Sept. 18, 2008 -- In this economy, most of us are trying to cut corners wherever possible.
If you're planning a vacation, renting a luxury condo or house instead of staying in a hotel can save you big bucks. Plus, you'll have more space to relax and enjoy your home away from home. Renting a vacation home is an especially smart choice if you're traveling with a group of friend or with kids.
You can find some of the best bargains on vacation home rentals online if you know what to ask about and how to protect yourself as a renter.
Here are 10 tips to help you get the biggest bang for your buck.
Condo Vacation Rental in Scottsdale, Ariz.; photo by Karen Schaler
1. Choose a popular rental destination.
If you're looking for sensational savings your best bet is to choose a destination where there are a lot of vacation rentals on the market, keeping prices competitive. Some top locations in the United States for vacation rentals include: Arizona, California, Nevada, Florida, North Carolina and Hawaii.
For example, during the popular fall and winter months in Arizona, a hotel room can cost you more than $400 a night, but for the same price you can rent a two-bedroom vacation home for an entire week. When you get a vacation rental you also have your own kitchen, so you can cook some of your own meals, saving substantially.
2. Comparison shop.
Now it's easier than ever to comparison shop when you're looking to save on a vacation home rental. You can find some of the best rental home listings on the following four Internet sites. Always compare notes before signing any paperwork.
Vacation Home Rental on Atlantic Beach, Crystal Coast, N.C.; Photo courtesy of Crystal Coast Tourism Authority
3. Don't send money until you sign paperwork.
When renting a vacation home, never send anyone money until you've signed your rental paperwork. It's also a good idea to check out the person you are doing business with. Ask for references, and check out their Web site and their track record.
Many homes are run by professional real estate agents, so the rental paperwork should include all the legal details you need. If you're renting from the homeowner there should still be a lease for you to sign.
Read the fine print. Is there a cancellation policy if you have to leave early? Does it stipulate when you will get your deposit back? Spend the time up front checking things out so you won't have any hassles later.
4. Know exactly what's included.
Most rental homes will say "everything's included," but you want to double-check to be sure that there are no hidden surcharges. If utilities, Internet and cable are included, does this mean the property has WiFi and high-speed Internet? Is it basic cable or premium? If electricity is paid is there a cap? Many properties will say they include utilities, electricity and gas and then the fine print says it's included, up to the first $200.
Arizona realtor David Van Omen says you can't ask too many questions.
"If you're renting a home with a pool, make sure the pool is actually heated and find out beforehand who pays to heat the pool, because that can get expensive in the winter months," he says.
5. Have an emergency contact person.
Your rental contract should include who to call if your dishwasher breaks or there's some other problem with the property. It should also state a time frame for fixing any major problems. You don't want to rent a home and have the hot water heater conk out and end up with cold showers for two week. The information should also be posted in a contact book inside the property. Make sure you have a phone number and email address of the contact and if possible get a second person as a backup.
6. Is the home family friendly?
If you're traveling with kids, make sure the property you rental is family friendly. Check the bed configurations. If you have three kids and the guest room only has a king-sized bed you could be in trouble.
Also make sure you see pictures of the home. Do you really want to rent a place with a white couch and fancy décor if your 3-year-old still thinks it is fun to color on everything in sight? Make sure the home you're renting fits your family's needs so you're all comfortable.
Brenda Collons, from Seattle, says with two young daughters it just makes sense to rent a home where the family can spread out and relax and save money at the same time.
"We save a lot by eating meals at the rental home instead of eating spendy hotel food," Collons says. "This allows us to spend money on other things that are more important to us as a family."
Condo Rentals in the Crystal Coast, N.C.; Photo courtesy of Bluewater GMAC Real Estate
7. Can you bring a pet?
Many vacation rentals accept pets, but they may have a size limit. If the limit is 20 pounds, don't even think about trying to sneak in your Great Dane because chances are the neighbors will rat you out. They usually know the homeowner and the real estate agent and keep a close eye on what's happening.
John Kelly, the general manger of Bluewater GMAC Real Estate in North Carolina, says it doesn't hurt to ask if your pet can stay.
"There are many options for pet owners and while it's typical only dogs are allowed you may be able to get permission for a cat, bird or other pet," he says.
8. Is a refund available if you leave early?
If you think you may want or need to leave early, check your contract to see if you're eligible for a partial refund. Most vacation rentals are for a specific time period and don't offer refunds because that leaves the homeowner in a lurch with no time to rent to someone else. Know going in what the rules are so there are no unpleasant surprises.
9. Love the house you pick.
Keep in mind when you're renting a vacation home you're renting a property that's individually owned. This isn't a hotel where if you don't like what you have you can get something else. Once you sign a lease for a specific property, that's the property you're getting, so make sure it's exactly what you want. Ask if reviews from other renters are available. Also remember you get what you pay for. While scoring a good deal is the goal, if it's too cheap there's probably a reason.
Vacation Rentals at Hawks Cay, Florida Keys; Photo by Karen Schaler
10. Reserve early.
Popular destinations like Arizona, California and Hawaii fill up fast, so reserve early to get the best deals. For favorite rental months like November, December and January, it's typical to rent as early as six months out.
For more ways to save money on vacation check out Karen Schaler's TRAVEL THERAPY Web site www.traveltherapytrips.com.