Summer Trip Planning: Vacation Rentals

Whenever you plan to stay at a destination for a week or so, you need to consider a vacation rental. Whether at the seashore or at a lake near home or in central Paris or Hong Kong, a vacation rental is often a better bet than a conventional hotel.

  • You can accommodate more people at a lower per-person cost and enjoy lots more space for about what one hotel room would cost.
  • Vacation rentals usually have one or more bedrooms separate from a daytime living space, which can be a lot more comfortable than a few chairs in a regular hotel bedroom.
  • You can cut meal and snack costs by eating in—how much you save depends on how many restaurants you want to hit. 

My wife and I have used vacation rentals in a wide variety of locations, from the Oregon coast to central London to the Tuscan countryside, and I can vouch for both the features and the cost benefits.

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For many of you, the biggest problem is how to find the right rental—and avoid the risk of disappointment. Unless you're returning someplace you already know, arranging a rental in some faraway location requires you to make a "blind" commitment of what can amount to a lot of money. You have three basic options:

  • Rental agencies entail the least risk of disappointment. These agencies typically handle only rental units they or their employees have personally vetted. Often, you can speak directly with a person who has been in the property. You face very little risk of an unexpected disappointment.
  • Your contract is usually with the agency and not with the property owner, so if you rent through an agency based in the U.S. and encounter a problem, you can thrash it out locally.
  • You can usually pay with a credit card—another important protection. The downside is that you'll probably pay more than you otherwise might. These agencies generally concentrate on mid-priced and high-end properties, so if you're looking for a budget option, you won't get much help.

My "favorites" list includes about 200 vacation-rental sources in total, about a third of which are rental agencies that handle only inspected properties. Most of them specialize in relatively limited regions, with lots of domestic coverage in Hawaii and Florida and international coverage in the Caribbean, France, Tuscany, and the United Kingdom. More than half are based in the United States. I can't begin to list them here, but a few Google searches will yield loads of results.

Online vacation-rental marketplaces offer a far wider range of properties. The industry's giant, HomeAway, posts almost half a million rentals, and other big websites, including FlipKey, Rentalo, and Orbitz display immense rental lists. These lists include lots of budget-priced accommodations as well as upmarket options.

Unlike the rental agencies, however, these outfits act mainly as bulletin boards on which individual property owners post their rentals. Your financial agreement is with the owner, not with an agency. Most of the problems I've heard from readers involve misrepresentation and "bait-and-switch" tactics on the part of overseas owners, who are essentially beyond the reach of any effective restitution.

Aware of the problem, the bigger agencies try to limit your exposure. The HomeAway family (including VRBO) offers a combination of its own online payment system and a guarantee against some gross abuses (but not simply disappointment). FlipKey features "verified" user reviews. These sites are unanimous in recommending you rent by credit card or PayPal: Many rentals now accept cards, a good idea even if you have to pay a small surcharge. Above all, do not use a wire transfer or cashier's check, neither of which offers any protection against fraud—and which may invite phishing scams.

Craigslist also posts some vacation rentals, but those postings have no oversight whatsoever. Renting from Craigslist is a real gamble—one that you probably don't have to take. Instead, go to one of the big online marketplaces for a budget rental or an agency for maximum protection—and enjoy!

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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