Score the Perfect Vacation Rental in 2011

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A water view -- without having to request an upgrade. A full pot of fresh-brewed coffee each morning. The flexibility to cook your own meals or dine out if you wish. If these descriptions appeal to you, you might be one of a growing segment of travelers considering a vacation rental in 2011.

Each year, it seems the vacation rentals market gets a little bigger. There's growing awareness among readers and fellow media, and (dare I say it?) I think rental properties are finally on their way to going mainstream.

There are some new players on the scene, though. So even if you're familiar with vacation rentals, you'll want to read on to see what's in store in the year ahead.

New This Year

"We're expecting the popularity of vacation rentals to continue to grow even more rapidly than it has in the past few years," says Brian Chesky, CEO and co-founder of Airbnb, one of the new sites that's generating a lot of buzz for its fresh approach to booking accommodations.

Imagine a mash-up between couch-surfing sites (such as CouchSurfing.org), traditional vacation rental market sites (such as the HomeAway portfolio of sites), and user-review sites (such as SmarterTravel's sister site TripAdvisor), and you've got Airbnb, a social-driven site where property owners list rooms in their homes, entire homes and/or apartments, and unique rental offerings (e.g., treehouses, castles, private islands, etc.).

Reviews take on an interesting twist -- not only can renters leave feedback on the properties themselves, but both owners and renters can evaluate each other. Want to know if a property owner replies in a timely manner? Check the reviews on her profile. Not sure if this renter is legit? Read his profile to see what other owners have said.

"We don't just connect people to spaces, we connect people to people," says Chesky. "Authentic, two-sided reviews allow hosts and guests to build trusted reputations on Airbnb. Host and guest profiles and messaging allow people to share important information about themselves before booking."

Another trend among newcomers is the talking up of "curated" properties. Sites such as Inhabit Vacations (which currently focuses on the San Francisco Bay area) list vacation rentals that come with the stamp of staff approval. The human approval factor is the distinguishing feature: When you book, you know you're getting a vetted property, not just one from an aggregated list.

Hoteliers don't want to be left behind in this growing market, either. If you're interested in the perks of a rental, but don't want to give up all the amenities of a hotel, try researching hotel-branded properties, which may include some of the customer service perks you expect on a vacation.

"As vacation rentals become increasingly popular, rental companies such as our ResortQuest business, are offering more 'hotel-like' services and amenities that were traditionally not offered by rentals," says Geoff Ballotti, president and CEO, Wyndham Exchange & Rentals. "[Think] quality terry and linens, daily maid service, and access to spa, fitness, tennis, and golf facilities."

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