Score the Perfect Vacation Rental in 2011

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"Amenities might include options for child care, free bicycles, private swimming pools, an in-home movie theater with free DVD rentals, or perhaps access to a fitness center or an indoor water park," says Alex Risser, president of the Vacation Rental Managers Association. "The vacation possibilities are endless. You can also take advantage of vacation rental business relationships with local activity providers, shops, restaurants, tour companies, and more." Inquire with your rental company or property owner if any affiliated discounts are available for local businesses.

Lastly, this year you may not have to offer cash up front, in one lump sum, for your rental. "Layaway vacation plans are also a growing option, providing installment-based payment plans to secure future trips," adds Risser. When investigating rental options, this may prove an attractive new development if you're vacationing on a budget.

Tips for First-Time Renters

Perhaps more than any other segment of travel, vacation rental bookings require some advance research and planning. Once you've found a property that interests you, be sure to ask the following questions.

  • Is the property professionally managed or rented by its owners?

  • Is a rental contract required?

  • If not, how will all transactions be handled?

  • Will you need to make a security deposit? What are its return/refund policies?

  • What are the renter's cancellation policies?

  • What pre-departure steps are required from renters (cleaning, laundering sheets and towels, etc.)?

  • Are there fees for additional guests?

No two rental properties may be alike, although you might experience a more streamlined process working with a management company or larger brand.

"The benefits of renting from a company you can trust with your family, your credit card, and your invaluable vacation time can't be understated," says Ballotti. "Book with a company that regularly manages and inspects its properties to ensure they meet a high standard of quality and safety, [as well as] one that offers online bookings and payments, can handle booking amendments and cancellations, and provides impeccable customer service and around-the-clock check-in assistance."

You can also check user reviews to learn about previous travelers' experiences with a given rental. Sites that offer user reviews include Airbnb, TripAdvisor, and Flipkey (another of SmarterTravel's sister sites). The HomeAway sites also feature reviews, star ratings, and guest books from previous visitors, depending on which site you're browsing.

Additionally, give yourself a bit of lead time when booking. "Travelers nationwide are booking on-average nearly four months ahead of time, which can be a good timeframe if considering visiting during peak seasons," advises Risser.

Secrets Even Long-Time Renters Can Benefit From

Look to what's happening in the world (and in your own neighborhood) for insights on demand and availability. "With one of the coldest winters on record, beach destinations have been in high demand," says Ballotti. He notes that northwest and southwest Florida, the Carolina coast, Crete, and the islands of Mallorca and Menorca have seen an uptick of activity. In addition, with the royal wedding approaching in April, the U.K. has been in demand.

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