Not long ago, vacation rentals were the mainstay of beach and ski vacations, when the family loaded up the car with linens and groceries in addition to suitcases and boogie boards (or skis) and moved in for the week. If you were going anywhere else, however, choices were limited to conventional hotels and motels.

The advent of online booking sites such as VRBO, Homeaway, and Airbnb has made vacation rentals available virtually everywhere. Apartments in Paris, oceanfront villas in the South Pacific, and cottages in New Zealand can all be found and booked simply by surfing the 'Net. We've stayed in rentals on five continents and have come to rely on them as one of our primary lodging options.

Vacation rentals are a great value, generally offering more space than a hotel room for a comparable price. We like the idea of having a kitchen; even if we're not cooking huge meals, we can buy tasty treats at local markets and bring them home for an impromptu picnic. And even on vacation we sometimes want a simple bowl of cereal for breakfast while still wearing our pajamas.

There are tradeoffs compared with hotels; rentals are for more independent travelers. They typically don't have daily maid service or a staff on hand to help with dinner reservations or booking tours. Unless it's in a resort community, there may not be a pool or health club on the property. In major cities, rental properties are often in residential areas that are a bit farther from major tourist attractions.

But in many places, vacation rentals provide an immersion that gives a sense of living like a local. You can discover shops and restaurants that are well off the tourist path and even have interactions with the neighbors. During our recent stay in Montreal, the woman at the bakery near our apartment took to calling Michael "Monsieur Almond Croissant."

For short stays of three or four days while traveling, we still like the services of a hotel. And occasionally the full-blown resort experience is just what we're seeking. But when staying somewhere longer than that, a vacation rental is just the ticket.

Philadelphia natives Larissa and Michael Milne have been global nomads since 2011. Follow their journey and get more travel tips at