So you've decided to rent a house or apartment for your next trip or family vacation. Great! But where do you begin? The increasing popularity of vacation rentals has led to an explosion of resources on the Web, which can be more overwhelming than useful. With hundreds of thousands of properties listed online and in real estate offices all over the world, how can you find the one that's right for you?
To make the process easier, we've pulled together our most useful tips and Web resources for finding and getting a great deal on your next vacation rental. We'll tell you where to begin your search, when to reserve your property and what questions to ask the homeowner before your stay. Start here and you'll be well on your way to finding the house, bungalow or oceanfront villa of your dreams.
Start by visiting the many useful vacation rental sites on the Web (we've listed a few of our favorites below). They are well organized and will help you narrow down the areas that appeal to you most and what you can expect to find there. Many sites will allow you to save your favorite properties to a wish list for easy comparison, and to communicate directly with homeowners, who are usually eager to share first-hand knowledge of the areas where they have properties.
Your best bet is to compare rates, amenities, views and conditions before entering into a rental agreement. Keep in mind that certain sites are simply a forum for owners to list their properties, while other sites serve as rental agents and take a more active role in the process. You may pay slightly more when booking through an agent site, but they may also be more willing to step in if something goes wrong with your rental.
While there are many worldwide sites for vacation rentals, don't forget about smaller sites that offer rentals specific to your destination; often you'll find properties listed there that you wouldn't find on the bigger sites. Local real estate offices can also be a great resource, especially if you live within driving distance of your destination and would like to tour properties in person with a real estate agent. To find local realtors, try contacting the Chamber of Commerce for your destination city (if you can't find the number by searching the Web, contact the state tourism office). Keep in mind, however, that the agent's commission may inflate the price of your rental, and you'll probably be giving up your chance to bargain with the property owner directly.
Many people begin planning their summer vacations right after New Year's. Also, in many popular vacation destinations you'll find loyalists -- people who rent the same house for the same block of time year after year. For the largest selection, start early and ask about early booking discounts. Sometimes you'll find that in exchange for the security of having their property rented, an owner and agent will offer a discount, sometimes as much as 10 percent.
Know What You Want
Need to bring Fido? Make sure pets are allowed. Have small children? Ask about baby gates for the stairs. Vacationing with an older family member who isn't very mobile? Try to find a property without many steps. Plan on having cookouts? Ask if the grill is in good shape. Get the details in writing and bring them with you to be sure everything is as promised. Also, be sure you have the name and phone number of someone you can call if anything goes wrong during your stay.
Wait It Out
In the most popular vacation destinations, supply outweighs demand. For this reason, the closer the high season gets, the more agents and owners are scrambling to fill houses. If you are flexible about your dates and amenities, you can find significant savings on your vacation rental by searching at the last minute. Just don't get your heart set on a particular property and remember that this is a game of risk vs. reward.
Read the Fine Print
Before making a rental commitment, be sure you understand what it involves. Start looking as far in advance of departure as possible so that you can absorb all the nitty-gritty about terms and rules, physical layout, furnishings, cleaning and repair services (if any), local transportation, proximity to services that you need, financial arrangements and obligations, deposits, liability and property insurance, and whatever other details come to mind. Minimize your risk of unpleasant surprises when you arrive and when it's far too late to back out.
Many vacation rental sites now offer reviews and feedback from past guests; read these carefully and reach out to the homeowner about any questions that might arise.
Keep in mind that renting a house or apartment is not like booking a hotel room -- it's a binding contract between you and the homeowner. In the event you need to cancel, you may have to do so within a week or even 30 days for a full refund.
Finally, keep in mind that some cities -- including New York -- have laws against locals renting out their own homes for fewer than 30 days. For more on this, see Airbnb and Beyond: Tips for Safe, Legal Vacation Rentals.
There are a number of helpful websites to consult when looking for your vacation rental. Many sites are just listing agents and do not vouch for the properties, so check what kind of support, if any, you can expect from the site if things don't go as planned. Below is just a sample of the resources available.
The Apartment Service
At Home Abroad, Inc.
Sea2Sky Vacation Rentals
BeachSummerRentals.com: Beach towns in the U.S., Caribbean, Mexico and Central America
Cabins.com: Cabins, cottages and chalets in the U.S.
Caribbean Way: Upscale properties in the Caribbean and other tropical locations
ClassicVacationRental.com: Italy, France and England
Domus International: Rome, Italy
GetMoreVacations.com: Florida and other Southern U.S. locations
Hosted Villas: Various European countries as well as Argentina, Mexico and more
Italy Unique: Destinations across Italy
Nice Pebbles: Nice, France
RentVillas.com: Europe and Caribbean
ResorTime.com: U.S., Canada, Mexico and Caribbean
Summer in Italy: Italy
Villa in Umbria: Umbria, Italy
-- written by Genevieve S. Brown; updated by Vicki Flores and Sarah Schlichter
Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns FlipKey, Holiday Lettings and VacationHomeRentals.com.