Cottages & villa rentals ★★

Rockley, a thatched cottage on the Wiltshire plains; sleeps 6 from £97 per night (Photo courtesy of the property)
Rockley, a thatched cottage on the Wiltshire plains; sleeps 6 from £97 per night

A place to call your own for the night or the week—renting a cottage, house, or villa in the U.K.

Whenever I hear the word "cottage" I picture a little daub-and-wattle four-room house in a dell somewhere (not quite sure what a "dell" is, but it's the sort of place where one expects to find a cottage).

This archetypal cottage in my mind has a charmingly overgrown kitchen garden and a peaked roof made of thatch, and it is inhabited by either a kindly lady of indeterminate years and a rosy smile and/or a wicked witch. Sort of half Beatrix Potter, half Brothers Grimm.

Of course, self-catering cottages in Britain come in all shapes and sizes, from modern semi-detached homes in the 'burbs to veritable mansions in the country—and yes, plenty of modest little farmhouses in dells. Wicked witches are optional.

What you get with a rental cottage in the U.K.

Cottages are almost always self-catering, a fancy way of saying no one comes by to change the sheets each day and make you breakfast as would happen in a hotel—though some cottages do come with regular (usually weekly) maid service.

Most cottages and vacation homes are rented by the week, some by the month, but plenty are also available in smaller increments down to about a three-night minimum.

In any event, cottages afford a great way to get out and live the local life for a spell and adapt to the rhythms of rural life in Europe.

You can use your temporary home as a base for bombing around country lanes seeing the local sights, getting to know the local shopkeeps and becoming a regular at the village pub, or simply to sit around, relaxing with your view of the kitchen garden crawling with gnomes and fat little German children searching for gingerbread architecture (sorry, just can't shake that fairy tale imagery).

A cottage by any other name...

The difference between a cottage and a villa is largely one of semantics.

Some might call it a holiday home or self-catering rental.

I just think "cottage" sounds coziest.

Cottages & villas links
Apartments links


BOOKING: Getting what you pay for
  • Week-long rentals are typical, though some homes are available for two or three nights at a time, especially in the off-season (winter).
  • Peak season is roughly Easter through October, plus Christmas season (Dec 15–Jan 6).
  • Advanced reservations are essential. For summer high season, it's best to book several months, or even a full year, ahead.
  • Every owner bends the rules sometimes, so even if a website states that a cottage only rents by the week or longer, or that rates are completely nonnegotiable, it never hurts to inquire about flexibility. Small agencies and owners who rent one or two properties are particularly likely to bargain during slower periods.
  • Bait and switch is pervasive when booking through an agency (as opposed to direct from the owner)—whether intentional or because online databases aren't updated to reflect actual availability. Double-check that the villa you want is the villa you're getting. If the agency offers an alternative, make sure it's up to snuff and reasonably priced.
PAYING: Deposits and cancellations
  • A deposit may be necessary to hold your reservation. The amount varies: It might be the equivalent of one night's stay; it might be 30 to 50 percent of the total; it might be something totally different. The balance is usually due 6 to 20 days prior to arrival.
  • Bank wire transfers are required to rent some homes, particularly direct-from-owner (agencies will usually let you use a credit card). If you're renting abroad, note that banks in the U.S. charge $30–$50 for an international transfer, and it'll take three to five business days to process.
  • Taxes, utilities, and an initial and final cleaning fee are frequently included in the quoted price, but that's not always the case, so ask. If the apartment has a phone, inquire whether local calls cost extra.
  • Expect to pay a deposit against potential damages, either through a hold on your credit card or in cash to the person who gives you the keys. The money will be refunded when you check out.
  • Cancellation policies vary, with refunds given on a sliding scale, meaning less money is returned the later that you cancel. The deposit is rarely refundable, though you may be able to get some of the money back if you cancel far in advance.
ARRIVING: Who will give you the key?
  • A representative will usually meet you at the cottage—though sometimes at a major landmark, train station, their own downtown office, or the local bus stop nearest the house at a prearranged time. He or she will lead you to the rental, show you the ropes (which keys fit which locks, location of the fuse box), point out nearby markets and cafés, and provide a local number to call if you have questions.
  • Most kitchens come fully equipped, but double-check that this is the case if you plan on cooking. Before heading to the market, look in the cabinets. There are often some cooking staples (salt, sugar, pasta, tea, oil) left by former guests.
  • Towels and linens are typically provided, but bring your own soap, shampoo, and toiletries; this is not a hotel.
  • Cleaning service is rare, though a few rentals offer cleaning every three days or so. Remember: You're living like a local, which includes taking out the trash and recycling. Your host will provide a schedule.