If you want to immerse yourself in the local landscape and like to feel as much at home while traveling as possible, vacation rentals offer a formidable alternative to the standard hotel stay. But whether you choose a single bedroom in a bigger home or the whole house itself, a vacation rental is quite different than a hotel—so you need to employ slightly different tactics to get the most from your stay. Here are 10 vacation rental hacks to help you tap into this growing market.
Scrutinize the Listing
Few vacation rental property owners manage their properties full time, and the info you find in a listing is not always accurate, up to date, or true to life.
In particular, property photos may be deceiving; for example, an oceanfront condo may have photos of the beach that are not taken from the actual condo, or a photo of a whole house may accompany a basement apartment. I once stayed at a house that had people jumping off a dock in the photos, but it turned out that the part of the house we were staying in did not allow access to the dock. Reading reviews from past guests and reaching out to the property owner directly can help you catch such inconsistencies.
You’ll also want to keep an eye out for “sleeps X people” numbers that don’t line up well with the number of bedrooms. If you’re not looking to pack a couple of people onto a sleep sofa in the living room, view these numbers with caution.
I’ve found that rentals marked as available are often booked, and rentals marked unavailable may actually be open. There is one property I have rented on multiple occasions that almost always registers as unavailable—and thus does not show up on date-specific searches—but when I write the owner directly, I have been able to book it every time.
Reach Out Before Booking
Due to the issues noted above, reaching out to your host directly before booking may be one of the most important vacation rental hacks there is. Beyond any questions you have, ask whether there’s anything in particular you should know before your stay; beds may have been removed, the pool might be empty, air conditioning might be limited, parking may be non-existent, or there might be other renters in the same building that might not be a good match.
It’s worth asking if the owner or others will be at the property. I once rented an upstairs floor in a beach house where just after arriving we were told that the owner’s elderly relative was staying downstairs, so could we please refrain from walking around after 8 p.m. so she could sleep? This was obviously not in the listing.
Check a Map App or Real Estate Site
Not all properties include the actual address, so ask for it and then map the location. This will tell you a lot, including helping to avoid the “just minutes” ruse about distances to the beach, restaurants, downtown, and the like.
While you’re at it, pull up the street view to get a realistic look at the area. Another of my favorite vacation rental hacks is to look up the area on Realtor.com, zoom in on the property, then switch to satellite view; in many places, Realtor.com uses actual aerial photos along the lines of those that used to make Bing Maps so useful.
Realtor.com and Zillow.com can also offer information on official square footage as well as bedroom and bathroom count as reported to local authorities, offering another way to get around fudged or optimistic property descriptions.
You can count on most hotels to provide things like shampoo, conditioner, soap, and other toiletries as needed. This is not so at many vacation rentals, so you’ll want to pack your own.
You might also want to bring your own coffee if it’s not mentioned as an inclusion in the listing. Sure, you could go to a local cafe, but as a friend of mine who regularly stays at vacation rentals says, “It is the first morning that you have to worry about. You are on vacation staying in a nice house, and you don’t want to have to drive around looking for your first cup of vacation coffee.” Enough said.
Finally, if you are concerned at all about the count or comfort of the sleeping arrangements, bringing your own air mattress can help. The better versions of these can be quite comfortable, but they are often bulky, so these are best saved for road trips.
Review the Property as Soon as You Arrive
Much as you would do when renting a car, do a walk-through of the property upon arrival to check for damage, missing amenities, non-functioning appliances, and other issues. If the owner is not present when you arrive, register all concerns immediately by phone, text, or email. Do not leave pre-existing problems for which you could be blamed upon departure.
Get a Cell Phone Number
Make sure to ask for your host’s cell phone number, ideally before you arrive. Not only does this help ensure a smooth check-in and key exchange, but it could also be useful during your stay in case of plumbing problems, access code errors, setting off alarms accidentally, or other unexpected issues.
Use a Grocery Delivery Service
When renting a house for a group on a recent work trip, I offered to purchase groceries ahead of our arrival using my Instacart account. The other folks frowned on the idea, but I went ahead with it anyway for my own purposes, and when the load of milk, cereal, peanut butter, English muffins, fruit, chocolate, coffee, and a fire log to put in the fireplace arrived, everyone got onboard.
Despite my experience noted above, it might be best to wait until after arrival before placing an order to see if you will need paper towels, toilet paper, coffee filters, sugar, salt and pepper, and other items that might not already be on the premises. You can also use your Amazon Prime account to get this sort of product delivered quickly.
Look for Fun Stuff
Vacation rentals can offer all kinds of benefits that you can’t get at a hotel without paying extra—think bicycles, a private pool, dock access, kayaks, surfboards, a trampoline, playsets, strollers, even ski passes.
If you see such amenities in the listing, ask your host how to get them. There may be pool access codes, shed or garage lock combinations, and other impediments to keep the general public from plundering the resources of a given rental property. If the rental is in a condo complex or gated community, you are often eligible to use all facilities available to owners, so you’ll want to ask where they are and how to use them.
Ask About Flexible Checkout Times
There may not be another renter coming in right after you, and property owners or caretakers don’t always arrive to clean the property immediately as would occur at a hotel, so checkout times may be flexible. If the owner gives the OK, arrive early and stay late to extract the maximum enjoyment from your vacation.
Do you have any vacation rental hacks I missed? Post them in the comments.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay
- 10 Important Items That Can Make Any Vacation Rental Feel Like Home
- How to Check for Hidden Cameras in Your Hotel Room or Vacation Rental
Ed Hewitt is a seasoned globetrotter who brings you a monthly glimpse into the latest travel news, views, and trends—and how they could affect your travel plans.
We hand-pick everything we recommend and select items through testing and reviews. Some products are sent to us free of charge with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not accept compensation to review products. All items are in stock and prices are accurate at the time of publication. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.