There's a well-kept secret in the travel world for families: rental vacation homes. Well, it's not exactly a secret, but vacation home rental is often overlooked when travelers are planning their vacations. Staying in a real home with bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room with a big-screen TV is a favorite way to travel for millions of people, particularly in Europe and Canada. It's been a bit slower to catch on in the U.S. Nevertheless, the advantages of home rental are gaining attention and home rental veterans will tell you it's the only way to go.
The ability to prepare meals and store food is a huge advantage for parents who tire of dragging their children to restaurants night after night. There's something very appealing about having your own BBQ in the backyard just like at home -- only in a really cool destination with the sea breezes blowing.
Another big advantage to renting a home is that it allows families and combined families more face time. "We stayed in a home in Vermont with my in-laws and children," says Alexis de Belloy, vice president of U.S. Business for HomeAway. "In the evening, once we had the kids in bed, we could go to the living room and chat and build memories. In a hotel, you're congregated in a bedroom or finding sitters."
Best news yet is that home rentals can be surprisingly affordable. With an array of beds, sofa beds, lofts and extra linens, homes can accommodate plenty of people -- so when the cost is divided among many, it comes out less per square foot than multiple hotel rooms. Factor in budget-friendly meals cooked in-house and bookshelves stocked with DVD's and family games, and the savings can really add up.
Despite the many advantages, renting a home that belongs to someone you don't know raises some questions. There is a perceived element of risk that if the place you are paying hard-earned dollars for doesn't have Hilton or Hyatt in its name, it will be a dive. Or worse yet, it doesn't exist at all. The number one worry about a home rental is "Will the keys be there when I arrive?" de Belloy says. "People are used to hotels with 24-hour access."
Anyone considering a home rental as a possibility needs to consider carefully their wish list before searching for a rental home on Family Vacation Critic's Vacation Rentals search portal. Below are things to consider before selecting a home.
A Place of Your Own
Like anything else related to lodging, home rental is an option that works best in certain circumstances. It's best for large groups and multiple families, although a couple with one or two children will have fun in a smaller beachside cottage. It is also best for stays of five days or longer. Most rentals require a minimum three-night stay and in peak season, it can be as long as five. "If you are blowing through town and staying overnight, it's probably not going to work," de Belloy says.
Most homes are well-stocked with all the utensils, linens and paper goods you will need. They will usually even have some basic nonperishable food items, such as cooking oil and seasonings. But keep in mind that grocery shopping, as well as some light cleanup at the end of your stay, is part of the deal. If the idea of preparing meals on vacation is a buzz-kill in the highest degree, then stick with a hotel.
Start with a Plan
Popular destinations like Florida, the Carolinas and Hawaii will have the largest selection, but you'd be surprised at how many of the lesser-traveled cities and states have terrific homes for rent. Choose from detached family homes, townhomes, condos or apartments, depending on the size of your group. Some rentals combine the best of both worlds with condos that offer "5-star" hotel service.
Once you've decided where you are going on your vacation, it's time to hit the listings. The most desirable (and affordable) homes are booked early -- satisfied customers will make an annual trek to the same place -- so get going at least three months ahead of time. Get firm commitments from extended family members and friends -- you will need to know exactly how many adults and children will be staying. Some contracts even ask for each guest's name and age.
Think about what you will be doing on this vacation. Will you be out of the house sightseeing all day? Do you have elderly parents or very young children who will need special care? "Before I got smart about renting, we rented a house where all the bedrooms were on the second floor," says vacation home renter Margaret Pearson Pinkham of Sebastopol, Calif. "My 80-year-old mom had trouble with that."
Here are some good things to keep in mind while researching rentals:
- What will the sleeping arrangements be? Are any of the bedrooms downstairs?
- Are children of all ages welcome?
- Is it a non-smoking/allergen-free (no pets) home? Or alternatively, are pets allowed?
- How close are attractions, restaurants and grocery stores? Are they reachable on foot or do you have to drive?
- Are there enough bathrooms?
- How many guests can the dining room accommodate? What about outdoor seating?
- What is the security/cleaning deposit and what are the rules for getting it back?
What to Ask, What to Check
Price. The nice thing about rentals is that very often, the price is negotiable. While hotels will sometimes upgrade your room or run specials, with rentals it's all about a deal to be made between renter and owner.
So ask if the price is negotiable. You are in a better position if the booking date is just around the corner and the owner is "motivated." "I usually start discounting properties about 20 days ahead; I am also more inclined to discount during the off season," says Jill Valeri, who rents her beach home in Slaughter Beach, Md.
Photos. When it comes time to make a decision, the property with the most photos wins. Nothing sells a rental like great photos, of every room if possible. If you see six different views of the distant ocean from the second floor deck -- and nothing else -- then you have either a clueless homeowner or a very unattractive house.
Many listing sites allow a dozen or more photos; Vacation Home Rentals has no limit. If there aren't enough to satisfy you, contact the homeowner directly. Most listings have a name and a phone number and/or email address. Note how quickly your requests are handled. "Lean toward places owned by people who respond to inquiries promptly," suggests Bennett. "It's a good sign they are interested, they like renting their property and want to make sure guests are happy."
Amenities. Often, a family, and especially multiple families, will want more than one TV. Are there instructions for using the DVD player? Is there an iPod player? Are any of the games (such as a billiard table) off limits to kids? Is there Wi-Fi access and if so, is the access code listed conspicuously?
Exact Location, Neighborhood. If you are renting near the beach, or for skiing, demand specifics on proximity -- down to the nearest 1/10th of a mile, if need be. A great deal of criticism in home reviews is not about the home itself but of misinterpretation of what "a short walk" is -- especially with beach chairs, coolers and kids.
The Contract. These days, when we systematically click "Agree" without reading more than a paragraph of a download agreement, it's easy to do a once-over-lightly on a rental contract. Don't. Trust me. The contract is very important and will tell you exactly what you need to know in order to enjoy the stay and get your deposit back. Here are the important parts and don't forget to bring your copy with you:
Fees and pay schedule: Note the cleaning fees and security deposit. Make sure you send your checks on time.
Cancellation policy: Unlike hotels, home rentals often require at least 30 days notice of cancellation, or you could be required to pay in full. This varies greatly from homeowner to homeowner and most of them will refund your money, minus a small percentage, if they can successfully rent the home to someone else.
Damages: Review what your liability is and how to handle any damage that occurs while you are there. Sometimes an immediate phone call to the homeowner if the BBQ catches fire means the difference between getting all or just a fraction of your deposit back.
Cleanup: Most homes require at least a basic cleanup, which might include vacuuming, washing dishes, starting one load of linens and removing garbage. Pay attention to special requests, such as thermostat settings, turning water on or off, covering the hot tub, etc.
Contact numbers: The homeowner's office and cell number; a repair office if something goes wrong; local police, fire and hospital; and perhaps a friendly neighbor or two.
Home Away From Home
If the strong growth of rental listing sites is any indication, vacation home rental is quickly becoming the lodging of choice for more and more families. Sure, it requires lots of flexibility and a bit more homework on the computer. But the advantages of more space, lower cost (in some cases), and being in a real neighborhood where you can be a local instead of a tourist, are too good to pass up.
"When I stay in a hotel, I want to get out of that hotel," says vacation home renter Jennifer Nielsen of Palo Alto, Calif. "When staying at a (house), it's much more relaxed and feels like home."
Find vacation rentals in your favorite destinations by visiting Family Vacation Critic's Vacation Rentals, which allows you to search properties based on destination and region.
For family-friendly vacation rentals destinations, read 10 Best Vacation Rentals Destinations.