Vacation rentals aren't typically associated with last-minute travel. Privately owned, with limited space per property, rentals typically get booked months (sometimes even a year) in advance. Add in desirability by season—for example, beachfront homes in the summer, log cabins near ski resorts in winter—and the challenge becomes even greater. Sometimes, however, getting a vacation rental with little advance planning is possible.
Strategies for getting a last-minute rental
If you're having trouble finding a vacation rental for your upcoming trip, first seek out local resources. "Call the chamber of commerce and ask a local person for help," recommends Steve Burke, who leases a vacation rental farmhouse on Prince Edward Island. "Connecting with another person who lives in the area you want to vacation at can work. Initiate a conversation with them regarding your interests." He notes that locals will be most familiar with the area, including lodging options and availability, because they live there. "I've done it and it works, domestically and internationally. Person-to-person works."
If the rental you wish to book has no vacancy, ask the owner for a referral. "Perhaps I might offer an option, which would be staying at another place or two owned by a friend," says Burke. If such a referral is available for the dates you want to stay, be sure to have a detailed conversation with the owner to make sure the new option fits your needs. Inquire about whether the property has an online listing, what the layout is, price per person, and extra charges for cleaning, security deposit, and other incidentals.
Ingrid Heath-Russ, owner of Starfish Cottage in Plymouth, Massachusetts, also recommends referrals. "We have a B&B group here and we all help each other out. Just ask the owner for a referral." She also recommends checking property calendars, available on online listings, to see available openings and special offers. "Most properties have calendars that [owners] keep updated, so you can see when it's available. I list specials online, weeks that I may have open. If it's really high season, we don't like to reduce rates too much, but if it's not rented at the last minute, most would be happy to rent at a reduced rate than not at all."
You may also consider looking into last-minute cancellations. Again, the chamber of commerce may be your best resource to find short-notice availability, or you can check listings in local newspapers or on vacation rental websites. Or, call several property managers directly and have them keep you in mind for cancellations.
Additionally, consider looking for a rental outside the area you wish to visit. Consult a map to see towns adjacent to the one you wish to visit and check if staying just off the beaten path offers more availability. Vacation rental websites that enable you to search by region include Vacation Rentals by Owner, TripHomes, and CyberRentals. Heath-Russ also recommends checking WeNeedaVacation.com and GreatRentals.com.
If you're out of luck...
If you just can't seem to find a vacation rental at the last minute, take advantage of advance planning and book ahead for next year. Plan a year or at least six months in advance. For Burke's Prince Edward Island rental, travelers typically start calling in February for vacations during the June through October busy season. Heath-Russ notes that she often gets requests in January and February for vacations in July and August. Additionally, many vacation home renters are repeat visitors, sometimes requesting the same chunk of time each year. As such, an early inquiry can ensure you greater flexibility in determining when you'll be able to take your own trip.