Spring is an ideal time to visit Manhattan. So why not live like the locals do?
It felt both awkward and strangely comforting when we turned up at Winston's Manhattan apartment, dumped our bags and set about making ourselves at home in his home. Awkward, as our reason for visiting was not to see Winston. And comforting because we were about to relieve him of his house keys, see him politely to the door and live it up in his plush apartment for a week.

Any feelings of guilt for throwing a man out of his own home soon disappeared when we settled up the week's rent: $2,363 (around pounds 1,500). That might sound expensive, but split between six friends, it worked out at a thrifty 57 bucks a night (around pounds 35) for a spacious 10th-floor apartment located right on Central Park South.

When you consider that the 1999 hotel occupancy forecast for Manhattan is 81.3 per cent in 1998 - and with average room rates topping $200 a night - renting an apartment makes a comfortable and surprisingly cost- effective alternative.

Yet most of the guide books seem to skim over this option. We found our apartment on the Internet through New York Habitat. All the formalities were completed by fax from the UK, which meant that all we had to do was pick up the keys from the owner on arrival.

This is perhaps the one area of uncertainty. What if the accommodation is an absolute dump when you arrive? It's a possible worst-case scenario if booking privately with some of the unregulated sub-letting that is available on the Internet and in the New York listing magazines, but all the agencies that are listed on the right claimed to regularly inspect the properties on their books and you are usually able to view the accommodation online.

In fact, although looking pretty smart in the pictures, Winston's place was much bigger and far more appealing when we arrived. The interior featured an intriguing collection of original artwork and cluttered book shelves, and was crammed with musical curiosities reflecting his profession as an opera director, including an ageing grand piano in the corner. Home comforts included a television and video recorder, stereo, e-mail facilities, free local calls and a monstrous fridge to fill with beers, olives, homestead orange juice and the leftovers from last night's pizza.

All in all, renting Winston's home worked out well for us. OK, so we had to service our own rooms and stock our own mini bar, but these are sacrifices worth making to be able to enjoy the company of your friends in a communal space rather than the often sterile environment of a hotel.

There is one downside. When the lethargy sets in after a day's shopping and touring the sights, it's all too easy to stop off at a deli, pick up a six-pack and a Caesar salad and waste an evening in one of the world's most exciting cities engaged in the most mind-numbing of stateside activities: watching TV.

Further Information

New York Habitat (www.nyhabitat.com)

550 short-term vacation rentals in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.

307 7th Avenue, Suite 306, New York City, NY 10001 (00 1 212 627 1416 or: rent@ nyhabitat.com)

Big Apple Lodgings (www.b-apple.com)

Online B&B registry and short-term apartment rental covering Manhattan, Brooklyn and Long Island. Minimum stay two nights in properties ranging from studios to five-bedroom apartments.

Charles on 00 1 718 953 4590 or: info@b-apple.com)

Ingrite's Short-Term Apartments (www.ingrite.com)

Offers completely furnished townhouse apartments in midtown Manhattan. Properties are $120 to $300 per night.

Ingrite Rieck (00 1 212 980 3082 or: ingrite@aol.com)

Oxbridge Property Services

One-bedroom accommodation from $135 per night, two-bedroom from $225.

1623 Third Avenue, Suite 104, New York, NY 10128 (00 1 212 348 8100 or: oxbridge@ aol.com)

Assured Accommodation Inc (www.assurednyc.com)

Studios and one-bedroom apartments from $150 per night, two- and three- bedroom apartments ranging between $250-$500, minimum stay three nights.

00 1 212 431 0569 or: mail@assurednyc.com)

Urban Ventures (www.nyurbanventures.com)

New York's best-known agency, representing more than 500 properties from studios at $105 per night to a Central Park West penthouse offering "views of the world (call for details)".

38 West 32nd Street, Suite 1412, New York City, NY 10001 (00 1 212 594 5650. Fax or: anne@nyurbanventures.com)

Alternative Business Accommodations (www.rent.net/ads/aba)

Studios for a minimum of one month with porter, maid service and a range of extras from $2,850 per month, one-bedroom apartments from $3,600 per month.

PO Box 7147 FDR Station, New York City, NY 10150 (00 1 212 4450494 or: altbusac@erols.com)