Our love of vacation rentals started when our first child was a baby. We had one experience of trying to stay for a night in a hotel with him in tow. We were skeptical going into the experience. First of all, he went to bed at 7 p.m. at the time. If we were successful in getting him to bed that early, how were we going to keep him asleep? Were we going to have to go to be at 7 p.m., too? Yeah, right. Could we quietly watch TV while he slept? The experience did not go well, as anyone with a small child who has attempted to stay in a hotel will likely tell you. Something about hotel rooms turns little people into human super balls. Ever since, we have stayed in vacation rentals whenever possible, specifically through VRBO. (We have never tried AirBnB or any other services to date.)
Vacation rentals are a great option for so many travelers. They work especially well if you are going to be in a destination for at least three days. This is not a home swap or staying within someone’s primary residence. Vacation rental units are dedicated specifically as rentals for visitors and are not a primary residence for their owners.
Your rental could be a cabin, a single-family home, a condominium, or a town home. Most of the ones we’ve stayed in are either town homes or condominiums. We have also stayed in homes and cabins via vacation rental. We have stayed in 10 VRBO rentals all over the US. In addition, we have also stayed in a few vacation rentals in Europe. So we have accumulated some experience we can share.
Why we love vacation rentals
For us, some of the pros of using vacation rentals have been:
Having a bedroom for our kids
…so they go to bed peacefully while we can stay up and watch a movie, etc. Of course, now that we have a teenager, the opposite might be true…I can go to bed at a reasonable time while the teen and his night-owl father stay up prowling into the night.
Travel with our dog
When our dog comes along, it is nice to stay in a place that has plenty of space for her to roam, a yard in which she can do her business (which can be a huge pain when staying at a hotel), and no chance of her barking loudly down an echoing hallway full of hotel patrons.
Having a kitchen
…so not every meal has to be eaten in a restaurant. A full-size fridge for all of our water bottles, water bladders, etc. is also a bonus.
Having a washer and dryer
…so we don’t have to pack nearly as many clothes on the trip.
When possible, having a garage
…where we can store our Jeep and its contents without as much worry of break-ins, etc.
The really great thing about vacation rentals is, at least in our experience, it’s generally not much more expensive than staying in a hotel. This is especially true if you have more than four people in your party. Five or more people generally are a tight fit in a hotel or even an extended stay hotel, as you would be renting two or more hotel rooms. For a similar cost (or possibly cheaper), you can get so much more space in a rental. And when you factor in lower food costs associated with having a kitchen (vs. eating out in a restaurant for every meal), the costs get even closer. You might not get an indoor pool like you do at a hotel, but overall you’ll get so much more than a hotel can offer.
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Deciding whether renting a vacation rental is right for you
There are a few things you need to be aware of when renting a vacation rental. Here are some tips about vacation rentals that may help you decide whether they are the right lodging choice for your trip.
Note the minimum stay requirement
A three-day minimum stay is pretty standard for most rentals in my experience, so these are not a great option if you are passing through somewhere for one or two nights.
Be aware of the upfront payment requirement
Know that most of the time you will need to pay the entire cost of your stay upfront. Usually they require payment either upon booking or half upfront and the rest within 30 days of the trip. There are other variations of payment requirements, of course, but the message here is that you will pay upfront.
Be aware of the cancellation policy
Most of the time, you will not be able to get a refund if you cancel within 30 days of your stay. So if there’s any chance your plans might change, you might want to think twice about a vacation rental. Another option that might work is to find local rental companies that rent out vacation properties to see if they offer a more lenient cancellation policy. We’ve had a little luck with that in the past, but in a recent search I found most cancellation policies to be pretty standard regardless of who is listing the rental. I also recently saw a rental that offered “cancellation insurance.” It was about $120 for a one-week stay, but had we needed to cancel, we would have only lost the “insurance” portion of our payment.
Finding the right vacation rental for you
Once you’ve decided to take the plunge with a vacation rental, here are a few tips for narrowing down your search:
Use their site’s filter option religiously
For us, we always enter a maximum price limit, and then look for pet-friendly rentals (if we’re bringing our dog) with a washer/dryer, garage, air conditioning, and wi-fi (because our family cannot unplug on vacation without wi-fi…someday I will write a defensive post regarding this). Depending on the weather, we’ll also look for a pool or hot tub for the kids if we think we can afford it.
Keep track of the options
I like to create a spreadsheet or grid listing all the rentals that meet our criteria. I like the spreadsheet to include columns for:
- the number of bedrooms and bathrooms
- whether there is capacity for our kids to have separate beds
- which of my above-listed filter criteria each place has, the total price (including any fees)
- the URL so I can find it back quickly again (though the site’s Favorites feature is pretty helpful, too)
- any other useful notes, like maybe whether it’s a convenient location
Ask the owner or manager directly about dates of availability
The rental sites like VRBO usually show availability of rentals on an online calendar, but it doesn’t hurt to check directly with the owner or manager to confirm the dates are actually open. Some owners and managers cross-list their properties on multiple vacation rental sites, and they may or may not always keep those availability calendars up to date.
Be sure to get a complete quote and the payment requirements from the owner before you sign up
In VRBO they list the cost per night, but with some properties there are additional fees that will swing the total cost up much higher than you would expect from just looking at the per-night cost.
You’ve booked your rental! Now what?
Once you’ve booked your vacation rental, here are some details to be aware of.
Make sure you are clear on arrival procedures
Find out whether you need a lockbox code to get in or whether you need to pick up a key at a rental office, for example. In the US these procedures have been pretty clear and simple so far. In Europe, for each rental we had to have a property manager meet us at the building when we arrived. This was stressful, since we had to hope our cell phones worked, then wait on a curb with all of our stuff for at least 30 minutes for them to arrive.
When you arrive at your rental, check their supply of essentials
One place rented in Florida only had a half-roll of toilet paper left in the whole condo when we arrived. Obviously this wasn’t going to last long. There was also only one trash bag. We found ourselves scrambling to the store for supplies during prime beach hours, rather than going later in the day as we’d originally planned. When I commented about this lack of supplies in my review, the owner said that this practice was standard in that area.
As a result, it’s a good idea to do a quick sweep of the supplies when you arrive. Items we always check include
- toilet paper
- trash bags/liners
- paper towels.
random food items they keep in the kitchen (Many rentals will have coffee, sugar, salt, pepper, or other random food items in their cupboards available for your use.)
In addition, make sure they have the right pans and utensils you’ll need. For example, there’s nothing like bringing a frozen pizza back to your rental, only to discover they don’t have a pizza pan, aluminum foil, or a pizza cutter.
Be clear on the clean-up expectations for your rental when you depart
Many will require you to empty all the trash and/or run the dishwasher when you leave. They can take your deposit if you don’t adequately complete these duties. (I say this from experience.) Also make sure you know what to do with a key, if they have left you one.
One last suggestion: Keep track of your vacation rental history. I keep a master document that lists all the different rentals we’ve used over the years and their VRBO URL. You never know when someone might want a recommendation. You might also want to stay again at the rental if you return to a vacation destination.
Other than some minor issues (like the toilet paper incident and a wi-fi password issue in Italy) we have had very good luck with vacation rentals in the 13 times we’ve used them. They have been clean and in good condition. If we’ve needed to contact the owner or manager, have been very responsive. In Antibes, France, for example, there was a railroad strike the day before we were scheduled to depart. Our property manager helped us identify back-up transportation options should the strike have lasted another day.
If your trip lends itself to a rental option, by all means I encourage you to give it a try! I know I’ll never go back to hotels, even after our kids fly the nest.