Let the Buyer Beware

by Nancy Bestor

I’m a big fan of owner operated vacation rentals. Sites such as www.airbnb.com and www.vrbo.com offer accommodations at good prices in cities all over the world. It’s great to stay in an apartment or small home, particularly when traveling as a family. Usually there’s a kitchen for cooking meals, and room to “hang out,” as opposed to just sitting on a hotel room bed or in a chair. We’ve stayed in some absolutely stunning homes for very affordable rates. In the dozen or so times that we’ve booked a rental directly from an owner, it has worked out mostly perfectly. In two instances however, our rental was cancelled by the owner. In one of those cases it was just two weeks before our stay.

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 11.47.24 AM

Last month Bob and I were headed to Corvallis, Oregon, to visit our two college-aged daughters (go Beavs!) on Dad’s and Families Weekend. I booked a vacation rental through airbnb nine months in advance, knowing that Dad’s weekend gets booked up crazy quickly, and that Corvallis hotel rooms are both crappy and expensive (particularly on popular weekends). I received a confirmation just after I booked, and was charged a $50 deposit, and all was good. Or so I thought. Two weeks before Dad’s weekend, I received an email from the owner, saying she had to cancel my reservation. She did not explain why, but offered me $200 towards another hotel booking, in addition to refunding my money. While this gesture was nice, it was pointless, because there were no hotels in Corvallis available two weeks before Dad’s weekend. Not even any crappy ones. So Bob and I ended up sleeping on the floor of our daughter’s collegiate apartment.

On another trip, many years ago, we booked an apartment in Paris through vrbo.com, only to have the owner cancel on us a month after booking, saying she had mistakenly “double booked.” Fortunately, we were able to find another apartment without much trouble, but it was disconcerting.

I tell these vacation rental stories to warn you—and to remind myself as well—that rentals by owners don’t give you much leeway if they’re cancelled just before a trip. I’ve never had a hotel cancel a room on me in all my years of travel, and have only stayed in vacation rentals about a dozen times, with two cancellations. I can’t say that I like those odds. I’m not going to stop booking vacation rentals, but I will definitely think twice about using one when I know there won’t be much other lodging available.

One Gentleman (And Three Women) of Verona

balcony2by Nancy Bestor

When we booked an apartment for a week’s stay in Verona this past summer I knew little about the city, other than it being home to one of the world’s best preserved Roman amphitheaters, which still hosts a world-renown summer opera series. I had no idea that Verona’s most popular claim to fame brings thousands of Japanese tourists each year for an hour long stop (according to my man Rick Steves), on their way from Milan to Venice.  What is the attraction, you ask? The House of Juliet. The fictional home—complete with balcony—where Romeo gazed upward at his lover Juliette, and spoke the fictional words “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?”

kissThe House of Juliet, to repeat myself here, is the fictional home of Juliet, but that doesn’t stop the hordes of tourists (and I put myself into this category) from gathering every day in the courtyard to look up at the balcony and snap picture after picture. We passed by the courtyard and house several times during our week in Verona, and each time it was packed with tourists. We toured the upstairs museum in the House of Juliet, which you cannot enter unless you pay the museum fee. It’s not worth it, unless, as in our case, it is included in your Verona Card.  The highlights in the House of Juliet museum include standing on the balcony and kissing your husband in front of hundreds of tourists looking up at you and embarrassing your teenage children in the process, AND reading some of the real letters written to Juliet, seeking advice in the department of love.

statueAnother favorite activity in Verona was strolling through the high end shopping streets of the city. The pedestrian-only lanes are highly entertaining for people watching as well as window-shopping at pricey stores. Most every night we’d buy a gelato and stroll the avenues, listening to street musicians and gawking at the high prices, including one store that charged for clothes and shoes by their weight.

For gelato, Venchi, on via Mazzini near Piazza Bra deserves a special mention. In a country full of this fabulously delightful treat, Venchi stands out and is definitely worth a detour to sample its deliciousness.

Several churches are also worth a visit, including the Church of Sant’ Anastasia, and its massive pipe organ. Lucky for us, the organ was being played during our visit, adding just the right touch of dramatic atmosphere.

meatOur big meal out was at Trattoria Al Pompiere, our apartment owner’s favorite restaurant. Pompiere is also highly rated by both Rick Steves and Trip Advisor. The best part of the meal was the gourmet meat and cheese antipasti plate, with outstanding cuts of a variety of prosciutto, salami, pancetta and more. After ordering, our waiter sent over the charcutier, and we were faced with the daunting task of discussing our order with him and choosing from an array of meats each specifically prepared and aged and all available for our consumption. Pompiere was excellent and full of Italians, always a good sign in my book.

Notes on Verona:

  • We rented an apartment through www.vrbo.com. The one bedroom, although small, was centrally located, and a good price (875 euros). It was great to stay in a neighborhood, shop daily for groceries, and cook all breakfasts and some lunches and dinners. It also featured a washing machine, which was perfect for the middle week of our three-week trip.
  • We bought Verona Cards for 20 euros each for the two adults, and discounted for our teenage girls. The Verona Card includes admission to most churches and museums in town, a great savings for our weeklong stay.
  • In the courtyard of the House of Juliet, there is a bronze statue of the fair maiden. Legend has it that if you fondle her bronze breast you will be lucky in love. Since I am already luckier than I could have imagined, I passed on the opportunity.