Vacation season is just around the corner, which means not only figuring where to go but where to stay. One lodging option that is becoming increasingly popular with travelers is vacation rentals. ß You won't find a mint under your pillow when you rent a house or apartment while on vacation instead of staying in a hotel. ß But you could end up saving a mint in terms of spending less money, as well as having an experience that is a far cry from hotel life. Renting somebody else's house, apartment or condominium can also provide you with the comforts of home. ß "I like having a kitchen and living room. You have more room basically," said Pleasanton resident Lisa Halperin. "I like being able to be more independent than you are in a hotel. ß For the money, I think you get a better deal." Halperin and some childhood girlfriends recently booked a luxurious Wine Country five-bedroom vacation rental lodge in the Alexander Valley through www.vrbo.com, one of a growing number of vacation rental Web sites. ß She has also booked an apartment for a family vacation in Spain. "You have more options. You've got the laundry. You've got the kitchen. It's more economical in that sense. You don't have to eat a big meal out. You don't have to worry about
Still, vacation rentals are not for everyone, travel experts point.
Canceling a vacation rental reservation is generally more difficult than canceling a hotel room. Vacation rentals often require you to stay for at least a few days or a week whereas most hotels offer a minimum one-night stay. Not only that, but the amenities beyond the mythical mint offered by hotels — things like room service, a maid to tidy up, a desk clerk or concierge with local knowledge — won't be there.
Vacation rentals come in a wide variety of prices and accommodations: a cabin in an isolated area, an upscale home with lots of luxuries, a seashore cottage in a beach town, apartments in the world's most famous cities, or condos located in resort areas.
"If you are going to do (at least) a week's vacation you will usually be able to find a cheaper vacation (rental) than a hotel," said Sarah Schlichter, editor of www.independenttraveler.com. "If you are traveling with a family or a group the value is much better. ... Instead of booking two, or three or four hotel rooms, you can have everyone in one space."
And even if a rental does cost more than a hotel, vacationers can still save money by cooking their own meals, said Marie Dubuque, consumer education expert at www.suite101.com., a Web site that provides information on hundreds of topics.
"That's where you can really save the money. You don't have to eat out. If you have a family of four, you can often save a lot of money," she said.
Renting somebody's home is also an excellent way to experience what's known as "slow travel," said Schlichter.
"It's kind of a movement to not just race from one destination to another trying to see five sites. You settle into one community and really see a place through a vacation rental. Often, you would be in a residential neighborhood rather than downtown or a tourist venue. You can go to the local cafes and get into the rhythm of what it's like to be there rather than being a tourist," she said.
Vacation rental Web sites provide a meeting place for people looking for a place with owners of apartments, condos and houses. While the property owner pays a fee to the Web site to have the place listed, access to listings is free to consumers.
The property owner may have originally purchased the place for a second home or a vacation residence. Renting it out can provide owners with some income while providing travelers with an alternative to staying in a hotel. Some vacation rental Web sites have the person seeking a vacation rental deal directly with the property owner. Other sites involve a real estate agent or other third party who handles the booking arrangements on behalf of the property owner.
Generally, dealing with the property owner directly is going to be less expensive than going through an agent, said Dubuque. A property owner also is more likely to be open to negotiation.
"An agent would be more difficult. They have a set price," Dubuque said.
However, a vacation rental obtained through an agent or other third-party will probably have a maintenance person to contact in the event there is a problem with the property while you are staying there, she said.
Booking a vacation rental tends to be a more complicated that reserving a hotel room, Schlichter said.
"You have to usually sign a contract. You may need to pay a certain amount for a deposit," she said.
When booking a rental , check to see if the Web site offers some type of guarantee that the listing does indeed exist, said Schlichter.
For example, www.homeaway.com. offers a 'rent with confidence guarantee' for properties booked through the Web site or its network of other vacation rental Web sites. If it turns out the rental does not exist or that the renter is wrongfully denied access, the consumer is reimbursed for any deposit or rental payments made up to the amount of $5,000. Renter's remorse, or deciding you don't like the place after you have arrived, is not covered.
Okay, so you want a vacation rental. Should you book early or wait until the last minute? That depends on how flexible your travel plans are.
"If you are really set on going to a certain destination and want to be in a certain area, it's really better to book in advance," said Schlichter.
But if your travel plans are more flexible in terms of a general location and when you are traveling, booking later could result in finding lower rates.
It's easy to change hotels if you don't like the accommodations. That's not the case if you've arrived at the vacation rental and decide you don't like the place. It's important to a lot of research ahead of time before booking a rental.
While there are plenty of opinions about hotels through Web sites like www.hotels.com., and www.tripadvisor.com., online opinions about vacation rentals are harder to come by since they don't have as many guests as hotels do.
If online opinions about a vacation rental are not available, ask the property owner for referrals from previous guests, said Schlichter.
(Booking a vacation rental is not the only travel alternative to staying in a hotel. Look for an upcoming story in Money Monday about swapping your home for somebody else's while going on vacation).
Eve Mitchell covers personal finance. Reach her at 925-952-2690 or firstname.lastname@example.org
TIPS FOR BOOKING A VACATION RENTAL
1. Do plenty of research before booking a vacation rental by checking out the numerous Web sites that offer these properties.
2. Make sure research you do also includes the community where the vacation rental is located. Not all rentals will be in familiar tourist areas.
3. Go to Google Earth and type in your destination to get a sense of place. If the address does not register, type in the name of a nearby intersection.
4. If you are set on visiting a particular area at a specific time, book a vacation rental well ahead before your planned departure to ensure the place is available.
5. Travelers whose plans are more flexible might be able to get reduced rates by booking a rental shortly before the departure date.
6. Pay by credit card, if possible. If not, pay with a check. Do not wire money. Scams have been known to happen involving the wiring of money for vacation rentals.
7. Some vacations properties let people bring their pets while others do not. Ask what the policy is ahead of time.
8. Get everything in writing and read the contract carefully before agreeing to the rental. Make sure what's included: linens, kitchen utensils, plates, bedding, etc.
9. Check to see if a vacation rental Web site offers a "guarantee'' that provides financial reimbursement if the property does not exist or if the renter is wrongfully denied access to the property.
10. Make sure there is a clear method to receive the keys, whether it be through the mail before you leave or in a specific location when you arrive.