If you've never stayed at a vacation rental before, this may be the year to try one. Economical, spacious, and often in stellar locations, vacation rentals can be an ideal money-saving option for all types of travelers. In these tough economic times, finding a great property that matches your taste and budget can be only a few clicks away.
"Most people always save when going the vacation rental route, especially in a group of four or more," says TJ Mahony, CEO and co-founder of SmarterTravel sister site FlipKey.com. "And they can be some of the nicest accommodations around."
What Exactly is a Vacation Rental?
A vacation rental is a single property that typically is rented by a traveler (you) from the owner. Rentals range from beachside homes to mountain cabins to city apartments. Accommodations can be booked from owners directly, property managers, or a third-party supplier (such as Rentalo or VacationRoost).
Who Should Choose a Vacation Rental?
While I've long been a fan of vacation rentals and think every type of traveler should give them a try, certain demographics can really benefit.
- Families: Whether it's a single family or an extended crew, a vacation rental can be an economical and value-packed choice for relatives traveling together. Take, for example, this Orlando vacation rental property listed on Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO). The four-bedroom, three-bath home, about 10 miles from DisneyWorld, costs $1,050 per week in summer, and features a fully equipped kitchen, a washer and dryer, a pool and a hot tub, and a deck and patio, plus a television in every room. In a scenario of two families of four traveling together, the cost per adult would be $263, or approximately $38 per night. Not bad for renting a whole house with all the amenities included. If money is tight, the savings afforded by a vacation rental might make the difference between getting away this year or not. "For families, once they find out about vacation rentals, they might just be able to say look, we can do this," says Kathy Jones, Florida representative for WeNeedaVacation.com.
- Girlfriends: There's been a lot of promotions for girlfriends' getaways in recent years that, once deconstructed, don't actually offer a good value. A vacation rental is a great option for groups of friends hoping to save some money, for the same reasons as families. Divided among friends, you'll often find a great bargain with plenty of extras.
- Students: Students tend to travel in packs and visit popular beach destinations, where rentals abound. If you choose a property in an area where the dollar is strong, such as Mexico or Central and South America, you'll get an even better bang for your buck.
- Solo Travelers: Yes, rentals are economical when split among several people. But if you're a solo traveler, you can also get a good deal. SmarterTravel Associate Editor Kate Hamman recently booked a Montreal apartment all for herself, and paid less than she would have at hotels in her neighborhood. If you're planning a solo vacation, don't count out a rental for your trip—you may be pleasantly surprised at what you find.
Why Book One Now?
If you're a penny-pinching traveler, the rewards are obvious. You'll get a cheaper per-night price than many area hotels, a much roomier space, and the benefit of kitchen facilities to cook your own meals (offering significant savings over pricey restaurants). In many cases, the location can't be beat: You can rent waterfront properties in popular beach or lake destinations, in or near ski areas, or in desirable city neighborhoods.
As for when to book—that will depend on your destination. To ensure the best availability, particularly for popular destinations and peak travel times (holidays, school vacations, etc.), it's always recommended to book a few months before your trip. If you know your destination is really in demand (e.g., Orlando or Cape Cod in summer; Aspen, Florida beaches, or the Caribbean in winter), it's not unreasonable to book a year in advance. And while it's not always the best strategy, some properties do offer deals if there's last-minute availability. If you're working with an individual property owner, you can always inquire if there are any available discounts; third-party suppliers often post the latest deals right on their websites.
Where Do You Find Good Vacation Rentals?
Rather than sift through the (literally) millions of vacation rental results available online, reputable providers such as HomeAway and its affiliated brands (CyberRentals.com, VacationRentals.com, VRBO, and several others), Vacation Rentals Web Directory, and Zonder, among others, are tried-and-true places to start your research. Columnist Ed Perkins also weighs in on his preferred vacation rental sites that are worth a look. To see what our readers have recommended, check out our recent tip on new vacation rental websites—and don't hesitate to tell us about your own favorites.
What Should You Watch Out For?
Whether you're new to vacation rentals or an old pro, there are always a few precautions you should take before your trip.
Whether you're booking with an individual or a property management company, get a well-written rental agreement in place before any money changes hands, says Mahony. The contract should "stipulate the terms and economics and what each party is responsible for ... If there's no agreement in place, don't pay a deposit, because without one there's no itemization on how to get your money back."
With the economic recession, there has also been concern about vacation homes going into foreclosure. If you're concerned about this possibility, make sure to request a clause specifically about foreclosure to be written into the rental agreement so you can recoup any lost deposits or payments.
You also want to make sure to investigate travel insurance options to cover any deposits and pre-trip expenditures. A basic trip cancelation/interruption plan can cover most problems. Additionally, Travel Guard offers insurance specifically for financial default (e.g., foreclosure) on vacation rentals, with one caveat. "[The traveler] must purchase insurance within 15 days of putting down the initial payment on the property to be covered for financial default," says Dan McGinnity, vice president, Travel Guard. If you act within this window, you should be covered.
Regardless of what insurance provider you choose, be sure to review all policy terms thoroughly to make sure you're purchasing the right type of coverage for your vacation.
If possible, pay with a credit card, suggests Jones. "You have the right to protest the charge if denied access [to the home]."
For additional peace of mind, rent with professional companies, rather than individual property owners. "Find a property manager or rental agency and go to someone who has a good inventory," says Jones.
"I was in the office with a [vacation property] manager," says Lee Hughes, vice president, sales division, CSA Travel Protection. "The phone rang—a customer had come back from grocery shopping and the vacation rental house had been locked up and the locks had been changed. The manager jumped in the car, picked those folks up, took them to his house, went to the bank, got that straightened out, got a sheriff to come out. He then moved the couple to a much nicer house and refunded their money for the entire week. This particular [manager] had been in business a long time and ... knew to deal with the [bad] situation and make it a positive. That's the way professionals treat something like this. Managers do the best they can to make sure bad situations don't happen."
Regardless of whether you're dealing with a company or an individual owner, a clearly written rental agreement and appropriate insurance coverage can help protect your travel investment.
Are You a Fan of Vacation Rentals? Share Your Expertise!
If you're looking to get more for your money—more space, amenities, and value—consider a vacation rental this year. Have a recommendation we haven't covered here? Any suggestions for must-have items in the rental contract, or things to be careful about? Share your tips by submitting a comment below!