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."

"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.

Risser says the top 10 destinations on his radar are California, Florida, Hawaii, Alaska, New York, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Maine, and Texas. If you're planning to visit a high-demand destination this year, the earlier you plan, the better.

If you've booked rentals in the past, you may have been locked into a full week's stay. That won't necessarily be the case with with your next rental. "Many vacation rentals are increasingly available now on a nightly basis as opposed to a minimum seven-night booking, which had been the standard in the industry in the past," says Ballotti. You may find some flexibility, especially during a destination's low or shoulder-season when renters are looking to sell inventory. Conversely, expect minimum-night requirements to be stricter during peak travel periods.

Finally, make your mobile device work for you. "We released [Airbnb's] iPhone app in November ... to make using [our service] even easier for hosts and travelers alike," says Chesky. "Hosts can use the app to respond to inquiries, accept reservations, and manage their listings while they are away from their computers. Travelers are by nature on the move and the app allows them to run a one-click search to locate available properties on a map, view or manage itineraries on the go, and book a space to stay with Airbnb no matter where they are in the world." HomeAway and TripAdvisor also have mobile application features, and you can expect more companies to follow suit.

Sarah Pascarella is a Senior Editor for Smarter Travel. She also writes the Sarah's Travel Tips column, in which she shares her advice on travel issues including booking, planning, comfort, safety, and convenience. This article originally appeared on SmarterTravel.

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