View from self-catered accommodation in the Pembrokeshire countryside, Wales | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Everything you need to know for your first self-catering holiday

Self-catering homes and apartments are one of my favourite places to stay when I’m travelling. Here’s my guide to everything you need to know about self-catered accommodation, including my packing list of essentials that’ll help you get maximum enjoyment from your holiday home.

I’d like to think of myself as a bit of a self-catering veteran.

Over the years I’ve stayed in my fair share of hotels, hostels, chalets, bunkhouses and even converted lorries. But I grew up spending family holidays spent in gîtes (rural holiday homes) and apartments in France. There was always something magical about living like a local for a week or two, with room to spread out.

Family meals were cooked together in our borrowed kitchens and eaten outside in the sun, and my sister and I always had new places to explore. Some of my most treasured memories of our trips are the times we spent in these homes away from home; evenings on terraces watching the sunset, squabbling over jars of nutella at breakfast in old-fashioned little kitchens, devouring all the cherries we could get our hands on in our garden one year.

Even now, I still find myself gravitating towards self-catered places.

It’s easy to find a location and property type that suits you and the type of holiday you love if you’re willing to try self-catering – there’s simply more choice. Want to be at the heart of the city? You can opt for a pied-a-terre right in the thick of it. Travelling with kids? Look for a home with a garden you can all run riot in. Love great views? Choose an apartment with a great terrace or balcony. Choice is the name of the game, and with websites like Airbnb now so big, it’s never been easier to find great self-catered homes.

In this post, I’m to share more about why I think you should try self-catering for your next trip – and what you need to know before you go. I’ve also got some tips, tricks and an essential packing list that will make your stay even easier and more enjoyable.

Why you should try self-catering

Location, location, location. It’s a great reason to choose self-catering. But there’s three more enticing reasons to consider this option; comfort, cooking and cost.

It’s comfortable

Unlike a hotel room, a house or apartment of your own feels a home from home. You can unpack, settle in and enjoy having more space to lounge. It’s often a chance to have outdoor space of your very own – so you can eat, drink and relax in your own little place in the sun.

It’s fantastic for cooks

Self-catered accommodation is the perfect choice if you love to cook. Whilst I like eating out as much as the next person, there’s so much fun to be had shopping at local markets and trying new ingredients when you’re away. Having your own kitchen lets you experiment with new cuisines, and whip up home comforts if needed. I also find it helpful having a space to prepare packed lunches and picnics if we’re on an active break and out all day.

It’s budget-friendly

Self-catering can be an incredibly budget-friendly way to travel. Sharing a house or apartment with friends and family can be substantially cheaper than booking a hotel. Plus, staying in rather than going out can be a much more affordable way to feed a crowd if you’re travelling with friends and family. Even just preparing breakfast at your home-from-home can add up to a big saving.

Fantastic view from self-catering accommodation at Lake Annecy, France | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog
One of my favourite breakfast views in the world – Lake Annecy in France. You’ll only find this view from a self-catered apartment.

What you need to know about self-catering

If there’s one thing you should know before you book your first stay, it’s that not every self-catered property is the same.

Some properties will be equipped with very basic supplies. Others come complete with everything you might find at home, with a luxurious welcome basket waiting on the table. In my experience, I’ve often found that there isn’t much of a relationship between the price of the property and what you’ll find on arrival, so just bear this in mind.

This definitely isn’t a criticism of self-catering. It’s just that different property owners have different approaches. I find apartments in ski resorts are always very sparsely equipped. But Airbnbs, especially when the owners are local, are often thoughtfully packed with tools and supplies that make cooking a delight. We’ve even arrived to bottles of wine and freshly baked goodies.

Please don’t let the unpredictability deter you. It’s usually really easy to find out what’s in the property, so you can plan and pack appropriately.

There’s two questions I find it extremely helpful to answer before I arrive. If the answers aren’t in the booking information, contact the owners or agents. They’re usually pleased that you thought to ask, and willing to help.

What linens will I find in the house/apartment?

Bed linen and towels are commonplace, but it’s best to be sure. I still occasionally find quirky places that ask you to bring your own bath towels. It’s also worth remembering that if you want to head to the coast or pool during your stay, you’ll need to bring your own beach towels as they usually aren’t included.

Do I need to clean before I leave?

Most properties won’t ask you to clean. In fact, some – like those on Airbnb – will ask for a small fee for a cleaning service at the end of your stay. However, it used to be quite common to expect guests to clean before departing and I still find properties in France and in ski resorts sometimes ask this of you. It’s best to avoid surprises and know before you go, and always leave the place neat and tidy whether cleaning is included or not.

How to prepare for your self-catered trip

Having answered the two questions above, you can do a little prep that’ll go a long way to making your stay easier and more enjoyable. In my mind this is the secret to success.

If you’ve got room to bring a few essential supplies from home to supplement those in your apartment or home, you can get on with enjoying your trip – rather than getting lost in the cleaning aisle of an unfamiliar supermarket. You might also be surprised to see how much money you save, as buying basics can quickly add up.

So here’s my tried and tested, suitcase-friendly packing list for your first self-catered holiday. Download it, print it out and add extras – make it your own.

Self-catering holiday packing list | Girl with a saddle bag travel bag

Download and print my self-catering holiday packing list here.

Self-catering household essentials

Kitchen essentials

  • Washing up liquid. Because you won’t need a litre of the stuff. Fill a small travel bottle – it should be plenty for a week.
  • Dish cloth. You’ll need this with the above. Often not provided and takse up no space at all in your luggage.
  • A tea towel or dish towel. To be honest, two if you’ve got room. They’re mysterious items that seem to get used for everything when you’re away.
  • A couple of bin bags. You won’t need many. It used to be easy to grab a carrier bag or two at the supermarket, but these days you’ll want to save the effort and cost of buying a year’s supply for just a few days.
Kitchen essentials for staying in self-catering accommodation: A dish towel, dish cloth, dish sponge, washing up liquid and bin bags | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Bathrooms essentials

  • Loo rolls. I’m not trying to alarm you, most places supply at least one loo roll to get you started! But if you’re worried about being caught short, are only staying a few nights or aren’t partial to the pink, scented varieties popular in central Europe, then never fear bringing your own.
  • Hand soap. Save the complementary bars you find in hotels and bring your own. Who needs a whole bottle for a few days?
  • A dish cloth and multipurpose cleaner. If cleaning isn’t included at the end of your stay, pop these essentials in your luggage so you can give the bathroom a quick once over before you leave.
Bathroom essentials for staying in self-catering accommodation: a towel, toilet roll and a bar of soap | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Miscellaneous (but very useful)

  • Shopping bags. Bring your own to save a few cents and some plastic. They’re also great for collecting your recycling.
  • Travel adaptors. As with hostels and hotels, it’s best to be prepared with your own.
Pack a shopping bag and travel adaptors for your self-catering accommodation | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Top tip: If you’re travelling as a couple or a family, pack all these items together in one place so they’re easy to find. Stashing them in a shopping bag can be a good plan. If you’re travelling with friends, consider splitting these items between you – it makes it even easier to pack.

Self-catering packing for those who love to cook and picnic

Bringing a few basics makes it easy to whip up a meal. Nothing beats being able to transform a few delicious goodies from a summer street market into a magical meal with just a few seasonings.

Whilst you’re likely find a few of these items in your new kitchen, they might not be very fresh so I often pack my own.

For cooks

  • Small bottle of olive oil. Another great use for miniature travel bottles. Olive oil can double up as cooking oil or salad dressing at a pinch. Versatile and much less frustrating than having to buy a litre you’ll never get through.
  • Small containers of salt, pepper and your favouorite herb or spice. (For me, this is usually mixed herbs of some kind). These basics can transform a tin of tomatoes into a pasta sauce in no time, and season almost anything.
  • A few stock cubes. Instant flavouring without your spice rack.
  • Your daily brew. A few tea bags, a few days worth of coffee. Whatever you like to start the day with. Coffee lovers might want to try coffee bags – like tea bags, but for brewing up a beverage more akin to an Americano.
  • Carbs. You might want to choose these when your away. But I find it can be helpful to bring one meal’s worth of something. Think of it as emergency rations. Can’t find the perfect place to shop on your first day? Grab what you can and transform your pasta or rice into a last minute meal that tastes better than a pre-packed sandwich.
Cooking essentials to pack when staying in self-catering accommodation: pasta, oil, fruit, snacks, seasonings, tea and coffee | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

For bonus points: If you’ve got room in your luggage, there are plenty more options that travel well. Snack bars and chocolate are easy to pack and can be very handy if you’re planning an active trip. Robust fruit like apples and pears survive suitcases surprisingly well. Cereals such as muesli, granola and porridge oats are a great start to a day on your feet and are easy to pack. Lastly, whilst I don’t eat these much at home, dried soup mixes, flavoured couscous and noodles are brilliant emergency supplies.

For lunch lovers

Having your own kitchen makes it really easy to prepare packed lunches for days out hiking, biking or skiing. It also makes picnicing a breeze.

  • Water bottle. If you’re a regular reader you’ll know I’m a huge fan of taking my platypus bottle everywhere. Not only are they better for the environment, reusable water bottles will save you from lugging bottles back from the supermarket.
  • Lunch box. Pack a tub or tupperware that you can use for packed lunches when you’re out and about. Feel smug that you’ve not had to reach for a sandwich bag. (That said, re-using bread bags and other food packaging can also work well).
  • Spork. Like lunches that aren’t sandwich-based? A handy spork makes salads, yoghurts and more on the go easy. Also there’s no risk of losing cutlery from your accommodation (One day I’ll tell you my family’s story about a cutlery set and a wheelie bin. It’s funnier than it sounds).
Picnic lunch essentials to pack when you are staying in self-catering accommodation; a water bottle, lunch box and spork | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Just for fun

Lastly, there are few things I like to pack to really make my holiday home feel like home.

  • Wireless speaker. Hook up your phone for an instant party or background tunes. Travelling with a crowd? Take it in turns to be the DJ, it’s much more fun.
  • Card and board games. Yes, some hosts are great at supplying games – we had a good laugh learning the game of ‘Jeden’ with instructions in Slovenian. But, I always like to take a few favourites for rainy days and evenings when you want to stay in with a glass of wine or two. You can never go wrong with Uno, playing cards and Travel Scrabble.
Games and entertainment to pack for a self-catering holiday; Uno, Scrabble and a wireless speaker | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

So there you go, everthing you need to know for your first self-catering holiday.

I’m off to go and start packing for my next one (no, really!).

If you’ve got any self-catering secrets of your own, share them in the comments below. Do you always travel with a jar of Marmite? Or your favourite brew? I’d love to know!

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Everything you need to know for your first self-catering holiday | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog
Everything you need to pack for a self-catering holiday | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog
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