For a twist on your next vacation, swap an ordinary hotel room for a rustic cottage along the banks of a secluded river, a tree house nestled at the summit of a volcano or an open-air villa on a private beach. Websites offering short-term rentals put homes all over the world up for grabs, meaning you can access creature comforts while in unfamiliar territory, experience life as a local or spend a few nights enjoying luxurious amenities—such as an infinity pool overlooking the ocean—that would normally appear out of reach. Because home rentals are scattered throughout residential areas, the sites can also be your only source of accommodations if you want to stay in the suburbs, sleep in a quiet neighborhood away from tourist zones or test-drive a retirement location.
The two big names in short-term rentals are Airbnb, which lists more than 5 million properties worldwide, and HomeAway, which offers more than 2 million. (VRBO is owned by HomeAway and shares the same inventory.) Airbnb tends to pop up more often in urban areas and, unlike HomeAway, gives the option of bunking down in a private guest room (or even a shared room) while sharing common areas with the host. HomeAway is more popular in rural or traditional vacation-rental spots. But search both sites to cover your bases, as well as a number of other “alternative accommodations” websites for the full array of options.
Pattie Haubner and her husband, Jim, who live near Stratton Mountain, Vt., started traveling for long periods after he retired four years ago, choosing Airbnb and Booking.com rentals for trips to Australia, Malta, Sardinia and more. “There is nothing nicer than having your own apartment in Paris around the corner from a market,” Pattie says. She has devised her own criteria when searching for rentals—for example, easy access to the main train station in a large city, or a restored historic home with beautiful views in a small town. And despite a few snafus, she says, “most of the time, I am really pleased.”
But not everyone is as satisfied with their rentals as the Haubners. Ask travelers who often use home-sharing services and you’ll likely turn up a few horror stories, such as last-minute cancellations by the host or filthy homes sprouting black mold, despite glowing reviews from other guests.
Whether you are gearing up to give a home rental a shot or you want to improve your stay, we’ve found ways to get the most out of your rental, from search tricks to troubleshooting a poor experience. Our advice is geared toward Airbnb and HomeAway users, but the strategies apply to many other short-term rental sites.
Hosts set their own cancellation policies, so if your plans could change, choose a rental with a flexible policy—or stick with a hotel. Unless you lock in a prepaid rate, hotels typically have more-flexible cancellation policies than rentals. And if a host cancels on you, the rental company will sometimes help you rebook, but pickings can be slim if you need a certain neighborhood and home size, or if you’re traveling at a popular time of year. In general, short-term rental services place the onus on you to try to resolve the issue with the homeowner before turning to them for help.
Finding a Home Rental
Start your search with a destination. It can be as specific or broad as you like. You can search Airbnb and HomeAway by neighborhood, landmark, city, state and even by country. Although you can browse listings without plugging in dates, your results will only show an average or “lowest” nightly rate that could easily climb higher on weekends or holidays.
Keep an eye on the map next to your search results while you browse, and zoom in on any properties that interest you to make sure they are located in the neighborhood—and even the city—that you want. The search radius will automatically expand to pull in listings from nearby areas, especially if there is not much available in the location or on the dates you choose, says Abigail Long, public relations manager of AirDNA, which analyzes short-term rental data. If you’re not careful, you could land on a property that is many miles from where you actually want to stay. (HomeAway will flag the approximate distance to your original search location. And its app will let you use your finger to color in a specific search area, such as a stretch of coastline, to contain your search.)
The initial set of results can be overwhelming, so the next step is playing around with the sites’ filters. You can narrow your results by price, accessibility, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, the ability to reserve a home instantly rather than wait for the owner’s approval, and suitability for business or family trips. With Airbnb, be sure to check off “entire place” if you don’t want results that fold in private rooms (or shared rooms) with common spaces. You can also tailor your results on Airbnb or HomeAway by filtering for unique property types—such as cabins, farmhouses, islands, tree houses or yachts—as well as amenities such as air conditioning, a king-size bed, kitchen, Wi-Fi, pool or hot tub.
If you are coming up short on available rentals, clear your dates to see if more properties pop up. “Some hosts forget to update their calendars or may experience a last-minute cancellation, so reach out to ask if it’s available,” says Schlichter, of SmarterTravel.
Many properties are listed on both Airbnb and HomeAway, especially rentals run by professional property managers, says Long. Compare the cancellation policy, fees and damage deposit in case booking on one site ends up being a better value than another.
Scrutinize photos and reviews. Property owners may take liberties with the definition of certain features or amenities, so compare their listing write-up with photos and reviews. For example, a property may advertise that it “sleeps six,” but two of those people might be expected to sleep on an air mattress or a futon. If you don’t see photos of the promised number of beds or other important amenities, ask the owner about the discrepancy.
Only travelers who booked and stayed at a property can write reviews on Airbnb or HomeAway’s website, but don’t take praise at face value. “Reviews are often extremely positive,” says Daniel Guttentag, assistant professor of hospitality and tourism management at the College of Charleston. “It’s partly psychological. When you’ve shaken a host’s hand or slept in his or her bed, it feels weird to critique the host’s home in a harsh way.” Guests may save their criticisms for a private message to the host instead.
Skip the star ratings and read between the lines of reviews (see Online Reviews You Can Use). Negative comments might be sandwiched between effusive compliments, or several people might allude to the same problem, such as highway noise. Be wary of properties with brief, generic reviews that are not overly complimentary, says Guttentag. On Airbnb, look for automated postings in the review section that signal a host canceled on a guest.
Haubner, 58, also examines the headshots of reviewers, looking for travelers similar in age to her. “Older travelers will comment on the beds, stairs, cleanliness and neighborhood safety,” she says. She also looks for coded words or phrases that give her pause, such as “student neighborhood” or “not the cleanest.”
If a property is new and has no reviews yet, you might get a better deal as the owner tries to drum up business, but it’s a risk. See if the host mentions other properties he or she owns. Those might be reviewed online, and the reviews can provide insight on how the rentals are maintained.
The photos will usually show the property in its best possible light. Beware of fish-eye photos or skewed perspectives because they may be used to disguise a room’s small size, says Schlichter. If the photo album shows a spectacular coastline or forest, “don’t assume the surroundings in the photographs are right outside the front door,” she says. You can ask the host how far you would need to walk to get to the scenic sights.
Or research the location independently. Erin Clarkson, a frequent user of Airbnb and HomeAway from Savannah, Ga., scopes out homes via Google Street View after noting the approximate location on the rental site’s map view. “You can tell a lot about a listing by viewing its surroundings,” she says. “It’s also a great way to see how close the rental is to restaurants, grocery stores and interesting shops.”
Haubner has her own trick for identifying clean, modern home rentals: Look for white bedding and new Ikea furniture in the photos. “It sounds silly, but I’ve found it works,” she says. “You can’t have dirty white bedsheets or stained white towels.”
Vet your host. Although instant booking is convenient, messaging homeowners with questions first is a good idea, if only to test their responsiveness. “Sometimes I’ll make up a question,” says Schlichter. “If they take five days to respond, what will they do if I lose my key and need instant help?” Communicate through the booking platform’s messaging service, rather than e-mail or phone, so you and the company have a direct record of your interactions.
The safest bet is sticking to a “Superhost” on Airbnb or “Premier Partner” on HomeAway. To earn these titles, homeowners must be active hosts who are responsive, get good reviews, and rarely or never cancel.
Beware of cancellation policies. Homeowners on Airbnb and HomeAway can set their own cancellation policies, which can range from “flexible” or “relaxed” (a full refund within a certain window) to “strict” (no refund or a partial refund in limited circumstances). If the host cancels on you, you may or may not get help from the rental company to make alternative plans. Airbnb will offer a refund or a credit toward a new reservation (or refund only if your host cancels more than four weeks out). HomeAway will help you rebook if the reservation is canceled less than 30 days from your stay and you can’t find a back-up option, but you’ll need to find your own replacement if the reservation is canceled further out than that. If a host notifies you that your dates no longer work, make sure that they initiate the cancellation rather than you so that you’re entitled to a refund or credit.
Know the total price before you book. Cleaning fees, service fees and local taxes can substantially increase the cost of your reservation, and they can make a big difference between two rentals with similar nightly rates. Guest service fees can be as much as 20% of the nightly rate on Airbnb and generally range between 6% and 12% on HomeAway. On both sites, you’ll typically pay a lower percentage on more-expensive reservations.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to make apples-to-apples comparisons. On HomeAway, you need to click on each listing to see the total price inclusive of taxes and fees. Airbnb shows both the nightly rate and, in smaller type, the total price, including fees on your initial list of search results. But you still need to click on each listing to see the total price with taxes.
Always pay your host through the rental company. If you take the transaction offline, you won’t be eligible for protections against fraud, rebooking assistance and other safeguards. Use a credit card for extra protection.
Troubleshooting Your Stay
If you run into a snag after you arrive at the rental—maybe you can’t get into the building, the place is a mess, or your bedroom is located in a garage—contact the homeowner immediately. Short-term rental companies expect you to work with the host first before coming to them for help.
Keep as much communication as possible on the site’s messaging service, so you and the company have a record. If you want to call the host, send a message before or after summarizing the conversation. Include photos or videos of the problem as evidence. If the host is not responsive, loop in customer service for guidance on what to do next. And if you want a refund, you can’t stay the entire time or rebook yourself without notifying customer service.
Home-rental services will issue a refund or help you rebook under limited circumstances. Airbnb covers situations in which you can’t enter the home, you discover that your rental was misrepresented, or your rental is unclean, unsafe or contains a pet that wasn’t disclosed in advance. You must contact Airbnb within 24 hours of check-in (unless the issue crops up later). HomeAway’s policy is vaguer, and mismatches between a property’s online listing and actual appearance are covered on a case-by-case basis.
Sometimes you can do everything right and still run into problems. Two years ago, Haubner and her husband booked a rental on the Greek island of Paros after reading positive reviews and checking out the location on the map. When they arrived, they realized the home was on a highway and not on a beach, as it appeared to be in photos, and the front yard was filled with junk. “I told the owner that I wasn’t going to stay for five days, and that I would write a review and tell people what this is,” says Haubner. She sent photos to Airbnb to back up her complaint, and eventually negotiated a refund of all nights but one.
You could also shoot a quick walk-through video on your phone when you arrive and before you leave as a precaution against disputes that may crop up later over the condition you left the rental, says Clarkson, who does that every time she rents a place. Even though she has never had a problem, “You’ll have proof if the owner claims you broke something that was already damaged upon your arrival,” she says.
After your stay, both you and the homeowner can write reviews about each other, but you’ll have limited time to post or edit your review. On Airbnb, you cannot delete a host’s review of you if you feel it was unfair, but you can post a public response. And if a user clicks on the profile photo next to your review, he or she can find reviews about you posted by hosts. If you remove your review on HomeAway, you can’t submit a new one later.
Rentals With Hotel Extras
If you want a combination of home rental and hotel, consider Airbnb Plus, which launched in early 2018. This separate tier of Airbnb features stylish homes that have been verified by inspectors to include everything from fast Wi-Fi and 24-hour check-in to strong water pressure.
You might pay a premium. For example, the average daily rate of a two-bedroom Airbnb Plus home in Los Angeles last year was about $271, compared with $223 for a similar non-Plus home, according to research firm AirDNA. In Barcelona, two-bedroom Plus homes averaged $226 per night last year, compared with $166 per night for non-Plus homes.
An alternative is Oasis, a competing home-hotel hybrid. It holds its rentals to similar standards and offers perks such as private drivers or breakfast boxes for an additional cost.
Hotels are also getting in on the act. The AccorHotels group owns Onefinestay, a service that offers nearly 5,000 high-end private homes and villas that are all vetted in person; you can also request additional services, such as airport transfers and private tours.
One trend on the rise is “boutique short-term rental operators,” says Deanna Ting, senior hospitality editor at Skift, a travel industry news site. Examples include Lyric, Sonder and The Guild. These services convert urban apartments in prime neighborhoods to home-hotel hybrids. They throw in amenities or services such as décor from local artists, new appliances, smart TVs, workout rooms, 24-hour concierge service and even a fridge pre-stocked with your favorite foods. You can find these properties advertised on the major short-term rental sites, or you can book directly through the companies (sometimes for a lower price).
Houseboats, Tents and Yurts
If you’re looking for a specific type of short-term home rental, such as a kid-friendly property, or you simply want more options in different price ranges, it pays to look beyond Airbnb and HomeAway.
Booking.com is known as a hotel-booking site. But with 5.7 million “alternative accommodations” (including privately owned homes, chalets, farm stays and even igloos), it claims to have more than any other short-term rental service. TripAdvisor Rentals has more than 830,000 listings around the world (FlipKey, HouseTrip and other sites are part of TripAdvisor Rentals). GlampingHub.com features more than 35,000 “unique” accommodations, including floating homes, safari tents and yurts. For additional listings, consider Kid & Coe for family-friendly homes, Misterb&b for LGBTQ-friendly hosts and Noirbnb for travelers of color.
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