What to do when you need a nice place to stay in New York City and don’t want to pay $500 a night or more?

That was my problem when I needed accommodations during the busy  holiday season — when hotel prices go through the roof.

I decided to try HomeAway, the company that offers vacation rentals all over the world. (You may have seen their very funny commercial featuring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo as the Griswolds – suffering the indignities of a hotel reservation gone really, really bad.)

Though I haven’t had too many bad hotel stays using such booking engines as Priceline and searching for discounts on four-star properties, the discounts just aren’t that significant during  peak periods – like the winter holiday season.  Since HomeAway property owners offer not only longer-term rentals, but also short-stay rentals (often with a two- or three-day minimum), I decided to see if I could find a comfortable, perhaps even luxurious  apartment in the city.

My first strong contender, priced at $150 a night (the rates ranged from $130 to $210, depending on dates), was described as a bright one bedroom/one bath apartment, about 500 square feet, facing south on the 12th floor of a nice prewar building located at/near 32nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

The building had a part-time doorman, elevator and laundry facilities, and the apartment could accommodate up to four people. It was equipped with just about everything I would need and more: a queen size bed, all linens, a full-size sofabed in the living room, a dining area,  TV, Cable, Internet. Local calls were complimentary.

The apartment was as big as a hotel suite and the full kitchen was a bonus. Best of all, the location was perfect — walking distance from everywhere I needed to go over a two-day period. And the price was right.

Unfortunately that apartment wasn’t available for the two days I needed. Although the HomeAway listings display a calendar showing available dates, the owner of this property had apparently not updated his calendar.

So I did more searching. Another one-bedroom apartment, this one in the Times Square area, also convenient for my needs, was $199 a night, plus a $100 cleaning fee and a deposit/insurance/adminstration fee totaling $43. This place was also well-equipped, with wireless Internet.

The $43 fee wasn’t bad, since in New York City, the various state and city taxes are hefty, totaling anywhere between 15% and 20%. The cleaning fee would have been very reasonable for a stay somewhat longer than mine. And though I would have preferred a doorman or some form of security, the deal-breaker here was the absence of an elevator. I would be carrying a suitcase, computer case and other work materials — so a second floor walk-up presented a difficulty I didn’t want to deal with.

Further searches turned up another promising one-bedroom apartment, this one on the on the Upper East Side, priced at $150 a night. It had been given good reviews by people who had previously stayed there. (I thought the reviews, as well as the Google maps that showed property locations were very helpful.) But this, too, was unavailable. As the date of my New York stay was fast approaching, I feared I had waited too long to search during this very busy season.

When I bumped my budget up to $295, I found a winner: A one-bedroom apartment in the Ritz Plaza, a full-service luxury rental building near the Times Square area. The building had a 24-hour lobby staff, an elegant lobby, security cameras in all public areas and high-speed elevators.

The apartment had a well-equipped modern kitchen, a queen bed with flat screen TV, living room with a bigger flat-screen TV, a DVD player, free Internet access and free phone service anywhere in the U.S. and Canada. Perfect. I had four-star luxury at slightly more than half of what four-star hotels were charging.

I also had a modern kitchen — with a stove, coffeemaker, toaster and microwave — which allowed me to dine in when it was convenient. A directory of area restaurant and take-out/delivery places was provided. The choices included French cuisine, Italian cuisine, Chinese food and delicatessans. A nearby Food Emporium sold high-quality heat-and-eat meals and designer coffee.

Virtually all Broadway theaters were within walking distance, and if this had been a leisure getaway rather than a work-related trip, I would have saved a considerable amount in taxi fares.

The building staff was polite and service was quick and responsive. When I reported a burned-out bulb in a living room lamp, it was replaced almost immediately.

Bottom Line: My HomeAway experience was a good one and I would not hesitate to try it again, especially for a vacation rental.  HomeAway can be an excellent alternative to hotels; for families, the savings can be really substantial.  To get the best values and the most desirable apartments, shop early whenever possible.