(Editor’s note: The original version of this post appeared on Dispatches Europe’s beta site last February. We’re reposting this updated version closer to the beginning of the travel season. We checked several sites including Rent a place in France.com, and a shocking number of great houses are still available for June, July and August. )
It’s almost summer, and expats, there’s something you need to know: You can rent a house in France a heck of a lot cheaper than you can go to Disney World. I know because we’ve done both. And this year, you might find greater availability in some areas such as Languedoc, and lower rates seven months after the Paris attacks.
When we lived in Germany, we broke down and took the kids to Disneyland outside Paris. And they loved it. Our banker … not so much. Each visit cost us more than 400 euros per day by the time we ate, bought the girls princess costumes and paid for parking. That’s not counting the apartment we were renting in Paris.
Let’s compare that to our house we used to rent in Franche-Comte on a regular basis from Astrid and Daniel Elbert in Étueffont, where we paid 50 euros per night. We had a peaceful setting in the hills outside Mulhouse, with lots of amenities close by including a great little country restaurant. Basel was an hour away when we needed some big-city stimulation. One summer, we rented a fabulous house in Quarante near Beziers. It was about 120 euros per night, but came with a pool and multiple bedrooms, so we invited our friends.
It’s been awhile since we rented a house in France, so I reached out to Alice Verberne, a France-based expat, journalist and former colleague. Alice has lived all over Europe and has visited everywhere twice. So I knew she’d know if the affordable France is still an expat vacation option. Her answer: “Oh, yeah!”
Last year my husband and I spent 250 euros for a week in Carcassonne for two persons. Now, the apartment was not fancy at all. But, we saved on dining out and were walking distance from the old city. We had private parking in a fenced in area. The apartment was tiny and was like something you would rent if you were a college student. I have also found apartments in Paris (Commerce area which is an ethnic Tibetan community) for 500 euros for five days. The area is safe, funky and has lots of great ethnic restaurants.
Alice’s takeaway: “Yep, the adage ‘in France you can live like a king’ is actually pretty true. I can drink sparkling wine for cheaper than beer, and it is good stuff. Not the rot gut you would find in America. Life here is pretty good.”
These days, France is absolutely saturated with brilliant vacation rentals that are unbelievably inexpensive if you take them for at least one month. France magazine, which came with a luxury housing supplement, lists summer rentals for as little as 750 euros per week before a long-rental discount. And these are luxury rentals. A little better than the 175 euros per night we recently paid for a suite at the Frankfurt Airport Stigenberger. (Ivana, what! It was a nice suite ….)
You say 750 euros per week is too much? There were several ads for cute little cottages for as little as 200 pounds per week, or about 250 euros. Most are in the middle of nowhere, and only large enough for two people. But there was at least one – Norman Maison – a large cottage on the Normandy coast that could take up to 9 people, for 280 pounds per week, or 320 euros.
Here’s what you get, according to their website:
The house itself has a well-fitted kitchen and dining room, lounge with UK Satellite TV. DVD player. Downstairs there is a double bedroom with shower room and WC and upstairs a family room with en suite bathroom and a triple room with a sink and shaver point. Heating is by multi-fuel burners and electric radiators, there is an electric cooker, fridge, washing machine, toaster, microwave etc and plenty of kitchen equipment plus iron, ironing board etc. There is a good sized garden, terrace with picnic table and barbecue, ample parking and access to the small river. The house is well furnished and comes with linen so it is ready to live in, you just need your personal possessions.
So, what is that, like 36 euros per person per night? That’s far cheaper than a Red Roof Inn for a house near the sea in Normandy.
Ah, but we can do even better.
RENT A PLACE IN FRANCE
Personally, my favorite fantasy website is Rent a Place in France, where I have spent many, many hours dreaming about renting houses up in the hills above the Cote d’Azure. And the funny thing is, we can afford them! Well, some of them.
Rent a Place in France offers dozens and dozens of houses all over the country (with the exception of Alsace, oddly), though the majority are in the dry, sun-baked southwest corner of France near Spain in the Midi-Pyrénées and Langudoc. Which sounds pretty good about now.
This is probably the place to explain to you how all this works. My research indicates that, of course, the swanky quotient of the property plays a big role in the price. But, what really boosts the price is proximity to cities, or to resort areas along the Mediterranean.
Take the Vieille Cuisine in the middle of nowhere, Midi-Pyrénées. A sturdy stone chateau that’s 300 years old, it has two double bedrooms and a courtyard, not to mention 8 acres of gardens and grounds you’re free to roam! The price starts at 525 euros per month!
The catch is, the nearest town is Condom (please, no jokes … we’re better than that), and the nearest big city is Toulouse, which looks to be about an hour away by car. And I’d be fine with that, but not everyone dreams of vacationing in Farmtown, France, though there is golf and other stuff to do nearby.
Conversely, if you want a huge villa with a pool on the Rivera, that’s gonna cost ya. Though a heck of a lot less than if you went to Disney World.
Villa Mimosa sleeps up to six people, and is up in the hills on the edge of Nice, one of the most expensive areas to summer … an area where Johnny Depp, Bono and P. Diddy hang out when they’re not in St. Barths. That location and level of luxury starts at 4,000 euros per month in the off season, 6,000 in the summer. Still, if you run the numbers, that’s 22 euros per day per person per month. Try that in anywhere near DisneyWorld in Orlando.
RENT A CHATEAU
Okay, the premise of this post is that you can actually rent an honest to goodness chateau in France … and you can. We stayed at Chateau de Villersexel near Mulhouse. Our rooms weren’t rooms … they were large apartments. And the per-night cost was something like 100 euros including breakfast. Or you can rent entire chateaux starting about 10,000 euros per week, which isn’t all that much more than you might pay for a luxury rental in Destin, Florida or Hilton Head.
Also, on the Rent a Place in France website, there are several houses that sleep 10-plus, including a 5,000-euro-per-month mansion in Bordeaux that sleeps up to 14. A much better deal is this chateau (at left) outside – way outside – Bordeaux. It sleeps up to 12 people in five bedrooms and has a pool. And best of all, it looks like a chateau … because it is.
All for 1,600 euros per month … about the same cost as our mortgage!
Are they chateaux? Well, that is mostly a question of semantics. But when you’re from Kentucky, anything with more than 10 rooms is definitely a chateau.
THE FINE PRINT
In our experience, most of the people with summer houses or gite space speak English (many are Brits) and are more than happy to give you all the details should you ring them up. In fact, if you peruse the Rent a Place in France website, you’ll notice most of the properties are owned by Brits, who’ve bought the houses as investments, or as their own summer homes. Which means many are only available in the off-season.
Also, you are buying a pig in a poke. But in France, at any rate, we’ve never had a place we reserved on the Internet turn out to be less than advertised.
Finally, it doesn’t hurt to speak a little French. When we showed up at Chateau de Villersexel, the eccentric Baron Jean-Pierre Potet acted like he’d forgotten about my fax — written in my best French — reserving our rooms. When he told us rather brusquely that he was booked up, I waved a copy of the fax and said, in colloquial French, “Yo, bro’, you’ kiddin’, right?”
Intrigued by a French-speaking American, he took to calling me “The Big Spy,” and my friend “The Little Spy.” Baron Potet took us on the grand tour of his chateau the next day, complete with a peek at his family treasures and a narrative about his uncle in the Resistance who died fighting the Nazis.
So be considerate … vacationing in France is best if you come prepared. Show up with a smidgen of vocabulary, an open mind and most of all, with an open heart for French life.