Renting a flat in London

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NEW YORK -- A common language and the uncommon civility of its citizens make London perhaps the most accommodating destination for an American's first trip abroad.

So it seemed an ideal introduction to Europe for my mother, who, at 64, had never crossed the U.S. border, much less the Atlantic.

My partner also decided to come along and bring his mother. Problem was, we needed three hotel rooms per night to accommodate this somewhat less-than-conventional family trip overseas.

The near-staggering cost of hotel rooms in London quickly sent us scrambling for more affordable alternatives. Rather than going the hotel route, we opted for a one-week rental on a three-bedroom apartment from Barclay International Group, a firm here that rents "serviced apartments" in a handful of European cities.

Barclay, which represents more than 3,500 apartments in London alone, pays an 8% commission on all agent bookings. Besides attractive pricing, an apartment would provide a common gathering space as well as the privacy necessary for a comfortable vacation.

With a fully equipped kitchen, we could eat however and whatever we liked and do so more economically than dining out three times a day. We also figured we could hop on a train for day trips, a more convenient alternative than packing up and traveling to a new town every second or third night.

After browsing Barclay's efficient Web site (www.barclayweb.com), which enables you to search for apartments by name, neighborhood and price, I called the company's toll-free number to make a booking.

Its offerings in London range from studios that start at $69 per night to a four-bedroom deluxe whopper that tops $1,000 per night. Some apartments require a minimum stay of either three days or one week.

Not sure which location to choose, I asked the Barclay representative for her suggestion. The apartment she recommended, however, turned out to be unavailable during the week in October I had targeted. (It's a good idea to encourage clients to plan in advance and to be flexible on travel dates if they want a specific apartment for a specific date.)

The next day a representative called back with a second recommendation, a building called Collingham Gardens in an area where the leafy borders of South Kensington and Chelsea blur.

The apartment was billed as an elegant building situated on a quiet, tree-lined street in the Kensington conservation area. Besides three bedrooms, it offered two full baths, a living/dining room, a fully equipped kitchen and the services of a 24-hour concierge.

The price? A reasonable $399 per night, including service charges and taxes as well as maid service six days a week.

As a means of comparison, I checked the rates on the Millennium Gloucester Hotel a few blocks down the street from this apartment. A standard guest room at this property was going for $316 a night, tax not included.

Barclay also will arrange for private airport transfers ($88 each way).

The company requires a $200 deposit upon booking, and, unlike hotels, the apartments must be prepaid in full approximately 10 days before departure. Forking over almost $3,000 site unseen left me a little apprehensive, but everything went without a hitch from the get-go.

The driver was awaiting our flight at Heathrow and led us to a brand-new sport utility vehicle. He ferried us directly to the property, which has a front desk like a traditional hotel with an attendant on duty 24 hours a day.

The apartment and its neighborhood did not disappoint. Collingham Gardens is but one of a row of delightful Victorian architectural gems that line an eponymous residential street.

Inside the apartment, the high-ceiling living room was handsomely outfitted with a sofa, two easy chairs, cable television, a direct-dial phone and a dining room table that seats six. Its two windows overlooked the street and landscaped grounds across the way. The kitchen was more than adequately stocked for cooking a multicourse meal.

The Gloucester Underground stop is a five-minute walk, as is a gargantuan grocery store called Sainsbury's and restaurants and latte shops.

Harrod's was a pleasant 20-minute walk or two-stop tube trip, and the stroll to the shops and restaurants of Chelsea's trendy Kings Road was about 15 peaceful minutes.

Barclay International Group

Phone: (800) 845-6636.

E-mail: [email protected]

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