Guest Post: Guide to Renting a Self Catering Cottage in Britain and in England

Gold Hill - Shaftesbury Dorset

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Jane – who owns the fabulous Updown Cottage which we had the pleasure to stay in last November. Since she’s an expert on everything self-catering – I asked who to put together this excellent guide to renting self catering accommodation in the United Kingdom. Thanks Jane!

Until very recently I had no idea that the concept of a ‘self catering holiday’ was almost unknown outside Europe. As a little girl in England we always rented holiday cottages in Cornwall for our annual fortnight holiday and I often spent them devouring books, perhaps by Enid Blyton, which told of the adventures children had whilst staying at the house their parents or grandparents had rented for the summer holidays.

My children have often spent their holidays in Cornwall where we usually get together en famille with grandparents, cousins and friends but also in France and Italy where we have rented gites or villas by the week. With 3 small children there was no thought to do otherwise as far as we were concerned – a holiday free from the constraints and worries of staying amongst strangers and at perhaps a tenth of the cost. If you’ll excuse the expression – it was a no brainer!

In the last few years we have taken the plunge and invested in a cottage in Dorset which we set up to run as a holiday cottage with the express purpose of providing everything that we would expect to find (and hopefully more!) when renting a holiday property. In retrospect, had I realised that self catering was unusual in other countries, I wouldn’t have been so mystified by the charming American gentleman who insisted on booking a particular room that he had seen on the website. I kept trying to explain that he could choose any room he liked when he arrived, as the whole house would be his….. I think eventually we got there!

I have no idea of the number of holiday properties in England but they undoubtedly run into the many thousands and will come in every variety of shape and size imaginable. Some will be in the centre of a city, others in a wild, remote location. There will be those which are akin to (I would even go so far as to say ‘surpass’) staying in the best hotels and there will be those which are quite basic.

I was going to say that probably the only people they would not suit would be those requiring room service or portering but in fact there are even serviced apartments in some cities and towns which provide these. The really exciting thought is that self catering offers travellers absolute freedom of choice in every possible way, from location and facilities to price and décor. The advantages over hotel accommodation are numerous – a whole house to call your own for the duration of your stay, absolute privacy, the freedom to eat in or out at whatever time suits (haven’t we all craved an egg or beans on toast at some point in a holiday rather than yet another hotel or restaurant meal?), to eat breakfast in your dressing gown in the garden and perhaps, above all else, to really feel that one has a ‘home away from home’.

The question is how to filter through the myriad properties and choose one to stay in?

Without doubt your route lies on the internet – guide books will only ever show a miniscule selection, a fraction of the detail and will inevitably be out of date. There are many, many agency and listing sites out there in addition to the individual property sites. Some of these sites will have inspected and positively accepted the properties they list whereas others make no such claims.

From my own experience I would start by creating a list of your specific requirements, perhaps armed with Google maps which are able to zoom in and out. Try to picture your dream location and style of property and any particular requirements. A modern, city centre apartment or a cosy country cottage? Within easy reach of public transport or will you have a car? In the midst of heritage and history or activities and sports? Do you need Wifi? Is luxury a pre-requisite? Have you dreamed of snuggling up in front of a roaring log fire or sitting on a terrace with spectacular views? Be as specific as you can about the nearest town.

If you identify a suitable property on a listing site, try to search further for its own website which should give a much better feel of both the place and its owner.

In almost all cases these days, UK holiday homes will come equipped with linen & towels; heating and final cleaning should be included but it is a good idea to read the website carefully and email or speak to the owners to ensure that there are no hidden costs. Many owners pride themselves in ‘going the extra mile’ and also provide a welcome basket of groceries, toiletries, recommendations for local services such as chefs, yoga instructors, florists and additional cleaning payable locally. On that note, guests are expected to leave the house as they find it but a full clean and ‘changeover’ will always be done between guests. Don’t even think of renting anywhere which suggests otherwise!

The vast majority of holiday homes will be professionally set up businesses rather than someone’s home but should still be equipped with books, films, music and more than enough kitchenware for your needs.

Visit Britain run an assessment scheme which awards star ratings and Gold or Silver awards to the highest scoring but it is a significant expense to the owner so not being rated is not necessarily an indication of poor quality. The overwhelming factor for me in reaching a decision is the quality of the website, the efficiency of the owner in answering your queries and of course the location and style of the property which is entirely personal! Try also to bear in mind a favourite family saying, ‘if you pay peanuts you’ll get monkeys’!

A deposit of between 10 and 50% will usually be required to secure the booking; the balance and some form of refundable housekeeping deposit will be payable between 4 and 8 weeks in advance of the holiday, at which point you should be given details of how to access the property, directions, local knowledge and who to contact in an emergency. Agencies may accept credit card payments, however individual property owners are only likely to take sterling cheques, bank transfers or credit cards via Paypal or Google Checkout. There are pros and cons to renting through an agent versus directly with the owner – you may feel that you have more consumer protection with an agency but the constant vigilance of the owner will usually ensure a high standard of maintenance and care of their property. It is always advisable to check the cancellation policy and to take out travel insurance.

You will often be able to rent a home for short breaks of 3 or 4 nights rather than just by the week, however to really feel at home I would book for as long as possible!

You may find the following sites useful:

Visit Britain Self Catering Cottage Database: Click the self catering button. Lists graded accommodation only.

Special Escapes: Inspected properties with something special whether it be the welcome, the location or quirky style.

Tourist Information Centre Database: For tourist information centres throughout Britain which are excellent sources of local accommodation and knowledge.

And lastly do feel free to contact me on Twitter in case I can help with any advice.

Should anyone be looking for a cosy, country 16th Century English cottage, stuffed with beams and character, in the very midst of heritage and historical sites but with Wifi and within easy reach of public transport, with every luxury, rated 5* with a Gold award and yes, both the roaring log fire and terrace with spectacular views…..perhaps you might like to take a look at!

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  1. avatar says

    Those are really useful tips and I would also add the English tourism official website, Enjoy England, as another good source to help find quality accommodation.

    Also as Jane says we too were surprised how many visitors are novices at self-catering which is why we did a short guide for vacation rentals in London. Here’s a link to the article in our blog:

    Maybe someone can explain why self catering is lost on other nationalities.

  2. avatarStephen Isabirye says

    I am glad to learn that in his childhood, Jonathan devoured Enid Blyton’s books in his childhood just as some of us did, which explains why I have written and published a book on Enid Blyton, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (
    Stephen Isabirye

  3. avatar says

    What wonderful tips! Will be sure to pass this info along to friends traveling to the UK. And I’m sure no one will ever forget your favourite family saying … peanuts … monkeys!