Get a great deal on a vacation rental

From a lakeside cabin in the Wisconsin Northwoods to a villa in the Tuscan hills, vacation rentals are a more appealing travel option this year — thanks to a tanking economy, a proliferation of second-home owners trying to cover their mortgages through rental income, and a growing number of Internet-based listings and resources.

The industry is touting greater flexibility, last-minute deals and more hotel-like services and amenities, coupled with the old standbys of extra space and privacy and a kitchen to save money on bar tabs and restaurant bills. And with more consumer reviews and website guarantees, the risks of checking into a musty dump furnished with Grandma's cast-offs are diminishing.

"It's a whole new ballgame," says Douglas Quinby of PhoCusWright, a travel research firm that issued a report this year on the $25 billion-plus market.

According to PhoCusWright, only about 10% of adults in the USA have booked a vacation rental, which can be anything from a one-bedroom, $50-a-night Myrtle Beach condo arranged directly through an absentee landlord to a $15,000-a-week Caribbean villa with private pool and butler. The firm estimates there are 1.2 million vacation rental units in the USA, with just over half arranged through individual owners and the rest through real estate or property management companies. In Europe, the possibilities range from modest French gîtes (farm cottages) to palatial Parisian apartments.

"As the economy heads south, vacation rentals are more recession-proof than hotels because you get a much better value," says Baer Tierkel of Otalo, a just-launched search engine that bills itself as a "Google for vacation rentals."

And like hoteliers, the growing ranks of vacation rental owners — many of whom had never intended to rent out their second homes — are responding with price cuts and other incentives. Those include shorter stays and last-minute discounts of up to 20%, says Bob Barnes of Zonder.com, a network of professionally managed rentals. One Orlando company is giving away Walt Disney World tickets for bookings of a week or longer.

Humble or high-end, vacation rentals — most of which require security deposits and advance payments — are not for the type of no-surprises traveler who leans toward tours and cruises, warns longtime aficionado Pauline Kenny of SlowEurope.com.

Kevin Aftung can attest to that. The Maryland resident and his fiancée, Debbie Helms, had arranged several successful warm-weather getaways through VRBO.com (short for "vacation rentals by owner"). But when they couldn't find anything that matched their dates, they paid $1,300 online to an agency in Clearwater, Fla., for a 10-day stay last month.

Bad move: "We thought we were getting an adorable one-bedroom cottage but wound up with a half-bedroom shed," complete with cigarette butts on the floor and a bedspread so filthy "I wouldn't sit on it with my clothes on," Aftung says. "And what was supposed to be 'steps from the beach' turned out to be a 10-minute walk."

After a few phone calls, Aftung and Helms booked a beachfront condo through another company, Gulfside Resorts. They came back tanned and happy — and while they're still hoping for a refund from their credit card for the not-so-adorable cottage, they remain sold on homes away from home.

"We're a couple of Baby Boomer romantics, and vacation rentals give you both cost and psychic savings," Aftung says. "We love to buy local foods and do our own cooking — and we don't have to listen to a noisy traveler telling his life story at the bar."

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