Although vacation rentals have been around for a long time, it has never been easier for property owners to list lodgings and for travelers to find them — and business is booming. A 2015 TripAdvisor study found that nearly 60 percent of respondents were likely to stay at a vacation rental, up considerably from the previous year.
Reasons included better prices, better amenities, more space, a more home-like experience, full kitchens, pet-friendly lodging and stunning views: all pretty solid reasons to choose any property. Whether you are in that 60 percent looking at rentals or in the 40 percent still holding out in hotel rooms, here are 15 things you might not know about vacation rentals.
Castles, churches, themed homes, cabins, lighthouses, a windmill or an igloo — all are bookable on various vacation rental sites. For examples, check out this Travel + Leisure slideshow of the strangest vacation rentals, FlipKey’s list of 10 unique vacation rentals and Airbnb’s roundup of treehouse rentals.
You can even rent the same place as your favorite celebrity.
If your rental is part of a condo association, or a converted hotel or motel, you may be able to use facilities such as gyms, pools and more. Some even offer housekeeping.
Airbnb gets most of the press, but there are countless other dedicated vacation rental sites, including HomeAway, VRBO (owned by HomeAway with similar listings), FlipKey (powered by TripAdvisor) and Tripping.com (which searches many sites all at once, a bit like a Kayak for vacation rentals). Many other sites cover rentals in certain geographical regions. See Finding a Vacation Rental for more.
In addition, vacation rentals are starting to show up on sites traditionally associated with hotels, such as Booking.com and TripAdvisor.
You don’t need to search them all, but there are enough differences that poking around more than a couple of sites is worth your time.
In my own past searches for vacation rentals, I found that using filters of any kind sometimes hid properties that were desirable, affordable and available. By applying truly zero filters (as when using the “I don’t have dates yet” option), many more properties showed up.
Subsequently I found that the owner had stipulated stays of one week or longer when they first placed the listing, but regularly relaxed that requirement.
This is not a new problem; when searching airfare sites, for example, many experts recommend that you do searches for one traveler even when purchasing fares for multiple people, as the search sites may choose not to show you some fares where availability is limited.
As with the length of stay filters issue above, you might find that availability calendars and/or photos are outdated. This is because many property owners do not have the time or resources to keep listings on multiple vacation rental sites up to date. Sometimes it will work in your favor, as when a property is allowing for shorter stays than shown or the price has gone down, and sometimes against, such as when a property that appears to be available is already booked.
In my experience, the “sleeps X people” stats can be the most problematic detail in vacation rental listings. This is caused by a few factors:
A. Not all bedrooms may be real bedrooms. Sometimes vacation rental owners stuff a single bed into a walk-in closet, or put up a curtain or divider in a room, or use some other tactic to create “rooms” that anyone else would call a closet, curtained space, etc.
B. When counting sleeping spaces, some owners will count a foldout bed, or a cot that is in the kitchen, or a lumpy couch, or even a loveseat that could only hold a child.
C. You can sometimes figure out the actual number of private-ish sleeping spaces from the bedroom count, but then you are back to Point A above — oof.
Your best tactic: Ask the owner directly.
Note that similar issues sometimes happen with kitchens; is the space just a sink area with a microwave and coffee pot, or is it a full kitchen? Again, be sure to ask.
An online listing can’t tell you everything you need to know about a property, but talking to the owner can. Benefits of reaching out directly to the owner include:
– Getting a feel for the person with whom you are going to do business
– Understanding any additional costs (such as cleaning fees)
– Checking on issues such as check-in and check-out times, curfews, whether there’s cable/internet/air conditioning
Over the years, some of the owners I have worked with were noticeably unenthusiastic about renting out their homes; they just needed income and wanted the absolute minimum hassle possible in return. Other owners are simply busy at the time you want to rent and don’t have time to drop off keys or clean up afterward. I even had one owner decline to rent after I sent a single cursory email. You are renting a property, not staying at a B&B, so you may want to temper your expectations for a warm welcome and attentive service.
Some vacation rental owners are fussy and have rules that can make your stay tricky. No sand, no outside guests, no barbecues, no loud music, no parties, no additional cars … such rules could make your beach house stay a bit different than what you had in mind.
Airbnb has a “House Rules” section on its listings, but many other sites don’t. Reach out to the owner and ask “What are the rules of the property?” before you book.
Just because something is in the house doesn’t mean you can use it. I once stayed at a waterfront house at which we couldn’t go on the dock, go figure. Things like bikes, surfboards and beach chairs may not be for guest use or may incur an additional charge. Again — ask before using.
At a hotel, you assume there will be parking, that the “neighbors” expect you to be there, that there is air conditioning, that there is a working television, and even that there is electricity and plumbing. None of these are a given with a vacation rental, especially the more unique or remote properties. Check before you book.
In some cases, the person listing the lodging may not have a legal right to do so. This might be due to his or her lease agreement, or condo association restrictions, or areas that have restrictions on subletting. To learn more, read Airbnb and Beyond: Tips for Safe, Legal Vacation Rentals.
Think of a vacation rental like a rental car; if there is a big scratch or something doesn’t work, you would report it immediately, lest you be blamed for it upon return. I recommend doing a full inspection of your rental property when you arrive, even taking pictures if appropriate, and then putting everything in writing in an email, which gives you a record of the time you noticed and reported the problem. This will help in the event of any disputes.
Pricing on vacation rental sites can sometimes be flexible; as noted previously, property owners are not necessarily updating their listings in real time, setting different prices for off-season and longer stays. Discussing prices directly is often the best approach.
The boom in vacation rentals has not come without its share of disputes and even scammers, so you’ll want to use payment methods that give you some recourse if there is a problem. Avoid cash, wire transfers and other slippery payment methods, and stick with payment by credit card or services like PayPal whenever possible. If it sounds like a scam, skip it.
Have any expert tips for folks looking into vacation rentals? Let us know in the comments!
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Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns FlipKey.com.