Before you head out on your next family vacation you might consider booking something a little bit different than your standard hotel room. Renting out a vacation rental, on VRBO, AirBnB, or other similar sites can give you another option if hotel rooms just aren’t working for you and your family or traveling group. However, because vacation rentals are so different from hotels, there are a few important tips you’ll need to ensure your stay is just as wonderful as you imagine it will be!

Vacation rental on the beach
Relaxing at our beach house

Comparing Vacation Rentals to Hotels

First, you’ll want to understand that vacation rentals are completely different from hotels in so many ways. Check out these pros and cons of vacation rentals, when compared to hotels.

Pros:

  • Typically more space
  • Kitchen for meal flexibility and to save on food costs
  • Families can get a place with bedrooms, and bedroom doors, making early bedtimes, and sleeping in general, much easier
  • Often more affordable
  • Just more options when it comes to types of stays.  You can find large houses, smaller condos, places with yards, and more.  Hotel rooms are all essentially the same, when it comes to space and layout.  
  • May be able to find a vacation rental in areas that do not have hotels
  • More private (is this a pro or a con?)
  • Can be a more unique, personal experience.  Vacation rentals can feel like you are visiting a friend’s home.  Often, hosts are thrilled to have you stay and share their amazing home
  • Many places are pet-friendly, with adequate space for pets to be comfortable
  • Better for group stays, or family reunions, in my opinion

Cons

  • No daily cleaning service.  
  • More limited services compared to a hotel.  For example, a vacation rental will obviously not have an onsite restaurant or bar, or a fitness center, typically toiletries are not provided, and no 24-hour front desk service if you discover you need something
  • Cancellation policies vary, but typically,  you will not be able to cancel within 30 days.  Even early cancellations can mean a loss of up to 50% of the total cost.  
  • Rates can be difficult to understand. Owners fees, cleaning fees, service fees can add up, and for short stays, even exceed the nightly rate.
  • Maintenance issues may not be taken care of as quickly as compared to a hotel.  Smaller hosts just don’t have the capacity to take on maintenance issues as quickly as a hotel with staff dedicated to the maintenance of the property
  • No way to accrue loyalty points, travel with points or get any kind of upgrades because of brand loyalty.  

Comparing vacation rental services

When looking at a vacation rental to rent, there are several websites that can help you through the process. They each are a little bit different, with pros and cons for each. 

AirBnb

Airbnb does have a huge variety of rental properties, but if you are looking for a small place, a campsite, or any kind of unique stay (they even have treehouses!), Airbnb is often going to be the best option.  To aid in choosing a rental, AirBnb offers reviews on both the host and the property.  Hosts with great reviews can be assigned ‘Superhosts’, which is a great assurance.  Airbnb also really focuses on safety, with confirmation that hosts have had background checks and been verified by Airbnb.  They highlight anything missing from properties (such as smoke detectors) to ensure guests are at least aware.  Booking is quick and easy, and we’ve had great experiences with AirBnb. Note that for AirBnb, and VRBO, cancellation policies are set by the individual host, so read policies carefully before booking.  

VRBO

VRBO and Homeaway are now just one company, and we look there first for larger vacation rentals, including budget stays.  Like AirBnB, VRBO identifies its best hosts as ‘Premier Partners’, and verifies all hosts for safety.  VRBO is owned by Expedia, and it shows – searches and booking through VRBO are quick and easy.

Vacasa

In our experience, Vacasa offers more high-end properties, both large and small.  But be sure to check out Vacasa even if your budget isn’t huge – you never know what you’ll find there.  Vacasa is a bit different than VRBO or AirBnb in that you are interfacing with Vacasa, and never with the host directly.  Vacasa functions as the property manager for all it’s properties.  That means cancellation policies are set by Vacasa instead of the host, and you’ll find more consistency in the quality of photos and information for each rental property.  During Covid-19, Vacasa is allowing guests to cancel until 24 hours before check-in for full credit to be used on any Vacasa property (maybe not as great as cash, but much better than most vacation rentals).  However, they are a bit less likely to be flexible on any of their properties, since you are dealing with a larger company rather than just a person, as in some of the other vacation rentals.  

Local Companies

Many great vacation locations have smaller independent vacation rental companies or short term rental managers.  Often these companies have been around a long time, and have a number of properties all grouped together.  These companies of course vary, but they can be another great option.  They are a bit harder to find, since they only exist in certain localities – just do a quick search for vacation rentals in the area you want to visit to find a local company a bit further down on the page. These types of places can be REALLY great for larger groups, like a family reunion, who need more than one house closer together.  Or perhaps if they are more established, they might just have the best location.  

While each vacation rental company SORT of has a specialty, the differences are really pretty minimal, and there is a TON of overlap. So, just check them all out, if you can.

Tips for choosing a great rental and having a great stay!

Truth be told, choosing a great vacation rental is just not as easy as picking a great hotel. But with a few helpful tips, you’ll be well on your way to choosing YOUR perfect vacation rental!

Be prepared to spend some extra time choosing a vacation rental

Choosing a rental can be a bit tedious (especially if you are an over-planner like me).  Listings are often not categorized correctly (for example, clicking beachfront will pull up many properties that are not beachfront, and many that ARE beachfront will not be included).  This is just the nature of the service.  Hosts will click the wrong button, intentionally or unintentionally, and it’s impossible to keep everything accurate.  Listings don’t always include all of the information you need, and you may need to message the host.  Also, when you choose a price range, that will not account for any owner’s fees, cleaning fees, etc.  And on vacation rentals, those fees can be HUGE, and can easily move a rental out of your price range.  

Riverfront view from our vacation rental
Remote location with a prime view – tough to find when you are just looking at hotels!

Read reviews carefully

When it comes to picking a vacation rental, you, of course, can’t just pick a brand that you trust and go with it. So your only insight is the reviews. Just like anywhere, not all reviewers are created equal so take each individual review with a grain of salt.  Just look for patterns.  I’ve seen not so great reviews because the guest didn’t like, for example, the furniture.  The furniture might be just fine for you – and you’ll likely be able to check out a photo to see for sure. But, keep an eye out for reviews mentioning poor customer service, or an unclean rental.  

Not all vacation rentals have reviews, or have a lot of reviews.  It’s a bit of a gamble to not have any insights from others who have booked the same place, but don’t be afraid to ask the host any questions you can think up.  And, you just might get a deal on a new vacation rental BECAUSE there are no reviews yet.  

Read the Rules Carefully

Vacation rentals are typically pretty strict on the maximum guest count, and many do not allow any kind of party, or gathering or whatever. Some vacation rentals are listed as ‘not suitable for children’ (it is quite rare however), and many list a minimum age for the primary renter. You may also encounter quiet hours, and if you are traveling with pets, typically pre-approval (and often fees) are required even though the listing SAYS pet-friendly.

You’ll likely find that most of the rules are just fine, or maybe even preferable for you as a guest. But it’s good to read and understand these rules before you book. You’d hate to have a misunderstanding, and wind up in a place with rules that just won’t work for you. Or worse, end up getting kicked out because you were not complying with the rules

Question the listing

I don’t believe that most hosts are trying to trick you, but sometimes a vacation rental listing will imply something that isn’t exactly true (perhaps not intentionally).  For example, a listing might be categorized as ‘beachfront’, and show a picture of the beach.  But the fact is, it’s a 2 block walk to the beach.  Maybe that’s ok, but if you are EXPECTING to be right on the beach, you might be disappointed.  

Layout of the house can be also difficult to understand from photos. The house may end up looking and feeling much more crowded than expected. Bedroom layout also might be different than expected.  We often find beds in a loft area.  That might work great for your family, but it also might not and it’s nice to know and understand ahead of time.

One more thing we’ve encountered is that beaches on lakes or rivers can be seasonal.   In spring or summer, they may still be underwater. 

If there is anything you aren’t sure about, or just want to confirm, be sure to reach out to your host.  Hosts are typically happy to answer any of your questions – they want you to have a great stay.  

lots of vacation rentals have bunk rooms
Bunk rooms are kid approved!

Map it

Typically, exact locations aren’t given in VRBO or whichever company you are using.  But, using the description, the map on the listing given the APPROXIMATE location, and google maps, you can often figure it out.  Google street view and/or google satellite are great tools to narrow it down, and at least get you close the exact location.  It’s just one more confirmation that you are getting exactly what you think you are getting when you rent.

Look for bonuses

Some rentals will provide a few extras to make your stay a little bit EXTRA special. For example, some homes include a pool table, an air hockey table, or just a collection of kids’ toys A beach rental may provide some beach chairs, or a kayak free for you to use. These items are definitely nice to have and can even cut down on your packing volume. So don’t forget to look for these items, and consider the benefits of these little bonuses when choosing your perfect rental.

Choosing the right vacation rental can be a long and tedious process, but you might just end up with an amazing place that is SO much more than a hotel. We absolutely love staying in a vacation rental, and find out vacations at a vacation rental to be much more relaxing, carefree, and just fun!

So I hope you find a perfect place for your next stay. Let us know if you have in the comments.

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