If you’re looking for an alternative to a hotel, a great option to consider is a vacation rental. These are generally furnished apartments, condos, or houses and can be found in many locations throughout the U.S. and abroad. They are usually privately owned and offer a lot more space than a hotel room.
Vacation rentals typically include a kitchen (which oftentimes is fully stocked with pans, dishes, etc.), living room, and one to several bedrooms, bathrooms and more. They can range from economical to luxurious and may be comparable in price to a hotel room. You can find waterfront properties with private beaches, pools, golf courses, and many other amenities.
For those traveling as a family, vacation rentals can be a good option. The kids can have their own bedroom and bathroom, and you can save money on food expenses (and eat healthier) by not having to eat out for every meal. Family-friendly properties may have games, water toys, beach towels/chairs, and more that are available for your use.
If you’re traveling as a group, there are larger homes available that can accommodate several people. You can find six-plus bedrooms with close to the same number of bathrooms. If you share the costs, these can become an affordable option, and many of the homes can be quite luxurious.
Vacation rentals usually offer nightly, weekly, or monthly rates. You can search for properties by the location and the number of guests (or bedrooms) that you desire.
Most properties list the amenities, the nightly/weekly rates, the per night minimum, the number of people it sleeps, and a yearly calendar showing dates of availability. The “suitability” section lists whether pets or smoking are allowed, if there is wheelchair access, or if it is suitable for children.
There are photographs of the property, along with the owner’s contact information.
There are some caveats — not all vacation homes may be described accurately, and the photos may be misleading. Before booking a rental, do some research to make sure it is a suitable location and is in good shape. Check the reviews from people who have stayed at the property. These can give you an idea of the condition/location of the property, what it has to offer, and how easy the owner is to work with. You may also find that there are some added perks such as snorkel equipment, grills, canoes or kayaks, and more.
Vacation rentals oftentimes require a deposit and a final payment just before your departure date. Many of the nicer properties get booked up several months in advance, so it is best to start planning early.
Find out if there are any added fees and what the cancellation policy is. Travel during the off-peak season will usually result in a lower rate — which may be quite substantial. For example, you may find a beautiful ski lodge that rents out for less than half the cost during the summer months.
Vacation rentals come in many shapes and sizes. They may be waterfront beach houses, mountain cottages or ski lodges, yurts, rentals in resort areas, apartments, condos, houses, and more. You can also find rentals that are geared toward families with children, and some even have rooms that are decorated just for kids.
How to avoid problems with a vacation rental:
Check the location and property photos and description thoroughly:
Find out what your accommodations look like on the inside and out. Ask the owner to email you additional pictures of the property and the exact address so you can check it out on Google maps. Enter the address and click on “street view”. This will allow you to actually see the property and what the area looks like around it. This is helpful in knowing how close the property is to a beach, town, restaurants, etc.
Find out exactly where the vacation property is located in proximity to the sights you plan to visit.
There is a risk that the property could be a real disappointment. It could be in a bad area, look outdated and worn on the inside, does not have the view you thought you were getting, or it is not at all as advertised. Photos can be deceiving.
Many properties may also require a minimum amount of nights that you need to stay.
Find out what the Cancellation Policy is:
Cancellation policies with vacation rentals tend to be more strict than hotels. Even if the circumstances requiring you to cancel are beyond your control, you may find it difficult to get a refund from the owner. If an emergency should arise, it’s always worth asking the owner for a refund. Purchasing travel insurance is a viable option.
How to pay for your Vacation Rental:
You will usually have to put a deposit down and pay the entire balance before your trip (oftentimes, about 30 days prior to your stay). Some owners may say that they accept credit cards, while others may request that a check be sent to them or that payment be made through PayPal. Here is an important tip: Always adhere to the payment instructions of the vacation rental site. For safety reasons, do not pay the owner directly, even if they tell you to do so. This will void the vacation rental site’s guaranteed protection if you run into any problems. Travelers have lost substantial amounts of money by sending payments directly to the owner. They either found out it was a scam or the owner failed to follow through on their promise.
The vacation rental sites state that you should avoid sending cash, a check, or making a money transfer.
Find out if there are added expenses not included in the base rate:
What is included in the nightly rate? Some owners may add on a hefty fee for cleaning services, while others include this expense in the per night rental. Upon departure, you are usually required to leave the property clean and in good condition. You may need to strip the beds and wash the sheets, empty the trash, vacuum, and clean out the refrigerator. If you do not, you may get charged an added fee.
Damage to the vacation rental:
Since you are staying at an individual’s property, you also run the risk of getting charged for items that end up missing or broken, even if you were not responsible. Vacation rental sites offer insurance that you can purchase that will cover damage to the property.
Getting access to the property:
There is a risk that you could arrive and not be able to get in the property for one reason or another. It may have been double-booked, the property is now in foreclosure or bankruptcy, the owner did not leave the key, it is a gated community and you are not allowed in, etc.
Make sure you have an emergency number from the owner in case you run into any problems. Better yet, find out if there is a contact the owner has locally that you can call for any issues.
For waterfront property, get the specifics:
For waterfront property, check on the size of the body of water. If it’s on a lake and you want to go boating, check if motorboats are allowed (and the size of motors). Some lakes may allow only non-motorized boats or none at all. If the property is on the ocean, find out if the beach is conducive to swimming and if the water is accessible (it could be on a cliff overlooking the water).
Ask what the view will be from the property you plan to stay at. For example, if it is a condo, the entire group of condos may be called “waterfront” property, but the one you are interested in may not have a view of the water at all. It may be a garden view, street view, or golf course view.
Questions to ask the owner:
Check to see if the property has air conditioning. Many do not, and in the summer months, it could get pretty warm.
Ask what floor it’s on and if there is an elevator. Some condo units could be four or five stories high, but there may not be an elevator.
Find out if you can park close to the entrance and if there is a fee for parking. There may also be a gate at the entrance. If so, be sure the owner gives you the necessary access.
Find out if the property is pet-friendly. Many properties welcome dogs or cats, while others will not.
If you are allergic to animals, find out if animals have stayed on the property in the past. If so, you may want to avoid staying at that property and risk becoming ill.
Vacation Rental Protection:
To reduce your financial risk, you may want to look into purchasing vacation rental protection that provides 100% reimbursement (typically up to $50,000) if you need to cancel your stay. If you accidentally damage the property, you can get reimbursed for your damage deposit. Be sure to check the specified reasons for cancellation or damage as listed in the policy.
The insurance premium is based on the cost of the vacation rental and is typically around seven to ten percent of the total cost of the rental.
Many of the reputable vacation rental booking sites offer guaranteed protection. If you end up with a property rental that is significantly misrepresented, if you are denied entry, or if the property is not inhabitable, the online site will assist you in finding another property and will reimburse you for up to 100% of your rental costs.
They will also reimburse you if the property owner keeps your deposit without cause. Again, it is important that payments are made through the vacation rental site and not paid directly to the owner.
If the owner cancels your reservations at the last minute, the vacation rental site will assist you in finding another vacation rental in the area.
Vacation Rentals in the U.S. and Abroad:
Check out the following sites for vacation rentals.
- Vacation Home Rentals
- Mountain Lodging – Most rentals are in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean
- Home Away
- Trip Advisor
For more travel insight, check out my book:
Know Before You Go: Traveling the U.S. and Abroad