Browsing local markets, sitting on a piazza sipping treacle-thick espresso or heading to the nearest beach: whichever kind of holiday appeals, summer villa rentals are your chance to check out of the daily grind.
Luxury operator CV Villas (020 7563 7999; cvtravel.co.uk) says that while perennial favourites such as Tuscany and Provence are showing strong bookings for this summer, Greece's Ionian islands are also proving popular.
Every year operators introduce new properties, which often means greater availability, until word gets out. Simpson Travel (020 3627 9688; simpsontravel.com) is offering the four-bedroom Villa Cinque Palme, on Corfu, for the first time. Set in mature gardens with sea views, the villa is stylishly decorated and also has its own pretty loggia and swimming pool. Seven nights from 19 July costs £1,056pp, based on eight sharing, including flights, self-catering accommodation and car hire.
High-end operator Scott Williams (01749 812 721; scottwilliams.co.uk), which reports rising interest in Menorca, has just introduced its first villa on the Balearic island. The extremely luxurious Finca Lucilla sleeps up to 12, and features a huge swimming pool as well as a badminton court and boules pitch. It costs between £6,600 to £8,400 per week in high season.
Compared with previous years, this summer may offer better value in sterling terms, thanks to the weak euro. A villa, priced in euros and costing €1,500 per week, currently equates to just over £1,100, whereas a year ago it was around £125 more. You will also save on anything from coffee to car rental once you get there. And although villa favourite Croatia is outside the eurozone, in practice the local kuna shadows the euro.
In pictures: European villa holidays
In pictures: European villa holidays
In the Montemarcello National Park, near the northern Tuscan coast, Murella is a stone villa with a large garden and solar-heated pool. It sleeps six and costs £1,994 a week in July and August from Invitation to Tuscany
One of CV Villas' newest offerings, Villa Deronda is tucked away in serene countryside. Its Andalucian-inspired decor is stylish and light and there is a solarheated swimming pool
Newly renovated for 2015, the traditional-style, two bedroom Villa Nikoletta in the Cretan hills above Kalives is available through Freelance Holidays
One of the good family options on Home Away is the two-bed townhouse in Dunas Douradas between Val de Lobo and Quinta do Lago, also on the Algarve
In the quintessential French getaway of the Luberon, you can live out your Year in Provence fantasies at La Petite Maison in the heart of Cabrière d’Avignon. Sleeping four, this archetypally Provençal villa has a small pool and pretty courtyard garden. Available from SJ Villas
6/6 European villa holidays
Home from home: villa breaks offer freedom and luxury
Apart from the occasional last-minute offer, rental bargains are hard to come by from mid-July to the end of August, but travelling in June and September can offer savings.
As well as the long-established agents, peer-to-peer websites such as HomeAway (020 8827 1971; homeaway.co.uk), Owners Direct (0845 528 0249; ownersdirect.co.uk), Holidaylettings (020 3701 5369; holidaylettings.co.uk) and the behemoth, Airbnb (0843 504 7257; airbnb.co.uk), have revolutionised the rental market. HomeAway, which has more than a million properties on its books, says its top trend for this summer is the Costa del Sol, followed by Mallorca and the central Algarve.
There is also an ever-increasing number of enterprises such as Kid & Coe (001 212 905 6065; kidandcoe.com) that specialise in properties suitable for families with children, with all the essentials for planning. These websites tend to be a more affordable option and can offer better flexibility on change-over days and how long you stay. Many will also give you access to unique properties that are not available through traditional channels. For example Airbnb has the eye-catching, Casa Civita (bit.ly/CasaCivita), a three-bed, 14th-century palazzo in the tiny village of Civita di Bagnoregio in Lazio, Italy, from £386 a night. Lovingly restored by its American owners, it features its own spring-fed underground pool, stylish decor and fabulous views. However, if you do choose to book via a third-party website, it's wise to do a bit of extra homework. For a start, Airbnb will typically extract 15 per cent in commission from the transaction – on a €1,500 rental, that amounts to £165.
Some unwitting travellers have also suffered fraud. Last year, a report compiled by the City of London's National Fraud Intelligence Bureau found that 30 per cent of all holiday booking scams were a result of fraudulent villa and apartment listings. Reading the reviews is imperative to building up a picture of the property and how it is run. Looking on the likes of Google Earth or Street View to see the exact location and what is in its immediate vicinity can offer extra intelligence. Pick up the phone and speak to the owner – on their landline, not a mobile. And be very wary about anyone who asks you to transfer money direct from your bank account, or giving out your credit card details to an unknown party, until you have satisfied yourself that you are dealing with a genuine owner.
Most established companies such as Airbnb, HomeAway and Holiday Lettings have secure payment options. When a booking is made on Airbnb the money is taken from the guest but is not released to the host until 24 hours after check-in, to reassure guests who may like to complain (but if you choose to cancel, you'll still be charged Airbnb's commission).
Rental agencies can therefore be worth the added expense. They are effectively a middle-man between owner and guests; properties are assessed to ensure they reach a certain standard, and any issues can be addressed via local representatives or the operator itself. They can also give tailored recommendations for clients.
Tuscany may be popular, but there are some off-the-beaten-track spots to try. In the Montemarcello National Park, near the northern Tuscan coast, Murella is a stone villa with a large garden and solar-heated pool. It sleeps six and costs £1,994 a week in July and August from Invitation to Tuscany (020 8444 9500; invitationtotuscany.com).
Villas for two are something of a rarity, but Villa Metato, in Umbria, is just that. And as a bonus, breakfast is left outside the door each morning. It costs £668pp for a week between 1 June and 15 September through i-escape (i-escape.com).
Launched in January, the new Massimo Villa Collection (020 3529 8013; massimovillas .com) features Sicily. On the south-east coast, with views of Vendicari Nature Reserve, four-bed Villa Terra Nobile is a tranquil retreat with a pool and help-yourself fruit and vegetable garden. The manager will even supply his mama's homemade focaccia and tomato sauce. From €2,800 to €4,500 a week in summer.
In the quintessential French getaway of the Luberon, you can live out your Year in Provence fantasies at La Petite Maison, in the heart of Cabrière d'Avignon. Sleeping four, this archetypally Provençal villa has a small pool and pretty courtyard garden. Available from SJ Villas (020-7351 6384; sjvillas.co.uk) from €2,300 per week in summer.
If you like the idea of a villa but would prefer the social aspect of meeting other people, the Château les Carrasses (0845 686 8067; lescarrasses.com) might hold the answer. There are 28 villas, apartments and suites scattered around the 19th-century château, its estate and vineyards in the bucolic surroundings of the Languedoc. There is an on-site bistro, wine bar, tennis courts, infinity pool and a kids' club. A seven-night stay in Les Ateliers starts from £3,073 per week in high season for a family of four.
Mallorca is always a popular option, particularly for families, with its plentiful beaches and activities. Arengada is a restored farmhouse down a quiet lane near Pollença Old Town, with views of the Tramuntana Mountains, a large garden and a swimming pool. It sleeps up to six and costs £1,695 a week in June or £2,695 in July through Vintage Travel (01954 261 431; vintagetravel.co.uk).
Ronda is one of the most impressive of inland Andalucía's pueblos blancos, or "white towns". One of CV Villas' (020 7563 7999; cvtravel.co.uk) newest offerings, Villa Deronda (left) is tucked away in serene countryside a short drive away. Its Andalucian-inspired decor is stylish and light and there is a solar-heated swimming pool. Sleeps nine; from £1,565 to £2,321 a week, June to August.
Self-catering villas in Greece are a great way of escaping the crowds at coastal hotels. Newly renovated for 2015, the traditional-style, two-bedroom Villa Nikoletta, in the Cretan hills above Kalives, is available through Freelance Holidays (01789 297 705; freelance-holidays.co.uk). It's air-conditioned and has a swimming pool. From £763 a week in June to £1,183 a week in August.
With dreamy views of the sea, a smart lap pool and cool, spare interiors, the stone-built Kastanida on Paxos is new this year from Think Ionian Islands (020 7377 8518; the thinkingtraveller.com). A short drive from the seaside village of Lakka on the north-east coast of the island, it costs £2,910 per week for four people from 20 June, rising to £4,150 during the school summer holidays.
New to James Villa Holidays (0800 074 0122; jamesvillas.co.uk) this year, Villa Erin, in Bordeira on the Algarve, sleeps up to eight and costs from £755 per week in June, from £1,835 in August.
One of the good family options on HomeAway (020 8827 1971; homeaway.co.uk) is the two-bed townhouse (ref: 9792) in Dunas Douradas between Val de Lobo and Quinta do Lago, also on the Algarve. There is a communal swimming pool, a playground, restaurants, bars and a sandy beach all within walking distance. Seven nights start at €1,050 in high season.
For some, the idea of renting a house may be tempered by the daily drudge of being at home, only in more exotic surroundings. Upmarket companies such as CV Villas, Scott Dunn (020 3432 7647; scottdunn.com), A&K Villas (01242 547700; akvillas.com), SJ Villas (020 7351 6384; sjvillas.co.uk) and Simpson Travel, offer added extras such as nannies, chefs and concierge services to give guests more time to relax.
For example, Villa Retreats (0800 988 5586; villaretreats.com) has concierge services for its villas in Greece, Spain and Portugal, which include anything from chauffeurs and cooks to children's party planning. In selected properties in Spain and Portugal, it also offers "Baby Comes Too" extras such as sterilising equipment, cots, buggies and toys.
If the thought of shaping up appeals to you, The Healthy Holiday Company's (020 8968 0501; thehealthyholidaycompany.co.uk) Healthy Villas programme can arrange DIY fitness weeks in Ibiza, Mallorca and other parts of Spain. Scott Williams, meanwhile, has a new tutoring service that will visit families in rental properties over the summer – perhaps not quite the sun, sea and sand holiday your offspring had in mind ....Reuse content