I have been running self-catering lets (or “vacation rentals” as Americans call them) for about ten years out here in Andalucia, Spain. Previously we lived in London and had moderately stressful jobs and limited holidays. When we went away, we always chose a self-catering option over packages or Hotels, so we know the field both as guests and as owners. This is the first of a series of articles that explore what it means to take this sort of break.
Typical Self Caterers
Self-catering embraces almost every sort of holiday maker. Even if you want nothing to do with the area or the people you are holidaying with, you can probably find some up-market property where staff will cook and clean up after you, where you can just laze by a pool. Jamaica is good for this sort of holiday.
However, totally passive tourists don’t normally choose this option. Self-caterers are usually much more “hands on” and active. They like the control that self-catering gives them. They like engaging with local people, with the local shops and markets, joining in with what is sometimes called the “real” life of the community. They like designing their own vacation for themselves. They may also be hobbyists or enthusiasts for cooking local produce for example, or for walking, birding, exploring the mountains or the coastal scenery, or they may be “culture vultures” touring the cities and the sites. Either way, they like playing hard and recovering after intensive day of holiday making to a place that they can call their own – if only for a week.
Reasons to Self-Cater
Holiday makers have a huge choice when it comes to planning their holiday and a huge range of accommodation options to choose from. So why choose a holiday rental?
Perhaps it is because the properties available offer a personal holiday experience. Travellers may want to combine the authentic experience of a culture different from their own with the comforting amenities of a real home. Many self-catering houses are in prime heartland locations at favourite destinations, offering the twin benefits of a unique location and family home facilities. So, the benefits of holiday rentals are as diverse as the thousands of homes available
Consider the following scenario. You return to your hotel at 2.15 am. You’d like a coffee – ideally a coffee with a brandy in it but the bar is closed. There is only a ratty receptionist who waves at an ageing drinks machine with its nasty powders and hot water.
Or imagine that the bar is open. the cost of your drink wafts onto your final bill in such a way that all the tiny high prices melt into each other so that on departure you cannot explain how you arrived at that huge final bill. Wouldn’t you rather be self-catering?
Now imagine yourself on your own terrace, alone or with the person or people you have chosen to go on holiday with and who have chosen you. Your coffee – the finest Columbian roast available is brewing at the strength you like, while a five-star VSOP brandy, chosen by yourself, slowly evaporates beside it. What would you prefer?
Suppose you love eating. You dress up and go out for a slap-up meal that comes to about €100 ($130 or £84) per head. Were you to stay in hotels, you would be paying restaurant prices for breakfast, dinner, tea, coffee and so on? Self-catering holiday makers, on the other hand, can eat egg and chips for two days. An egg in Spain costs 10 cents (13 USA cents or 8.4 pence sterling)
You could have two!
On a pile of “hand cut” chips fried in olive oil. With a thick slice of finest Serrano ham. I could live on this, but you, having eaten cheap for two days, could have another slap-up meal on the third.
Location: wherever you would like to be
If you stay in B&B’s or Hotels, you are likely to be living in a conventional tourist environment. This is likely to include all of the infrastructure of tourism – commercial shopping centres, tourist orientated eating places, discotheques, beach sports and so on, all with tourist orientated prices.
You may agree with me that it’s nice to go to tourist environments for some of your holiday, but you don’t necessarily want to live in it. I’m quite old, so I appreciate the restaurants and some of the tourist services but not the noise and the crush of the crowd.
Because self-catering holiday rentals are almost always in ordinary domestic dwellings, they can be positioned literally anywhere. We have two small cottages in Cutar, in Andalucia Spain, which is a tiny Moorish white village with one shop and one bar and no other facilities at all for tourists. Everyone speaks Spanish, no one speaks English. Communication is by hugs, signing and hilarity. Many of our customers, actively search out this traditional Spanish community, touring back and forth from the beach to the mountain, but spending the long balmy evenings eating and drinking on their private terrace.
Our cottages are in the middle of Spanish villages, but you might prefer a villa on its own in the countryside, or what’s called and “ubanisation” – a warren of flats with communal pools and party places where you can mix with other tourists. With self-catering rentals, any position, situation, relationship or environment is possible
Many self-catering rental homes can be found in prime locations in sought after holiday destinations. Travellers and holiday makers also appreciate the many community events that take place in every Spanish community form the biggest commercial event to the tiniest family celebration.
Reinvent your relationship – as family as friends as lovers
Understated, simple benefits set self-catering holiday rental homes apart from many other accommodation options. An ordinary home environment represents a stable familiar place that children and parents can enjoy on their holiday as a family. A family can feel as though it owns the house for the length of its stay, and it can feel more relaxed and satisfied after a long day of holiday activity. There are kitchen facilities to cook proper meals and the space to enjoy a few board games and watch a movie. These home comforts balance out the bustle of a busy holiday, the car touring and the holiday stress of busier places.
We have a “family friendly” cottage in Cutar for example, all on one level, away from roads and traffic and with a paddling pool, ideal for accident-prone two-year olds and in a village that finds little children irresistible. Parents can relax and read a book – the first in a long time!
We also have a big five-bedroom house in Cutar, perfect for three generations. Grandparents, parents and children can share a holiday experience and do the work of living together – choosing food, preparing it, inventing and discovering leisure activities, plotting and planning the next day’s activities.
Roles can alter when you are outside the conventions of everyday living. The person who usually cooks and clears up will not want to be the holiday drudge for those who, when on holiday have nothing better to do, so new roles need to be agreed and tasks redistributed for the holiday. This includes children who can also behave differently and take on different responsibilities. This can be a whole new area of discovery as families find different ways to function successfully.
Groups of friends can rediscover and deepen friendships through the ordinary work involved in living together. Self-catering living is completely different from passive holiday making in hotels and hostels. They are more active, more committed and more engaged. These are after all the people who have chosen to be with you at the best time of their year, and you have chosen them.
Lovers like our one-bedroom finca with its traditional layout and materials and its romantic terrace overlooking mango and orange orchards. Opposite and same sex couples like to set up house together. In the winter, older couples see out the winter there in a good climate with friendly neighbours.
Houses that will sleep groups of six, eight or more represent excellent value on a person-per-night basis, without the hassle of checking into several different rooms or suites. Spending time with others is part of the self-catering rental experience, and a spacious holiday rental home is a great hub for groups to enjoy each other’s company.
It’s the same for transport. Spain is still one of the cheapest cars- hire destinations in Europe and a well populated car is dirt cheap if you split the fare, whether it’s a hired car or whether you are splitting the cost of a taxi. Our rentals are way up in the hills with little public transport, so when our son came to stay with his friends – none of whom drove because they were brought up in London, they used to split the taxi fare to wherever the party was, they then booked the cab for 8am to pick them up after a night on the tiles. Very affordable.
Having a proper kitchen in your holiday accommodation is a great opportunity to save money on the food budget without missing out on the fine flavours that southern Spain (for example) is famous for. The more that holiday makers take care of themselves, the more they can afford from their fixed budget, to spend on other holiday experiences. What sort of experiences? Well, here in Andalucia you can take the tram (state of the art and quick) to Malaga and then the train (clean, cheap, punctual) to Cordoba or Granada. Or what about a cheap weekend package (€70 = $90 = £58) to Tangiers and the hill villages? Or why not go to the hill village down the road at Frigliana and buy yourself a nice piece of linen or something in leather on what you saved on restaurant food?
Bypassing middle men
Certain package and hotel holidays can become so much more expensive than they seemed when you booked them. The reason for this is that the seller sells the room or the package cheap in the certain knowledge that the holiday maker will be able to do nothing not even drink a glass of water, without paying a high premium. To characterise it, you make your money on the coffees (and the rest!). With self-catering you bypass all middle agents. You buy in the same way as local people. If you self-cater with us, you can choose to pay more at the village shop, but you save on the petrol it would have cost you to go to a supermarket. Just like home, though Spanish petrol is 30% cheaper than it is in the UK. Try to avoid agents at all levels of holiday planning and living. It is possible if you self-cater. Your holiday rental hosts should be a mine of free information
Cheapness and value
It was Oscar Wilde who said, ” A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. We’re not at all cynical so let’s talk about value. Value means getting something you value highly, for the best possible price. It’s quite different from buying the cheapest, which is usually poor value. The point is that you can choose at every point – flight, car hire, accommodation, food and drink, events projects and excursions. For each category you can go cheap, you can go value, or you can go luxury. And you can balance these three choices into your budget without busting it.
Luxury beyond your means
This is what you can have if you self-cater intelligently.
You can have this literally because at the some of the holiday rentals available are so stunning that you won’t want to leave. Residential luxury is a different style than upmarket resorts and hotels, so it is a distinct experience that defies comparison with other accommodation types.
Because you are in control at every level you can manage luxury when you need it and still stay within your budget. You will make the odd mistake. Occasionally you will pay over the odds because you will be bargaining with local people on their own territory and you won’t win every time. Maybe you won’t want to win every time – you’re on holiday after all and maybe you can contribute a bit and still get value. in any case, little by little your skill will grow, and you will enter into relationships with good people outside of your culture, some of whom will become holiday friends, and some genuine friends.