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Tips for Booking Vacation Rental Properties

Mary Gormandy White
vacation rental property

When you opt for a vacation rental rather than checking into a hotel, you'll stay in an actual home rented directly from a homeowner or a rental company. Options may include houses, condos, apartments, cabins and more. According to HomeAway Senior Vice President Jon Gray, vacation rentals can "offer twice the space at half the cost of a hotel room" and "come with a host of budget-friendly amenities and perks."

Exercise Caution When Booking a Property

While vacation rentals can help you get more space for your travel dollar, booking private properties is not without risk. A USA Today article cautions prospective vacation property renters to take steps to avoid falling victim to misrepresentation. After all, with this type of accommodation you can't go to the front desk to demand a different room and since you will likely have to pre-pay well in advance you can't just leave and go somewhere else without incurring a financial loss.

Visit Beforehand

To mitigate this risk, USA Today suggests visiting the property before renting if that is possible, especially if you are renting directly from an individual. Other suggestions include renting through a travel agency or property management company instead of working with an individual property owner.

You could also use a website that allows property owners to list vacation properties for rent that also offers protections to consumers. USA Today mentions HomeAway, FlipKey, Rentalo and Roomerama as examples of sites to consider.

Clarify Property Location

Before finalizing your decision to rent a property, be sure that you have a clear picture of where it is located in terms of the attractions you want to visit. This is true regardless of whether you are renting directly from an individual or through a company.

An article in Woman's Day magazine recommends asking for clarification of vague terminology in rental listings. For example, if a property is described as being "near" the beach, don't assume that it is directly across the street from the beach or in walking distance. Ask exactly how far away it is - or use Google Maps to check it out for yourself.

Verify Property Features

HomeAway Senior Vice President Jon Gray
HomeAway Senior VP Jon Gray

Location isn't the only property characteristic that you need to check out. Be mindful that photos provided by the owner or rental company probably highlight only the best features of the property.

If only one bedroom is shown, don't assume that the others look just like it. Ask for additional pictures so you know exactly what to expect.

Amenities and Restrictions

Also verify what kinds of amenities are available and if there are any restrictions, as these vary greatly from one property to another. For example, some properties allow pets, but not all.

Additionally, Gray indicates that many vacation rentals "feature perks, like hot tubs, private pools, hot tubs, game rooms and more," but this is not true with all properties. Ask to be sure rather than assuming to avoid disappointment upon arrival.

Look for Reviews by Previous Renters

While reviews might not be available for all vacation rentals, it's a good idea to see if there are any posted on a particular property that you are interested in before you make a final decision. The Woman's Day article points out that TripAdvisor.com is a good place to look for reviews of specific properties, especially since property owners and managers aren't able to remove customer reviews.

They have an opportunity to respond to reviews that are negative, but they can't take them down. Property management companies and other websites that you can book properties through may also have previous customer reviews and testimonials published on their sites.

Use a Credit Card to Pay

The USA Today article referenced above also recommends paying with a credit card rather than cash, a debit card or a check when booking a vacation rental. If you do fall victim to a fraudulent rental or arrive to discover that the property is unavailable, the fact that you used a credit card may help you get your money back.

That is because the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) requires credit card companies to "charge back" transactions in situations where card holders pay for products or services that they don't actually receive.

Timing Considerations

Depending on the terms specified in your cardholder agreement, you may have to notify your credit card company of the problem within 60 or 90 days of the time the charge posted to your statement. Note that this doesn't apply to general dissatisfaction, but only to fraud (such as misrepresentation of the property) or unavailability.

Plan Ahead for the Best Selection

beach rental property

IndepedentTraveler.com suggests starting your search for a vacation rental property well in advance of your trip, especially if you want to travel during summer, which is the peak season for family travel.

With many people starting to search for summer rentals as early as January, the best properties may get snapped up months in advance of popular vacation times. To make sure that you have the widest selection of available options, start your search well in advance of the dates you want to travel.

Stay Flexible for Last Minute Deals

If planning months in advance isn't your style, another option suggested by IndepedentTraveler.com is to try taking advantage of last minute deals - though this option is not without risk. There is no guarantee that last minute deals will be available, so you are definitely taking a chance if you go this route. You might save money, but you might end up with no place to stay.

This strategy is not a good option if you really want a specific property or if you have to travel around particularly busy dates (such as the week of July 4 or Labor Day in the U.S.). You also have the best chance of finding a last minute bargain if you can remain flexible on your travel dates and destination.

Consider Travel Budget Impact

While cost varies based on location and other factors, vacation rentals can cost "50% less per square foot than the average hotel." There is more to it than just the cost of accommodations, though. A vacation rental can also help you cut costs on other aspects of your trip.

For example, dining out is a significant cost on any vacation, but you can minimize or even eliminate the need to eat in restaurants when you're staying in a vacation rental with a kitchen as opposed to a traditional hotel room. Gray points out, "Kitchens make it easy to prepare food, so you won't have to eat in restaurants for every meal."

Gray adds, "Vacation rentals that have washers and dryers allow families to pack lighter, thus reducing the need to pay hefty fees for checking bags."

Share a Rental Property

share a rental property with friends

If you want to really maximize your vacation dollars, Kiplinger.com suggests vacationing with another family or a group of friends or relatives. Rather than booking a property just the right size for your immediate family, consider splitting the cost of a larger vacation rental property with people that you'd enjoy traveling with.

While the overall cost of a large vacation rental property is likely to be more than a smaller one, chances are that it will result in a lower per family cost than renting two separate smaller places.

Have an Emergency Contact

When you're staying in a hotel, if something goes wrong with your room you can just call the front desk. That is not the case with a rental property. An ABC News article recommends to sure you "have an emergency contact person" to whom you can reach out if any issues arise during your stay.

Be sure you have a phone number and email address for at least one emergency contact person, though it would be ideal to get contact information for a backup contact person as well. This information should be included in your rental agreement, and the document should also address the timeframe within which problems will be addressed.

Is a Vacation Rental Right for You?

Once you stay in a vacation rental property, you just might discover that this type of accommodation is your favorite leisure travel option. What's not to love about vacationing in a home away from home rather than a typical hotel room? As Gray states, "It's no surprise that 85 percent of those who stay in a vacation rental plan to do it again on their next family trip or group getaway."

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Tips for Booking Vacation Rental Properties