroad would be old farmhouses converted to have enough amenities for modern living but still left to be very simple. The experience was a return to a slower pace of living, good, locally-grown food and wine and a chance to explore hill top villages and see Tuscan Renaissance art. Ragnana in Radicondoli started out like this. The village butcher converted his old farmhouse and started to rent it out. His son today still treats the guests to bottles of his own wine, olive oil, and regularly leaves fresh vegetables from his allotment. Pools were few and far between and visitors would often go wild swimming in local rivers.
Today some of these old farmhouses have been converted to a very high standard. Many of them have private swimming pools and nearly all of them come with WiFi. A number now also have air-conditioning. The basic premise remains the same - you are renting a whole home rather than a hotel room and have a full kitchen to cook in (or have somebody cook for you), plenty of space both indoors and outdoors, living like a local.
Renting a villa can be surprisingly affordable. Most villas are rented by the week, from Saturday to Saturday, though some will allow shorter or longer stays and different arrival dates, particularly in 'off season' ie. outside the high season summer months of July and August. Villa rental pricing, therefore, tends to be per week and for the whole villa. I've broken some of the pricing down in the chart below to help you visualise and help compare it against hotel costs.
Larger villas are often calculated on a price per person basis which can work out better value than smaller villas. Private swimming pools, air-conditioning and en-suite bathrooms all carry a jump in price.
Generally August and July are thought of as High Season and are the most expensive. Mid-May to the end of June, as well as September and mid-October are Mid Season, while everything else is Low Season. Many villas will have quirks, however, so these are just guidelines. All prices in Euro.
Ideally, everything essential is included, but there are some notable exceptions and it's worth checking these so that they don't knock your budget out later on:
1. Tourist Tax. This has been introduced relatively recently, is implemented at a local level by each local administration, and has to be paid locally. As a rough guideline it might be useful to use a thumbnail calculation of 1.5 euro per adult, per day. And there's a roof beyond which you won't be charged, normally a week or less. So a family of 4, with 2 young children, might pay 21 euro. A group of 12 friends might be charged 126 euro.
2. Final Cleaning. We try to never charge this as an extra cost. Some owners however do insist on a separate cost, so we list it as such. Many of the large portals will have this as an extra cost, so it's worth finding out either way in advance as it can skew the rental price either way.
3. Heating and/or Air-conditioning In many villas, extra costs for heating or air conditioning is calculated by usage, measured by a meter. Others charge a fixed fee or in some cases there is a basic allowance and you are charged if you go beyond it. This is because the cost of utilities is far higher in Italy than it is in the US or the UK. Leaving the air conditioning running all day can end up costing the same as the villa rental, so it is a cost that you and the villa owners will surely prefer to avoid.
4. Extra services While some villas come with services included, most will allow you to book and pay for the ones you need. The most popular experiences and extras are private chefs, cooking classes, massages and wine tours but there are many more.
Choosing where to go and finding a villa to stay in can be daunting; here are out tips on how to make sure you get what you want:
Villas come in all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of services, and in all sorts of price ranges. It helps to work out what's crucial, what's important, and what would be "nice to have". If you're a large group it's useful to pick one person to be the spokesperson for the group. If everybody starts to look, the search can quickly become unwieldy and overwhelming.
Good first questions are:
Private Pool, Shared Pool or no pool?
While private pools are often seen as the most desirable, it's worth remembering that when you're travelling with children, places with shared pools can be great for the kids to make friends. Lots of large old farmhouse villas will be divided into three, so we're not talking about large groups sharing.
Within walking distance of a village or magnificently isolated?
It can be a delight to not have to get in a car every day and just stroll into town for ice-creams, meals and shopping. Equally, there is something glorious about being on your very own Tuscan hilltop, with views all around you and utmost privacy.
Villas can be entirely self-catered but many people like to have one evening, and sometimes more, with a chef who can come and cook for you. They will turn up, cook your meal, serve it, clean up and leave you to relax. We can provide a chef for most of our villas so this isn't a strict parameter, but it's useful to price it into your selection. That brings me neatly to the next question:
Villas are generally a cheaper option than staying in a hotel and when you self-cater, it also saves money. If you would like to have a chef, go on wine and city tours and more, it's a good idea to have an idea of what these things will cost. The good news is that there are villas with private pools that you can rent for as little as €20 per person, per day. That will leave a lot of budget for luxuries.
When you have done your homework, it is a good idea to discuss your plans with somebody who knows the area. There are plenty of factors that are difficult to see from a map or a guidebook. Driving times, the character of a village, whether a villa will be suitable for what you have in mind - all these questions will be short-cut when you have a conversation with a real person.
For example, we often list distances by time rather than mileage simply because the timing can change drastically based on the bendiness and condition of the road.
Or a villa listed as "walking distance to a restaurant" may have a whole village 200 metres away or one restaurant a 20-minute walk away. Tags and villa types are useful indicators but a personal conversation, whether via email or phone, will give you a real feel for which villa and area might suit you best.
We go and see all of our villas so that any advice we give our customers is first-hand. There doesn't seem much point in us simply reading out lists of features you can read for yourself on the website, so whenever you can, try to talk to somebody that has been to the villa themselves.
Sadly, there are fraudsters out there in the villa booking world too. Scammers can use fake details to hi-jack emails and misdirect payments. They have even built entire websites solely to con holiday-makers.
There are a number of things you can do to make sure you're safe, and the Get Safe Online Website is a good place to start.
Our advice is:
If you search for them on Google you should see a website presence, facebook, reviews and more. If they're a UK company you can see if they're registered at Companies House.
If they say they've been running for a while, why not go onto the Web Archive and check if the website existed when they say it did? This is our Web Archive page, by the way: Web Archive of Invitationtotuscany.com.
Paying even just a part of the villa rental by credit card ensures you're covered by Section 75 of the consumer credit act.
Villa rental agencies are not necessarily covered by the package holiday regulations, so the ATOL and ABTA badges are not required - though being members of associations is still a good sign, such as ABTOI, ABTOF or ASTA.
particularly if you've been sent the details via email - and if this is the first payment you're making. If you are making a bank transfer, make sure it is to an account in the name of the Villa rental company. Generally, if you can pay by credit card, do.
Finally! You've done all your homework, you've found the perfect villa and have arrived. What next?
If there was one thing I'd like to say to everybody who rents a villa it is this:
Tuscany - and Italy generally - is a treasure trove of small villages, tiny churches, great restaurants, local festivals and more. There will be some beautiful places to explore and discover right around your villa - so while we understand to see the great works of art in Florence, Pisa or Siena - take the time to explore the much more local, there will be some masterpieces there too!
Slow living, taking pleasure in cooking, in local wine, in spending the day with a good book by the pool without the slightest twinge of guilt, are all part of Villa living - enjoy!