May 10, 2010 -- 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?"
As is so often the case, "best" is a totally subjective concept:
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:
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.
Niche listers: Many similar sites concentrate in a single aspect of the vacation rental marketplace. Quite a few are based in their destinations areas rather than the U.S. and many quote prices in euros or pounds:
What you get: Regardless of size, these listing sites share a common principle: They're facilitators, not agents. They just post the offers, availabilities, prices and such: Your actual deal is with the owner of each property. That's one of the reasons they offer the best prices: no agency markups, with listing fees low enough that many property owners list on multiple sites.
Typically, the large U.S.-based sites allow you to zero in quickly on what you want: price range, location, numbers of bedrooms and baths, swimming pools and other important facilities, communications, parking, accessibility, pet acceptance, availability and cost of housekeeping, and such. With many, however, you have to do a lot of trial and error before finding what you want.
One minor annoyance: For some reason, many of the listing sites include a few B&Bs. There's nothing wrong with B&Bs, of course, but they shouldn't clutter up the vacation rental displays.
The risk: The main risk with a listing site is that you see only what the owner decides you should see. Wide-angle lenses can make a closet look spacious and a good writer can make a cottage three blocks from the ocean to sound like the waves will break over the front balcony. You generally have to pay in full or make a big deposit in advance—often many months in advance—with a really big cancellation fee if you decide you don't like the rental after you arrive. And if you encounter a problem, you have to settle it with the owner, who may or may not be readily responsive or even available.
These days, most big sites mitigate this risk by posting renter reviews and possibly offering some sort of guarantee. Several sites de-list properties with a record of multiple complaints.
Agencies—the Safe Alternative
The other main branch of the marketplace consists of rental agencies that inspect the properties they list—some even manage them. Typically, they handle far fewer locations than even the midsize listing sites.
Dozens specialize in Europe or parts of Europe, the Caribbean, and Hawaii; many concentrate on a single country, and many on an individual region of a country or single city. France, the U.K., Italy, London, Paris, and Tuscany are especially well covered.
The main advantage of dealing with one of these agencies is that the agency has actually screened the properties. Staff can discuss each individual property with you, and can jointly assess whether it's right for your needs. Moreover, when you rent through one of these agencies, your deal is with the agency, not the property owner. And if you have a problem, the agency is on the hook to fix it.
This degree of security comes at a price. The agency has to charge enough markup to cover the cost of inspections and management. Although I've never seen the same property listed through both channels, I guess that an agency rental costs something like 20 percent more than one through a listing site.
I've rented through both listing and agency sites and I've been happy with both. Your choice is a matter of preference: Minimal cost through a listing site or minimum risk through an agency. Either way, you'll find more than enough options to provide a great vacation stay. Enjoy!
Ed Perkins is a contributing editor to SmarterTravel and a respected commentator on all aspects of the travel industry, including passenger comfort and rights, travel insurance, the best credit cards for travelers, and car rental fees. SmarterTravel provides expert, unbiased information on timely travel deals, the best value destinations, and money-saving travel tips.