If your previous stays in anonymous high-rise hotels are starting to blur into a single memory of a dimly lit room with beige carpets, it's time to opt for something a little more extraordinary. How about a country villa, a spacious apartment, or even—if you're feeling really unconventional—a geodesic dome?
With all the quirky options on offer, vacation-rental booking certainly ain't what it used to be. Sites like Airbnb and HomeAway have moved into the mainstream, offering a popular alternative to the traditional hotel experience. As a traveler who's had great success using vacation-rental sites, I'm already onboard. Prices for rentals are often more attractive than hotel rates, and rentals can offer unique amenities not available in most hotels.
According to VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner), vacation rentals trump hotels on price and performance. The average nightly rate for a hotel room in Miami Beach is $180, compared to $150 for a vacation rental. In Rome the average nightly rate is $223 for a hotel room and $181 for a vacation rental. And let's talk about size: The average vacation rental is 1,850 square feet, while the average hotel room is less than a quarter of that size.
Of course, the perks vary by property. But when choosing an apartment or a private hotel room over a hotel, you almost always get the opportunity to experience a destination as a local would by staying in a residential neighborhood, shopping at local markets, or chatting with your temporary next-door neighbors.
RELATED STORY: 10 Most Valuable Alternative Booking Sites
Vacation-rental perks are plentiful. However, the biggest drawback, for many travelers, is the inevitable risk one enters into when booking a place—sight unseen—over the Web. It can be difficult to gauge if a rental listing is authentic and well represented, and there's no well-connected concierge to move you to a different room if you're not satisfied with your accommodations.
A good, reliable rental is no easy find. Here's an overview of some of the most popular sites offering alternative accommodations, as well as tips on finding a trustworthy and fantastic place to stay on your next trip.
FlipKey and HomeAway
FlipKey, a vacation-rentals site (owned by our sister site TripAdvisor), is one of several big contenders in the rentals space along with HomeAway, which also owns VRBO. Each site has something unique to offer. FlipKey harnesses the power of renter reviews. And HomeAway has the biggest selection. But, as one should also do when booking flights or rental cars, it's best to run several searches to price out a multitude of places on varying sites.
As I previously mentioned, one of the problems with vacation rentals is that it can be difficult to know if you're getting the right read on the product. Without the extensive reviews and the brand legitimacy of a hotel, vacation rentals seed the fear of being had—of walking into a room that looks nothing like its advertised photos or that disappoints in one way or another.
To make sure that the property you want to book is a smart choice, keep an eye out for red flags. Genesis Kobos, a spokesperson from FlipKey, recommends travelers watch out for rentals that may seem too good to be true and for property owners that request a wire money transfer or even cash as payment.
But ultimately, when booking with a major rental site, you have more of a safety net then you would when, say, booking on Craigslist. Says Kobos, "FlipKey … takes pains to make sure the properties listed on our site are legitimate. If at any time you have concerns about an owner, the property, or a deposit, you can call or email us and we will verify any information you may be questioning." Always check your site's rental agreement or terms and conditions before booking to find out what your options are in case you get tied up with a sketchy property.
Airbnb is similar to traditional vacation-rental sites like HomeAway, but its listings focus on individual apartment owners, also called hosts, with various kinds of spaces to rent, from pull-out sofa beds in a spare room to entire homes or apartments. The site's a big player, with more than 100,000 listings in 192 countries.
I've used Airbnb with great success. I found a spacious, centrally located one-bedroom apartment in Paris for less than €200 (about $262 USD) per night in October. I had a kitchen, a living room, a washer and dryer, and access to my host's extensive DVD collection. The best part of the experience, I found, was the feeling of living like a local: cooking locally bought groceries in my private pied-a-terre and getting to know my French neighbors.
The primary disadvantage is the same when finagling a decent vacation-rental booking: The success of your experience is predicated on the honesty of a stranger. Often, you're securing a stay in someone's private home, using another person's bathroom, and coexisting with an unfamiliar person's array of stuff. A lot can go wrong.
And, on one occasion, it did. Renters aren't the only ones who need to be on guard when managing a transaction with strangers, as an ill-fated rental property owner learned in 2011 when an Airbnb guest destroyed her apartment where. The apartment owner blogged about the incident, as reported on TechCrunch: "They smashed a hole through a locked closet door, and found the passport, cash, credit card, and grandmother's jewelry I had hidden inside. They took my camera, my iPod, an old laptop, and my external backup drive filled with photos, journals ... my entire life."
In reaction to the incident, the company introduced a $50,000 Airbnb Guarantee, which insures property owners against damage caused by wayward guests. On the other hand, those staying in Airbnb properties aren't offered any kind of big-money insurance policy to back up their trips, but the site has a network of safeguards designed to ensure a smooth experience for renters.
If you feel unsafe upon check-in or if the room you've rented isn't what you expected, you have 24 hours (from the agreed-upon time of check-in) to get in touch with the customer-service department at Airbnb. Your host doesn't get paid until after you've checked in, so Airbnb can withhold compensation and give you your money back if your room turns out to be totally different than what was pictured, filthy, straight out of the set of a horror movie, or all of the above.
An Airbnb spokesperson recommends that prospective bookers "look for the 'Verified Photo' watermark on photos. Verified photos mean a professional Airbnb photographer visited the listing and captured and uploaded the photos." The spokesperson told me that renters can also look for a full profile with a photo, a verified phone number, and a connected Facebook account; these elements provide a degree of social legitimacy and allow you to get to know your host better.
Of course, Airbnb isn't the only site in the short-term room-rental marketplace. But it's the biggest and, arguably, the safest. Others include iStopOver and Roomorama, both of which primarily feature listings posted by individual apartment or homeowners. Read about some of the lesser-known rental booking sites in "10 Most Valuable Alternative Booking Sites."
(Photo: Shutterstock/Stacie Stauff Smith Photography)