Know What You Want
Determine what kind of experience you’re after—particularly if you’re vacationing with a group. Do you require housekeeping every day, or are you willing to do your own dishes (even if there’s no dishwasher)? Would you prefer being more isolated, or within steps of town? If you’re considering extras—guided trips; an evening at the opera—confirm in advance your willingness to pay additional fees.

Get on the Phone
Pictures on websites certainly help, but it’s always best to speak to an agent by telephone. (Some companies won’t even work with clients they haven’t vetted themselves.) Those we recommend here have firsthand knowledge of the properties and can answer questions you might not have thought of: How far away is the grocery store? Is emergency help nearby? Does the local host speak English? How new are the appliances? Many agents also have access to more rentals—either in a private portfolio or through other contacts—that they can offer once you’ve outlined your needs.

Take Advantage of Extras
Rental owners are staying competitive by offering such perks as free housekeeping, the use of a car, or a private chef. When inquiring about a property, it’s entirely permissible—and not at all uncouth—to ask an agent if the owner is willing to throw in anything else. The best agencies leverage their industry contacts and relationships with property owners to organize things you couldn’t arrange yourself, be it a tasting in a noble family’s wine cellar or a hot-air balloon ride over the countryside. (Remember to confirm all related fees up front.)