Consider the Benefits
First, consider the benefits of vacation rentals. If you’re traveling with a family, large group or pets, you can find properties that will accommodate everyone. You get a lot more space and privacy, courtesy of a living room, multiple bedrooms and a kitchen. (Being able to cook meals instead of dining out is another plus.) Additional perks might include fireplaces, private swimming pools, hot tubs and saunas, pool tables, fenced backyards, gas grills and decks with views. Lastly, since you can have large groups, the cost per person ends up being far less.
The typical booking window on HomeAway is 90 days, says Gray. This timeframe grows even bigger during high-season vacation times and special events (like the Olympics) and big local festivals. This means you need to book a summer rental in January or February to get the property of your choice -- when you want it. And if you’re still mulling where to go, here are a few ideas: HomeAway’s top 5 destinations for summer 2011 were Provincetown, MA; Ocean City, MD; Myrtle Beach, SC; Miami and Gulf Shores, AL.
Find a Reputable Site
Use a reputable site that stands behind its listings. In addition to its main site (which lists more than 300,000 properties), HomeAway has several additional sites: Vacationrentals.com lists more than 35,000 properties; Cyberrentals.com showcases more than 170,000 properties; and VRBO (one of the oldest rental sites, now owned by HomeAway) lists more than 180,000 properties. Other good resources: FlipKey showcases 120,000-plus listings. AlwaysOnVacation, which has been around since 2005, lists over 50,000 properties.
Talk to the Owner
When you find a property that interests you, it’s really important to talk to the owner, says Kelli Wulf-Stewart. And not just by email, she adds. Get on the phone. It’s a great way to discuss your expectations for the property -- and ask questions: Does the property have linens and towels? What’s the parking situation? Is the house cleaned professionally? Are there local hot spots nearby?
Ask for the Rental Agreement
Ask the owner to send you a copy of the rental agreement. It’s important to read it thoroughly so you understand the owner’s expectations for your stay. The agreement should outline all the costs, information on the property and owner, the on-site contact, information on trash removal and cleaning, and check-in and check-out procedures. You should also check the owner’s payment policies and make sure secure payment options (credit cards, PayPal) are available.
Before you sign any contract or make a deposit, be sure to read reviews on the property. This is the best way to confirm that what you’re seeing in the pictures and hearing from the owner is the truth. Reviews might also raise red flags: Maybe, for instance, others who’ve stayed at that property had a difficulty getting in touch with the owner or found it difficult to get their security deposit back. Why not learn from others’ experiences?
Think About Insurance
All major vacation rental sites offer insurance that can be purchased for a small fee. While every policy varies, they all basically protect you against foreclosure and bankruptcy, double bookings, wrongfully withheld security deposits and property misrepresentation. Some also offer protection for lost luggage, transportation issues, medical and dental emergencies and unforeseen events that may cause trip cancellation. Read more about the different policies at these sites below: