From a Swiss chalet to a cabin in the Smoky Mountains, vacation rentals can save you money while offering all the comforts of a home away from home. But how do you know you’re getting a good deal? And with more people than ever opting for rental properties over hotels, how do you snag that hidden gem? Here are a few tips to keep in mind.
1. KNOW WHAT YOU WANT
Do you plan on lounging around or being out and about? Are there children in your group? How important is that ocean view, really? Knowing your preferences will help you find the right rental without overspending. Make sure to coordinate with your group beforehand so you’re getting the best deal for everyone.
2. GET YOUR TIMING RIGHT
The general rule with vacation rentals is to book early. Indeed, unlike hotels and airfare, there’s no virtue in waiting to reserve that in-demand Italian villa or that Carolina beach house. Plan a year in advance, if you can. The exception is if you’re headed to a popular destination like Florida or Arizona, where supply can outstrip demand for rentals. In that case, you can often wait until the last minute and see significant price reductions.
3. BE FLEXIBLE WITH YOUR DATES
If you’re planning to visit Europe in the summertime, get ready for sky-high prices and fierce competition on rental properties. Move that vacation up to springtime or back to the fall—which many experienced travelers argue are the best seasons to visit anyway—and you’ll find better prices and availability. Booking sites often feature fare charts that allow you to track rates over time. Reserve in the last week of off-peak season and you might save hundreds.
4. KNOW YOUR TERMINOLOGY
Especially if you’re booking through a rental association or co-op, know the distinctions between terms like “Beachfront” and “Oceanfront” (only the former guarantees you’re on the water). “Direct Ski Access” usually means you’re a shuttle ride away from the slopes, while “Ski In/Ski Out” means you can ski directly up to the property. And “Garden View” can mean just about anything. Always ask for pictures of the rental property if none are provided online.
5. SEARCH MORE THAN ONE SITE
There’s a good chance you have one go-to site for rental searches. But getting the best selection means examining listings from multiple sources. Especially if you know the neighborhood where you want to stay, you should cast a wide net. Websites that aggregate listings are a good start, but don’t forget about location-specific sites, which can have high-quality listings that fly under the radar.
6. AVOID TOURISTY AREAS
Staying right off Barcelona’s La Rambla or Seattle’s Pike Place Market might seem nice—but you’re going to pay for it. Markups in tourist hotspots can be ridiculous, with subpar rentals often going for top dollar. You’re better off looking for places that are near public transit, or that are a short car ride away from popular destinations.
7. SAVE MONEY, BUT DON’T BE TOO CHEAP
You don’t want to overspend on space and amenities you won’t use or appreciate. But you also don’t want to spend a week in a glorified broom closet just to save a few dollars. Consider what you’ll need—and also what you’ll enjoy. No, that garden terrace isn’t a necessity. And sure, you don’t need that 42-inch television. But guess what? You’re on vacation.
8. STAY SAFE AND SECURE
The overwhelming majority of online rental listings are legit. Yet the risk of fraud is still very real, with numerous would-be renters getting ripped off in recent years. The number one security guideline, according to experts, is to contact the property manager beforehand. Ask questions, gather info, and walk away if anything seems fishy. Many sites provide built-in security measures, and reviews can oftentimes identify any red flags. Also, make sure to use a credit card for any purchases, since they usually have built-in fraud protections.