The Best Way to Arrange a Vacation Rental

Vacation rentals continue to be a popular and growing part of the accommodations spectrum. Compared with hotels, motels and resorts, they offer some combination of more room for the dollar, lower cost per person, often superior locations, and the ability to cut costs by preparing some of your own meals. Unlike hotels and motels, however, the vacation rental marketplace is chaotic, and you may well wonder how to approach it. A reader put the question succinctly:

"I want to stay in a vacation rental instead of a hotel this summer. What's the best way to locate and arrange a rental?"

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As is so often the case, "best" is a totally subjective concept:

  • To many of you, "best" means "least expensive." Whether you're looking for a rustic cottage, city apartment or luxurious beachfront villa, you want to get the best deal you can find.

  • To others, "best" means "minimal risk." When you arrange a rental sight unseen, and pay in advance, you want assurance that you'll get what you want and won't be disappointed in what you find after you arrive.

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Fortunately, you have plenty of ways to balance cost and risk.

Direct—the Least Expensive

Renting directly from a property owner, with no intermediaries at all, is clearly the least expensive way to go. And you have several options. Maybe you know somebody who has a cottage or condo that's available part-time. Or you can ask around your circle of friends. Beyond that, you can check popular no-fee sources such as Craigslist.

The risk can also be low if you know or trust the owner, or if you can rent a facility that someone you know has previously rented. If not, you can ask the owner to give you some references, although recognize that you'll get a carefully screened list.

Listing Mega-Sites—the Widest Choice

The Internet has made matching buyers and sellers ridiculously easy in many markets, and, with vacation rentals, dozens—maybe hundreds—of listing websites (sometimes called aggregation portals) take and post rental offers submitted by property owners. The largest sites provide worldwide coverage and list more than a hundred thousand properties; smaller ones may list only a handful of rentals in just a single community or destination area.

The 800-pound gorilla in the vacation rental marketplace is HomeAway, which supports more than a dozen different individual sites, in several different languages, and with an aggregate of more than 400,000 properties around the world. For most rentals, you can probably stick with the three biggest:

  • HomeAway, the "parent" site, lists close to half the total, with good coverage worldwide.

  • Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO) is focused on the U.S. but includes rentals worldwide.

  • Holiday-Rentals is the largest player in the U.K. market with outstanding European coverage.

Overlap of listings is considerable but not 100 percent. I suggest you start with VRBO for rentals in the U.S. and Holiday-Rentals for Europe, but check HomeAway, too, just in case.

Other big listers: Sister site Flipkey posts more than 100,000 rentals worldwide, along with extensive travelers' reviews. Other very large sites, with thousands of listings, include 1st Choice Vacation Rentals, EscapeRental, Rentalo, and Vacation Rental Direct. I've found that these sites often provide better coverage of some destination areas than the HomeAway giants.

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