If you're looking to rent a villa or an apartment, one of the best agencies to call is Rent Villas (tel. 800/920-3136; www.rentvillas.com). It's the representative for the Cuendet properties, some of the best in Italy, and its agents are very helpful in tracking down the perfect place to suit your needs. Insider's Italy (tel./fax 914/470-1612; www.insidersitaly.com) is a small, upscale outfit run by a personable agent who's familiar with all her properties and Italy in general.
For some of the top properties, call the Parker Company, Ltd. (tel. 800/280-2811 or 781/596-8282; fax 781/596-3125; www.theparkercompany.com). This agency rents apartments, villas, restored farmhouses, and even castles, throughout Italy in almost every region from the Veneto in the northeast to remote Sicily in the southwest. In the U.K., contact Cottages to Castles (tel. 1622/775-217; www.cottagestocastles.com); in the U.S. the agent to contact is Italy My Dream (tel. 866/687-7700; www.italymydream.com). One of the most reasonably priced agencies is Villas and Apartments Abroad, Ltd. (tel. 212/213-6435; fax 212/213-8252; www.ideal-villas.com). Vacanze in Italia (tel. 413/528-6610; fax 413/528-6222; www.homeabroad.com) handles hundreds of rather upscale rentals. A popular but very pricey agency is Villas International (tel. 800/221-2260 or 415/499-9490; www.villasintl.com).
If you want to stay in a historic palazzo, contact Abitare la Storia, Villa Dal Pozzo D'Annone, St. Le Del Sempione 5, 28832 Belgirate-Lago Maggiore (tel. 0322-772156; fax 0332-292678; www.abitarelastoria.it).
For apartment, farmhouse, or cottage stays of 2 weeks or more, Untours (tel. 888/868-6871; www.untours.com) provides exceptional lodgings for a reasonable price, which includes air/ground transportation, cooking facilities, and on-call support from a local resident. Best of all: Untours -- named the "Most Generous Company in America" by Newman's Own -- donates most profits to provide low-interest loans to underprivileged entrepreneurs around the world (see website for details).
Also try www.venere.com (tel. 877/214-4288) for everything from Roman hotels and suites to Tuscan farmhouses and B&Bs.
House-swapping is becoming a more popular and viable means of travel; you stay in their place, they stay in yours, and you both get a more authentic and personal view of a destination, the opposite of the escapist retreat many hotels offer. Try HomeLink International (www.homelink.org), the largest and oldest home-swapping organization, founded in 1952, with more than 11,000 listings worldwide ($90 yearly membership). HomeExchange.com ($100 for 6,000 listings) and InterVac.com ($95 for over 10,000 listings) are also reliable.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.