Cheap Vacation? Give the Hotel the Heave Ho

When Daniel Chandler and his girlfriend planned their recent London vacation, they decided against paying steep rates and possibly ending up in a sterile hotel room, opting instead for a once-obscure lodging option: an apartment swap.

Chandler took a chance on staying in somebody's London home while the owner of that home vacationed in Chandler's Paris apartment at the same time.

Not only was it cheaper, but there was more space and the opportunity to really get the feel for a city.

"You get an insight into somebody's life in a foreign city," Chandler said. "You feel more at home than you would otherwise at a hotel."

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If apartment swapping isn't your thing, another popular way to save on a vacation is through home rentals. Whether it's through a management company or an individual homeowner, the cost can sometimes be less than hotel rooms -- especially for large families -- and there is the added savings of having your own kitchen.

Chandler did his Paris-London swap through Luxe Home Swap and is now looking to do a second swap in Bratislava, Slovakia. He knew he wanted to get away, but wasn't sure where. When an available swap opened up, he decided to explore someplace new.

"People are very proud of where they live so they have a personal interest in showing off the area where you live," he said.

Vacation Home Rentals

The idea of renting a home for vacation is just starting to pick up in the United States.

Renting homes, a mainstay in Europe for decades, has been done in pockets of the U.S. for years, primarily in beach communities like Cape Cod and North Carolina's Outer Banks. But T.J. Mahony, CEO and co-founder of vacation rental site FlipKey, said recently it has caught on in other markets, including urban areas like New York, Boston and San Francisco.

"It used to be that only a small percent of the population would make them available to strangers, but with the advent of the Internet, it becomes much easier for folks to find these available homes," Mahony said . "Wherever you are going, there tends to be a vacation rental option available."

The National Association of Realtors said that there are 7.9 million vacation homes in the country. Out of those, one in four vacation-home buyers plan to rent out their properties, according to the association.

But picking a rental isn't necessarily easy. FlipKey offers reviews of properties, but experts say there are still many questions that an educated renter should ask before choosing a rental.

Sites like TripAdvisor offer online calculators to help determine whether its cost-effective to rent rather than stay at a hotel. Remember to factor in the cost of home-cooked meals instead of eating out.

For instance, a group of four could save up to $780 by staying at a vacation rental in Kissimmee, Fla., versus a hotel for a weeklong trip, according to TripAdvisor. In Maui, that savings could be as high as $2,030 for the week.

"Vacation rentals are emerging as a popular accommodation choice for travelers in 2010, because of both their wealth of amenities and the great value they offer compared with other lodging options," said Hank Hudepohl, director of vacation rentals at TripAdvisor.

Tips on Renting a Vacation Home

To get the most out of your vacation, Hudepohl offers the following tips:

Book as early as you can, especially for peak seasons like the summer. Top properties tend to fill up quickly because they often have repeat visitors, positive word of mouth, and great reviews.

Read reviews of potential rental properties in your travel destination whenever possible, so you can learn about the experiences of other travelers.

It's often good policy to contact multiple vacation rental properties at your destination before you book so you can evaluate the pros and cons of each property.

Ask the owner or manager if linens are provided and about any extras you might need such as beach chairs, umbrellas, bikes, towels, cribs and beach toys. You may not have to pack as much as you think.

Ask the owner about things to do, see, and places to eat. Many owners and managers know the neighborhoods well and are happy to make recommendations, and this can help you enjoy your stay even more.

Don't be afraid to negotiate the nightly or weekly rate for the rental home, as owners and managers often have the authority to be flexible with their rates. This is especially true if properties still have availability late in the booking season.

The more the merrier really is the case with vacation rentals. In general, larger families and groups stand to save more by staying at a vacation rental property versus a hotel.