When my wife and I invited my mother to join us on a summer getaway to Aspen, Colo., last year, we decided our best lodging choice was to rent a two-bedroom, two-bath condominium apartment. It proved a bargain.
The condo was no more expensive than two separate rooms in a comparable hotel, and we could share the extra space of a living room and a fully equipped kitchen. Each morning, we ate an unhurried breakfast together in our condo before setting out to explore the Rocky Mountains.
Travel industry surveys indicate a growing interest among vacationers in condo rentals. But those so inclined face two hurdles: Who do you call to make a reservation? And how do you know the place isn't a dump?
Fortunately, finding a satisfactory condo rental is getting easier, although it is nowhere near as simple a task as picking up the phone and booking a hotel room or making a reservation in such other vacation alternatives as bed and breakfast inns, country inns and guest ranches.
Like hotels, condo rentals come in budget, mid-price and luxury categories, and you can rent in a building with as few as a dozen units or in a giant complex with hundreds of units. Many condo resorts provide a full sweep of recreational facilities, ranging from swimming pools to 18 holes of golf.
But in other ways, they differ greatly. At the Gant in Aspen, where we stayed, we checked in at a hotel-like front desk, but at some condos you have to arrange to pick up a key at a rental office at another site.
Many units are privately owned, and the owners furnish them to suit their tastes. At some condos, daily housekeeping service is offered; at others, you do it yourself. At many places, you may have to pay in advance for your entire stay. And some condos limit rentals to a seven-day minimum on a Saturday-to-Saturday basis.
Quite obviously, condos are not for everyone. On a skiing trip alone to Park City, Utah, a few years back, I made the mistake of booking a one-bedroom condo apartment near the slopes. It was a lovely unit, but all the apartments around mine were filled with families, and I felt completely out of place--and a little lonely. I knew after the first day I would have been much happier staying in a busy inn or lodge where I would have been in the company of other solo skiers like myself.
Before you rent a condo, you will want to know what to expect in order to avoid disappointment. Among the resources to guide you:
* Chambers of commerce or visitor information offices: At most resort destinations, the tourist information office can provide a list of real estate or rental agencies that handle condominium rentals. Typically, the agencies offer a wide choice of properties to meet your needs and your budget. Keep asking questions until you are satisfied you know what you are getting. Some agencies compile photo catalogues describing their properties. Request a copy before you make a deposit.
* Condo reservation services: Several vacation reservation services specialize in condominium rentals. If you are arranging a condo vacation through a travel agency, the agency probably will consult a reservation service. Or you can make the call on your own. One such service, Condolink of Omaha, Neb. (tel. 800-733-4445), specializes in time-share rentals in major beach and ski resorts throughout the United States. Another, Creative Leisure International of Petaluma, Calif. (tel. 800- 426-6376), puts together complete condo vacation packages in Hawaii, Mexico and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.
* Condominium Travel Associates, founded in 1990, is an organization of about 325 travel agents in the United States and Canada who regularly market condo vacations as a part of their travel services. When you call the organization (tel. 800- 492-6636), you will be given the name, phone number and address of the member agent nearest you. Dynasty Travel's Mac Parrish is a member. The agents can provide you with brochures and a property description sheet detailing the amenities of any condos that interest you. The agents also handle the booking. Condominium Travel is promising a discount of 10%-40% off what you would pay if you phoned the condominium directly, says president Rick Fisher. * Guidebooks: So far, there are only two guidebooks of which I am aware that make a serious effort to provide travelers with the details they need to know to rent a condo. "Condo & Villa Vacations Rated" by Clinton Burr and Ellen Burr comes in two volumes (Prentice Hall; $17 each). One lists 3,200 condo rentals in the United States and Canada, the other 2,000 condo rentals in Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean. The condo complexes are inspected and rated from one to 10. Most of the condos included in the guide are privately owned as opposed to being part of a time-share arrangement.
The other guidebook, "Condo Vacations" by Pamela Lanier (Lanier; $14.95), describes 3,000 vacation condominiums in the United States, the Caribbean and Mexico, but without evaluation. Descriptive material, the author says, is based on material submitted by the condo management or, in some cases, by someone who has stayed in a condo and offered a critique.
Christopher Reynolds is on assignment.