A Travel Insider Tells How

Imagine spending your vacation in a two-bedroom luxury apartment on the Thames in London for as little as $1,020 per week…a furnished studio apartment in the heart of Paris for $540…or a cozy apartment near the water in Miami Beach for just $273.

Hundreds of thousands of privately owned properties now are offered as short-term vacation rentals, an increasingly popular alternative to hotels. They include everything from ordinary homes and apartments to ski chalets, beach houses and luxurious mansions. www.HomeAway.com, the largest vacation rental site, reports 44% growth in rental listings over the past three years. Rentals generally are significantly cheaper than hotel rooms of comparable quality, and they almost always offer more space, a homier feel and a kitchen. But choosing, booking and paying for a vacation rental are much trickier than staying in a hotel—and there are potential drawbacks that you usually don’t face in hotels.

Here’s what you need to know to save money and have a wonderful vacation rental experience…


Consider these possible drawbacks before booking a vacation rental…

You’ll probably have to sign a contract and pay a security deposit well in advance of the trip. It can be almost like signing a short-term lease. Read the rental contract carefully before signing—it likely spells out important details, such as additional fees and what you must do to ensure that your security deposit is returned.

Helpful: As soon as you arrive for your vacation, walk through the property and take digital photos or video of any problems or damage. Then confirm that the property owner is aware of these so that you don’t get blamed. Take another set of photos and video as you leave to prove that you left the property as you found it.

Cancellation penalties can be stiff. Canceling a vacation rental might mean sacrificing 50% to 100% of the rental price depending on the terms of the rental agreement and possibly on whether a replacement renter can be found.

Helpful: Travel insurance could cover this loss. Policies are available through some of the Web sites that list vacation rentals (see next page), but I recommend going through Squaremouth (800-240-0369, www.Squaremouth.com) or InsureMyTrip (800-487-4722, www.InsureMyTrip.com), both of which provide quotes from many different insurers.

Some vacation rentals are in violation of local laws or homeowners association rules. Cities including New York, Paris and San Francisco have banned short-term rentals. In theory, that could result in a guest being forced to vacate—though I’ve never heard of such a thing happening.

Maid service usually is not part of the deal. Guests often are charged a cleaning fee.

There might be other fees as well. Some rental owners charge for linens and towels or for exceeding some preset limit on the number of guests. Others pass along the cost of electricity or charge extra when you arrive and/or depart on a weekend. These details might be buried in the fine print.


Searchable vacation rental Web sites enable travelers to quickly sort through many thousands of properties. These sites usually do not own the properties. They list them on behalf of property owners and property-management companies. The sites typically include online calendars indicating when a particular property is available—but property owners don’t always update them. It usually is necessary to communicate directly with property owners or managers to confirm availability. Some Web sites offer little more than classified listings, while others provide reviews from other travelers and safeguards to increase the odds that travelers get what they pay for. And while most sites don’t charge travelers a penny—they typically charge property owners to list their properties—a few do impose significant booking fees.

Options include…

HomeAway has more than 260,000 listings in 145 countries. It’s particularly strong in the US, France and Spain. HomeAway doesn’t charge travelers to use the service. Travelers sign rental agreements and make payments with the property owner or a local property-management company. www.Homeaway.com

VRBO features 165,000 listings, especially US destinations such as California, the Carolinas, Florida and Hawaii. It is now owned by HomeAway and has very similar programs and policies—travelers do not have to pay to use it. www.vrbo.com

Airbnb offers more than 100,000 listings worldwide, with an extensive selection in major tourist-destination cities such as New York, San Francisco, Paris and London. Unlike most sites, Airbnb processes payments so that travelers can pay with credit cards or PayPal rather than send money directly to a stranger. Airbnb holds payments until 24 hours after check-in so that travelers can confirm that the property is as described. It also offers a 24-hour support line in case anything goes wrong. These added services come at a price, however—Airbnb charges guests a fee of 6% to 12% of the reservation amount. www.Airbnb.com

Helpful: Some Airbnb listings are just spare rooms in people’s homes. These listings can be quite affordable—I’ve had wonderful luck with them—but not everyone is comfortable sharing a home with a stranger.

FlipKey has more than 120,000 rentals worldwide, with the largest numbers in the US and Europe. Many FlipKey properties are represented by professional property managers, which sometimes are better equipped than property owners to cope with travelers’ problems. The Web site takes steps to confirm that those who post reviews of vacation rentals actually stayed in the properties they’re reviewing, decreasing the odds of fake reviews. www.FlipKey.com

Wyndham Vacation Rentals features more than 90,000 properties, mostly in the US and Europe—especially in the UK. Unlike the sites above, which list properties on behalf of property owners and property-management companies, WyndhamRentals.com lists properties that Wyndham—one of the world’s largest hotel companies—has an exclusive deal to manage on behalf of property owners. That means travelers can book stays online without having to contact a separate owner or manager to confirm availability. Guests have access to Wyndham’s customer service department if they encounter any problems. www.WyndhamRentals.com

Zonder offers about 10,000 properties, mainly in North America, Central America and the Caribbean. It has a toll-free customer service phone number in case travelers have questions or experience problems. It offers a guarantee that it will find alternate accommodations or issue a refund if a property’s location or size is grossly misstated. Many Zonder listings feature extensive photos and video, making it easier to judge whether a property is right for you. Zonder does not charge travelers any added fees. www.Zonder.com


Favor vacation rental listings that feature lots of photos or videos of the property—it indicates that the property owner or manager has nothing to hide. Carefully read the property description—and any reviews left by previous guests—before booking a stay.

Warning: Some property owners post reviews of their own properties. But Airbnb reviews are particularly likely to be legitimate because the site allows only people who actually have booked a stay at a property to review it. Be extremely wary of rentals that ask renters to wire payments. Once a payment is wired, there is no recourse if the property is not as described—or, worse, if the “property owner” actually is a scammer. Instead, rent from those who accept credit card or PayPal payments—and if you pay with PayPal, make sure that your PayPal account is linked to a credit card. Credit cards offer consumer protection in case of fraud or misrepresentation.

Worth asking…

Where, precisely, is this property located? If you can get a specific address before booking—or at least a specific block—you can confirm that the rental is as close to the beach or downtown as its listing suggests. You also can use Google Maps’ satellite and street view functions to examine the area.

What is included…and what isn’t? Some vacation rentals provide nice extras such as bikes or kayaks…while others don’t even provide basics such as free towels, sheets, parking, Wi-Fi and a phone. Some have comfortable king-size beds, while others have lumpy mattresses on the floor or sofa beds. If you’re renting on an upper floor, confirm that there is an elevator if you need one.

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