by Paul Wicks
IF YOU'RE looking for some homely accommodation next time you're away in the big smoke of London, then seriously consider popular online providers such as HomeAway and Airbnb, but be aware that it is not always plain sailing.
My wife and I used both services in a recent holiday to the British capital, but tried out a couple of hotels as a means of comparison.
From our experience, it generally made more sense to book a flat (or entire house) if you're there for more than a few nights, whereas hotels can be the way to go if it's just a one-night stand you're after - particularly if you're arriving at or leaving from one of the city's major airports.
Consider also the convenience of a hotel's 24-hour check-in and out. Some home/Airbnb property owners want to meet you on site to hand over the keys, at a time that's not always convenient. They won't take too kindly to an early meeting if your plane arrives at 5am.
But if you're like me and want some more room than just a hotel one, then from experience those rental sites offering flats or whole-of-house are the way to go. And they don't have to cost a fortune. We found a lovely little one-bedroom on HomeAway near the Premier Inn at Putney, for about $240 a night, on a weekly basis.
Booking it was no drama. We used the website and the out-of-town owner promptly replied, giving us the okay. We were given a code to open the security box containing the key.
The main bedroom was big, the living room less so but adequate and light-filled, and there was even a terrace. It was a pity that it was mostly cold and rainy, and that aircraft noise on approach to Heathrow was constant.
But it had all the mod-kitchen-cons (minus a microwave, though) for a pleasant stay and was a convenient base to see the sights of London.
It was a short walk to the tube or bus, a not-too-big hike to the shops of downtown Fulham and if you're up for it, a much longer walk into town to the museum district, Hyde Park and adjoining Kensington Gardens.
We sampled the National History Museum (bit of a disappointment because of sections being shut and noisy schoolkids) but the nearby V and A was a comparatively airy delight.
For our other extended stay in the capital we tried Airbnb and found a two-bedroom flat in nearby Wimbledon, adjoining Putney but on the other side of the Thames to Fulham.
No dramas with this booking although out of curiosity we later tried this site for another booking and were put off by a demand for identification, such as our passports, to be submitted online.
Another Airbnb minus for us, in the booking process, was finding accommodation that was listed as available only to be told, sometimes much later, by the owner that it was not.
Anyway, the Wimbledon flat was similarly good value, and convenient with a bus at the door and Southfields tube station down the hill ... bit of a climb on the return journey.
I can't speak too highly of the tube in these areas of London. The trains are quick, clean and convenient, but try to avoid peak hours or football days when the numbers can be overwhelming.
The only drama with this booking was a long list of instructions which looked daunting, but the absent owner emailed them well beforehand so we knew what we were letting ourselves in for - "take care with counter tops, the wireless router may need rebooting, don't use the bed part of the sofa as it is broken(!)". It also noted that there had been plumbing problems.
Luckily our only problem was with the heating. An email resulted in a tradesman arriving fairly quickly.
Those notes weren't all rules, with another two pages full of helpful hints about transport, shopping and nearby attractions.
We used this base to explore the area a little further out from Putney/Fulham.
We hiked over Putney and Wimbledon commons, a much longer walk to Richmond Park, a visit to a pub in the quaint Wimbledon Village and, of course, a peek at the home of lawn tennis.
Relatively short train trips away were two must-sees. There was the stunning 16th century Hampton Court Palace - the entire place is amazing, none more so than the Chapel Royal - and Kew Gardens which, even in the cooler months, was worth a longish wander through.
The writer travelled at his own expense.
Where/How to go: Simply do your homework, starting with the HomeAway and Airbnb websites.
When to go: All year. It's better away from peak season as the rentals should be cheaper. Remember that London is pretty much an all-weather city so you're not making much of a sacrifice by going seriously out of season, such as winter.
What to see (in and near the Fulham/Wimbledon areas of SW London): the shops on Fulham Rd, parks such as Bishop's which is next to the Thames in Fulham; also Wimbledon Village, Kew Gardens and Hampton Court Palace.