NEW YORK – Mr Matt Tracy, a shoe distributor based in Portland, Maine, loves to cook.
On a recent multi-generational trip to Tuscany, Italy, the 45-year-old and other family members cooked seven out of 10 nights in a rental villa, preparing dishes such as wild boar ragu for 10 people, including his children aged six and nine.
“We save a tremendous amount of money cooking,” he said. “We love going out to dinner, but with two kids and other guests, it’s expensive.”
Whether catering to allergies or other dietary needs, ensuring family harmony or sticking to a budget, cooking on vacation is increasingly popular among travellers choosing short-term rental accommodations.
According to a 2023 travel trend report from the vacation rental platform Vrbo, demand for “foodie-menities” is on the rise.
Sixty-five per cent of users surveyed said equipment like a barbecue, air fryer and deluxe coffee machine were more important than the destination. Nearly half cook to reduce costs.
At Airbnb, “kitchen” is the third most-searched amenity among rentals after pools and Wi-Fi.
The rental platform made it easy to find accommodations with “chef’s kitchens” when it introduced lodging categories in May 2022.
“The kitchen tends to be the heart and soul of vacation homes,” said Mr Josh Viner, a regional operations director at the vacation rental home platform Vacasa, in an e-mail.
It is in the kitchen, he notes, that “guests gather to not only have a delicious, home-cooked meal, but also connect and relax”.
Convenience and exploration
Travellers who cook do it for many reasons: as a way to explore a place when shopping locally for ingredients; saving money; a family convenience; and more.
“Many clients like to have the cooking option,” said Mr Rob Stern, a travel agent based in Raleigh, North Carolina, who runs RobPlansYourTrip.com, singling out “families on a budget or those who have picky eaters”.
For others, meal preparation brings them closer to their destination.
“When I’m trying to experience a place, one of my favourite things to do is visit a grocery store,” said Ms Tanya Churchmuch, 53, who runs a public relations firm in New York City.
Preparing her own food also allows her to maintain a healthy diet.
Even on trips as short as three days, she takes a mini espresso maker and steel-cut oats, and buys fruit locally to eat at least one meal in, saving, she estimates, between US$15 (S$20) and US$30 a couple compared with dining out.
For Ashleigh Butler, author of cookbook The Small Kitchen Cook who has spent years living out of a camper van in her native Australia as well as North America, patronising local markets “allows you to absorb the culinary culture while supporting local farmers and makers”.
Renting a place with a fancy kitchen does not have to cost more. While the “chef’s kitchens” category for Chicago Airbnbs recently had plenty of fancy rentals going for US$1,200 and up, there was also a good selection under US$200.
Controlling food costs
For gastronauts, going to places famed for their food makes the cooking not only exciting, but also cheaper and simpler.
“In Italy, you’re starting off already with great quality ingredients, which makes cooking Italian food so much easier because you don’t have to do so much to the ingredients,” said Philadelphia-based chef Jeff Michaud, 46, who runs Osteria restaurant.
With his wife Claudia, he also runs travel company La Via Gaia, which takes small groups to Italy for cooking classes and visits to cheesemakers, truffle hunters and pasta masters.
On average, he estimates he spends about half to a third of what he would on equivalent ingredients at home, noting a loaf of bread often costs less than a dollar. “In Italy, food is still priced affordably,” he said.
When she travels in Europe, Ms Diane Morgan, 68, a food writer and culinary instructor based in Portland, Oregon, searches rental listings for appliances such as a grill to keep the cleaning to a minimum.
Three stays in the southern French town of Sablet offered her the chance to patronise local markets and bakeries.
“It was really simple eating,” she said, describing fresh salads for her lunches.
“I wasn’t trying to bake cakes, but just be able to utilise the local produce and especially the cheeses.”
Sampling local food in your rental kitchen does not always require cooking skills.
“My hot French insider tip for travellers with kitchens: frozen food,” said Californian writer Gayle Keck, 62, who recently relocated to France, in an e-mail.
She recommended the frozen food chain Picard as a time- and money-saver (four servings of salmon tartare costs €11.70 or S$17).
It is also a taste of how the locals cheat with classics like duck confit and quiche Lorraine.
“Picard is everyone’s little guilty secret.”
Packing salt, corkscrews and toothpicks
Sizing up a rental’s kitchen can be a hurdle for cooks on the road, resulting in unique packing lists.
Mr Tracy, the wild boar ragu chef, travels with Better Than Bouillon roasted chicken base, toothpicks for spearing finger food, and a chef’s knife and a paring knife, both wrapped in a towel and stowed in checked baggage.
In the summers of 2020 and 2021, Ms Churchmuch relocated to Iceland to work remotely. “That’s when I started taking things like knives and a microplane,” she said. “No one has a grater in his apartment.”
On a recent trip to Philadelphia, chef Tara Crowley, 37, who is based in South Lake Tahoe, California, chose the extended-stay hotel AKA University City because its open-plan kitchen allowed her to socialise with friends and family while cooking.
“I always travel with a wine key and take along flaky Irish salt,” she said in an e-mail. “The salt elevates any dish.”
Ms Eva Sobesky, an architect based in Los Angeles, tried to make it easier for renters to navigate the kitchen at her four-bedroom vacation home in coastal Manzanita, Oregon, which she rents out on Vrbo.
Open shelves allow guests to see where dishes and glasses are. A large central countertop island lets others gather around the cook. An induction cooktop is efficient and easy to clean.
“To me, the kitchen is the heart of the house,” Ms Sobesky said.
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