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Hotel too expensive? Try a rental

AskEd & AnswerEd
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on February 18, 2008. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: AskEd & AnswerEd, Ed Perkins, hotel, vacation rental.

Hotel rates keep climbing just about everywhere. Add a weak US dollar, and you may find ordinary hotels too much for your budget—certainly in Europe, and in many other places, too. One reader asked for some help for Paris:

"We'd like to spend a week in Paris for our 50th anniversary with another senior couple. Previously, we stayed at a favorite Left Bank hotel, but now that we're retired and money is at a premium, we're wondering how to keep costs reasonable. What should we do?"

The short answer: Check out a vacation rental. On a quick look, I found several pleasant-looking two-bedroom places for under €1,000 per week. Because rates at your favorite hotel are now around €200 a night, even if you got a discount, two rooms would cost far more than the rental.

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In a broader sense, vacation rentals are often an attractive alternative no matter where you're traveling. Here's an update of our earlier report.

The upside to rentals

Vacation rentals offer some important advantages over conventional hotels and resorts:

  • More space per dollar. If you share, you pay less per person; if not, you enjoy lots of additional room.
  • Kitchen facilities. Even if you eat nothing but breakfast in, you can cut your restaurant bills significantly.
  • Ease and access in the countryside. You find rentals just about anywhere, even where there are no motels.
  • City parking. Downtown rentals may include parking—usually a big cost item in city hotels.

And the risks

Although my own experiences have been generally positive, you have to watch out for a few pitfalls:

  • Outright deception. A few postings misrepresent the amount of space, location, beach access, facilities, and such.
  • Bait-and-switch substitutions. Once in a while, a rental agent greets you with the news that the unit you reserved is "being repainted" or otherwise unavailable, then proceeds to move you to alternate accommodations that are inadequate.
  • Inflexible arrangements. Many rentals are available only in increments of a week, and then often only Saturday-to-Saturday; peak-season dates at popular vacation areas often sell out almost a year in advance.
  • Commitment. Most vacation rentals require full prepayment, so you're stuck if you're dissatisfied.
  • Cancellation risk. Your advance payment—often required months in advance—is usually completely nonrefundable if you should have to cancel or modify your trip.

I find that, most of the time, the benefits outweigh these risks. If you decide to rent, you then have to choose how and where to arrange it.

Dealing direct

All of the really big online vacation rental websites act as bulletins that bring individual renters and owners together.

The 800-pound gorilla in this marketplace is HomeAway, which has acquired a bunch of individual sites with an aggregate of more than 250,000 worldwide listings: A1Vacations, CyberRentals, GreatRentals, TripHomes, VacationRentals.com, and Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO), plus U.K.-based Holiday-Rentals.co.uk and Owners Direct, as well as several other European sites. (I have no idea why HomeAway maintains a bunch of separate sites instead of one giant one.)

Dozens of similar sites operate either with smaller inventories, in more limited areas, or both. Examples include ForGetaway.com, MyHoliday.com (large, mainly Europe) and Gites de France, but I have dozens more tabbed in my "favorites" list. You can locate them for any area by Googling.

Rent-through-owner sites merely act as bulletin boards: Property owners submit their listings, typically with a lot of detailed information, pictures, and often a map; phone, Internet, and snail-mail contact information; and rates. Some property owners list their rentals on multiple sites. Your deal is directly with the owner; the website simply charges owners a fee for the listing.

Like craigslist or eBay, many of these sites take no responsibility for accuracy or problems that might arise. They're careful to disclaim any responsibility for misrepresentations or inaccuracies in any of the postings. Several, however, encourage travelers to submit comments, and most of them will de-list any individual property that receives more than a few bad reviews.

HomeAway sites feature a "HomeAway's Rent With Confidence Guarantee" that provides refunds up to $5,000 of any payments you can't recover if a listing is determined "not to be legitimate in accordance with our policy." I didn't find that guarantee on all the HomeAway sites, but that may be a case of lagging website content. Even though the guarantee has some expected fine print, if you rent from one of the HomeAway sites, you should check out the guarantee (or stick to the sites that do post it).

Individual property owners often establish their own sites for the one or more rental properties they own. In this case, you're obviously dealing directly and solely with that owner. And individual owners often post links on local visitor sites maintained by individual destination areas.

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