This summer, imagine pouring a glass of Italian wine and stepping outside your Tuscan villa to a sun-basked terrace overlooking flower-dotted hills.

For many vacationing Americans, this fantasy is a reality, as more and more people choose to rent rustic homes, old villas and beach houses overseas instead of packing the family into a hotel and charging up room service.

"It's a growing phenomenon for sure among family travelers," said Kansas City travel agent Kathy Sudeikis, the vice president of the American Society of Travel Agents (search).

Staying in the Italian countryside or in the green hills of Ireland sounds oh-so-chic — not to mention pricey. But particularly for families and groups traveling together, the cost is often comparable to — or more reasonable than — staying at a mid-range hotel.

"It seemed a better way to do it," said David Mazie, 71, a retired journalist from Bethesda, Md., who rented a Tuscan villa a few summers ago for a party-of-five weeklong family trip. "There's the togetherness you get: the talking and the joking and the reminiscing."

Weekly rentals can run as low as $700 or $800, but most villas fall in the $1,000-to-$4,500 range. With several people splitting the cost — and cooking meals at home — the house-rental route can be a money-saver.

By comparison, a seven-night stay for six to eight people in a midrange hotel would cost about $5,000-$6,000 in California's Napa Valley; $3,000-$4,000 in Provence, France; and $4,000-$7,000 at Florida's Walt Disney World. And that's not counting restaurant meals.

Aside from the potential cost advantages, many travelers prefer the slow pace and out-of-the-way locations to all-inclusive resorts packed with other tourists.

"You're in the small town almost every day," Mazie said. "You go shopping in the grocery stores. You mix with the local people. You become part of that culture in the area where you are, which you wouldn't get to do in a hotel."

The thrills of big resorts with swimming pools, restaurants and lots of activities are missing. But living in a village for a week or two can be a way to immerse yourself in a foreign culture.

"You can get to know a particular region and its culture, cuisine and wines and get into the whole rhythm of a leisurely life in the countryside," said Cecil Jones, president of Just France, which rents out a range of apartments and homes all over France.

According to Sudeikis, the boom in villa rentals is due to their increasingly high profile. The Internet, where people can locate the properties easily, is a major influence. Some popular sites include Internet Villas, Overseas Connection and Barclay International Group.

Hollywood stars who regularly rent luxury properties and books like "A Year in Provence" (search) by Peter Mayle and "Under the Tuscan Sun" (search) by Frances Mayes, which was made into a film starring Diane Lane, have also helped open people’s eyes to the countryside alternatives to crowded cities and resorts.

"Because of celebrity gossip magazines and the availability of these offers online, it's really sparked people's interest," Sudeikis said.

While ultra-luxurious villas and castles are available — Just France has ones for $70,000 a week — the trend is taking off primarily among regular middle-income folks.

Jones said his upscale clients include "movie stars and very high-end people in the entertainment business or financial world." But the company's average renter is a professional between the ages of 40 and 60 who spends between $4,500 and $7,000 for a country or coastal house for a group of six to 10 people.

Sean O'Neill, who wrote an article on villa rentals for the financial magazine Kiplinger’s, said Americans have become more aware of country vacations as an alternative to Disney World and dude ranches — but there is a downside.

"It's cheaper, but you are sacrificing a few things," he said. "You're not getting daily linen service, and many of these properties are somewhat out of the way. But a lot of [the appeal] is the family reunion kind of thing."

Spanish professor Joan Brown spent a week in a chateau in France's Loire Valley with 17 family members for her mother's 70th birthday. The place had a pool, more than 10 bedrooms, a large kitchen, a big terrace and a garden.

However, the chateau showed evidence of its long life — with peeling paint, dark living rooms and worn furniture.

"It was authentic," said Brown, 51, of Swarthmore, Pa. "But things had seen better times. We felt like royalty down on our luck."

Still, Brown has fond memories of the weeklong stay in the chateau: The dinners eaten together on the patio, the children running around the spacious property, excursions to other castles and plenty of bonding time with relatives.

"For a family, it's a good experience. It's warmer than being in a hotel," Brown said. "It's something we never would have been able to experience otherwise."