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Who doesn’t love a vacation?
Whether it’s a family road trip, a visit to Disneyland or travel to a big city, vacations give us a chance to bond, make great memories, explore, and embrace new adventure! Most of all, they give us a chance to relax and have fun.
If you’re looking to get away (or if you need to travel for business or pleasure), one of the biggest questions is always “where to stay.”
These days, with the rise of by-owner vacation rentals, companies like Airbnb, Homestay, HomeAway and Roomorama offer global hosting and tons of options and amenities that go beyond the typical hotel, hostel or standard bed & breakfast. We’re no longer forced to book stays at impersonal hotels or bound to staying at whatever hotel has a vacancy sign. (Hooray!) Better yet, with more space and a full kitchen, you can save a bundle on restaurant costs by cooking at least some of your meals at “home.”
Not to mention the price! If you’re looking to save on your next vacation, rentals can be the way to go!
You get all the personal touches of a bed & breakfast—and oftentimes the owner even hosts so they’re on hand if you have any issues. Plus, you have the advantage of local experience and guidance that goes well beyond a concierge at a hotel desk. You can also find family-friendly and/or pet-friendly hosts, which is a nice personalized touch to ensure your stay is hassle-free.
If you’re interested in booking your next trip at a by-owner vacation rental (and saving money), there are a few things you should look for to ensure you have the best and safest experience possible.
1. Consider Your Needs (number of guests, space, kitchen, etc.)
Most by-owner vacation rental sites (such as Airbnb) are very clear about the parameters and accommodations offered. Most offer a wide variety of options, especially in larger cities or popular vacation spots. You don’t have to settle for something that doesn’t meet your needs.
Be realistic about what you’re looking for. Are you traveling with kids? Pets? Do you want a host who lives on-site? Are you comfortable sharing a bathroom with other guests? Are you fine with just a room or do you need a kitchen and living space as well?
With by-owner vacation rentals, you can expect a more personal experience—but you also shouldn’t assume things like transportation, parking or meals will be readily available, unless indicated by your host. In a big city, this isn’t such a concern, but in a small town where the nearest store closes at 8pm, this could be an issue. Be clear about your needs and expectations and read the listings carefully.
2. Read Reviews and Verification
If you’re new to vacation-rentals, read all the online reviews thoroughly before deciding on a host. One bad review doesn’t necessarily mean anything (especially if they complain about things beyond the host’s control, like the weather), but a few questionable reviews should raise red flags.
Most sites verify hosts, meaning they’ve been vetted and reviewed several times, and you can trust what they say. One of the best guidelines I’ve heard is to think of it like a dating website, rather than Hotels.com. Opening up one’s home to outside guests is a pretty personal thing. You want to really get to know your host and they should be comfortable and curious about you, too.
There are “instant rentals” available, but for first-timers, you may want to do some more research and communicate with your potential host before making a decision. It can help you make a choice you’ll be happy and satisfied with in the future.
3. Look at Photos Carefully
Great hosts offer lots of photos of their property so you have a good idea of what the space looks like. Watch for verified photos, which means that guests have reviewed and vouched for the fact that the accommodations are as pictured.
When you’re looking at the photos, keep in mind that this is someone’s home—don’t expect the same perfection or standards you would find at a professional hotel or inn. At the same time, hopefully you’ll notice some personality so you can really get the flavor of your host and get a clear overview of what the space and property looks like.
If you have questions about the photos, communicate with the host. For example, if you’ll need a closet, but you don’t see one pictured in the photos, you should ask! Always review each listing carefully to make sure you’re really comfortable before you book!
4. Always Only Pay Through the Site
You should never “deal offline” with a vacation-rental host. Many sites prohibit off-site deals, plus, it’s a sign that the host isn’t so trustworthy.
Obey your gut instinct when it comes to booking your site and working with your host. This is one case where you can really expect hosts to give you the best deal up front, so there should be NO need to negotiate or try to “talk down” the price. The market is quite competitive and hosts may decline any guests who aren’t willing to pay the expected rate.
Making payments through the site doesn’t completely prevent worst case scenarios, but if you’re going through a host with great reviews and you’ve thoroughly done your research, obeying site rules and adhering to the guidelines just reinforces your positive impressions. You want to know that this is someone you can trust and that they’ll do things as outlined.
5. Consider the Host’s Personality
As you’re considering your host, look at their personality and the style outlined in their reviews. If you’re hoping for someone who will mostly keep to him or herself and just give you a space to stay, look for that in the reviews. If you want someone who will show you a great time, give you a tour of the city, and spend hours “hanging out,” then look for a host that offers a more outgoing style.
Most by-owner vacation hosts have day jobs and may even be renting while they’re out of town, living somewhere else or away. If you’re staying in a foreign city and you think you’ll need guidance and food, and you’d like to really make a connection with someone, you should thoroughly research and gauge your host’s responsiveness.
Similarly, if you have kids or if you’re traveling with pets, be very upfront about it, and ensure your host is kid and pet-friendly. You should go in with the expectation that your host will also be very honest and upfront about their children, pets, friends, engagement, and noise level.
6. Analyze Your Host’s Communication and Comfort
You might be wondering, “Well how do I find out all these things about my host?”
Most sites require a back-and-forth communication with host and guests before the decision to rent. This is so you can get to know your host and vice-versa. Be honest, upfront, friendly, and open with your host. Remember, this is a real live person who is renting out their home or room to you, not a company. It’s okay (and encouraged!) to inject a little personality and friendliness into your correspondence!
There are some “instant rent” options available, and oftentimes, professional companies or contractors in the area run these spaces. While that’s fine, you won’t receive the same level of personalization (like snacks, coffee in the mornings, or suggestions for the best café in town).
If you prefer the personalized experience, look for hosts who are friendly and honest about what they expect and what they can offer.
7. Look for Clear Rules and Guidelines
Newbies especially should look for properties that list clear house rules and guidelines. Not all listings offer these guidelines, but it’s a sign of a thorough host who’s going to keep up their end of the bargain as well.
Rules and guidelines help you know whether or not your host would like you to remove your shoes in the mudroom, if they have preferences when it comes to noise, if they prefer specific arrival and departure times, and similar information. Reading all the rules beforehand will go far in helping you both have a pleasant experience.
Hosts that don’t list clear-cut rules and expectations should still be prepared to answer questions on request. Similarly, if they list their rules, be sure you read them before emailing with questions they’ve already reviewed and answered in their profile.
8. Check for Extended-Stay Rates
While most rates aren’t negotiable, if you’re planning to stay for a week or more, it can be worth it to ask your host about extended-stay options and rates. If you’re traveling for several weeks on a business trip, staying at an owner-hosted rental can bring the consistency and comforts of home during your stay.
Some vacation-rental owners prefer to limit their guests’ stays or aren’t as comfortable with open-ended or extended stays. Others prefer the consistency and reliability of a guest who plans to stay for a longer period of time.
Vacation-rental owners rely on their properties to bring in a regular income, so having a guaranteed renter for a week or two is often worth giving them a discount. It can be win-win for both parties!
9. Check for a Home-Safety Profile
Check to see your potential host offers home-safety guidelines. These guidelines should include local emergency numbers and information about the home. The information should include how to work with and troubleshoot utility problems (like if the furnace or hot water goes out, or there’s a water leak), plus useful information like the WIFI password.
If you run into an emergency and your host isn’t available, the home-safety profile will be your go-to guide, especially in an unfamiliar town or even a foreign city. It’s also important to do a little research beforehand just in case.
Have a good idea of the weather and pack extra layers in case your host’s preferred temperature is a little different from your own. Know where there’s a nearby store, and have an idea of emergency medical and safety services in the area. Follow best “travel practices” and plan ahead, especially if you’re traveling alone or with kids.
10. Consider Parking, Transportation Access and Location
Some by-owner vacation rentals offer access to bikes or extra parking spaces—and some hosts will even pick you up from the airport. Most however, expect you to be responsible for your own transportation, so it’s best to err on the side of precaution unless it’s explicitly stated in the profile.
If you’re visiting a larger city, public transportation might be widely available, or you can rely on Uber or Lyft to get you to your destinations. On the other hand, many smaller cities, even suburbs, don’t have transportation available. The last thing you want is to be late for a meeting or a flight because you weren’t aware that cabs needed to be arranged beforehand or that public transportation routes won’t take you to your destination.
Similarly, many cities, especially during festivals, events and winter months have restrictions on street parking. Don’t assume you can park your rental car right in front of your accommodations or that there will be space available.
With a little planning ahead and some smart screening, you can save a bundle by using by-owner vacation rentals. The prices are often much more reasonable than hotels. The experience is much more personal and unique. It can add to your adventure and help you feel more at home on your trip.
So whether you’re headed to the mountains, to the beach or to a city, check out some of the great sites for vacation rentals and give it a chance! You might even make a few new friends and connections along the way!