Accommodations are often the most expensive part of a vacation budget. One way to cut that bill is to stay in a vacation rental rather than a hotel. Vacation rentals are houses, apartments, or rooms in homes that you can rent by the night, or sometimes even weeks or months at a time. Some resorts also list accommodations on vacation rental sites.
Vacation rentals have grown in popularity not only because they’re often cheaper, but because they offer a different experience. Many people find that staying in someone’s home provides a peek into the local culture they couldn’t get at a hotel.
Airbnb is the most well-known vacation rental website. But there are others, too, many of them owned by Expedia and TripAdvisor. Here’s what you need to know to ditch the traditional hotel and instead try a more home-like vacation.
Top Vacation Rental Sites
Once you have the basics of a vacation rental sorted out, it’s important to pick a platform that makes sense for you. Every vacation rental platform is different and caters to a specific crowd. Using the right site or platform can yield some amazing finds.
Here’s our list of the 17 top vacation rental sites.
Priceline’s entry into the vacation home rental market comes in the form of Booking.com Apartments and Booking.com Vacation Rentals. Booking.com may not be the first site that comes to mind when you think of vacation rentals, but it now features 5 million homes and apartment listings (i.e timeshare, service apartments, etc). That makes it the largest platform for vacation rental listings.
You can find listings at either of the specialty URLs above, or simply go to Booking.com and filter for apartments or vacation rentals.
The Airbnb name has become nearly synonymous with vacation rentals. The site lists apartments, homes, condos, rooms for rent, you name it! It even lets you book activities and experiences.
The company has a critical mass of both renters and listers. It has 4 million listings worldwide in 191 countries. And, it boasts 33.9 million active users.
3. Expedia and its Family of Sites
The competitor to TripAdvisor is Expedia and its family of vacation rental companies. These include Homeaway, VRBO, Homelidays, and VacationRentals.com. In total, this portfolio of sites holds over 1 million property listings in 190 countries. You can access these properties through the Expedia Vacation Rentals site. But let’s also take a closer look at the sites it owns:
HomeAway has more than 2 million unique places to stay. It started in 2006 as a general home vacation marketplace. After years of growth, the company was eventually purchased by Expedia in 2015. Today, the vacation rental juggernaut is one of the top competitors in the vacation rental marketplace.
The acronym stands for Vacation Rental By Owner and it’s a powerful name in the vacation rental industry. VRBO has more than 2 million listings, focusing on entire homes and apartments. The site has been around for ages, having been founded in 1996.
The French side of vacation rental homes, Homelidays specializes in rentals across Europe. The site boasts over 95,000 rental listings around the world.
Stayz is the Australian arm of HomeAway. It says it has over 40,000 holiday rentals in 2,000 unique Australian locations.
Bookabach is the New Zealand arm of HomeAway. It lists 11,500 holiday rentals in over 1,000 unique New Zealand locations.
TopRural is the Spanish portal of HomeAway. Boasting almost 10,000 vacation rental listings, the site focuses on rural rentals in Spain.
10. TripAdvisor and Its Family of Sites
While many users may be familiar with TripAdvisor for its hotel and attraction reviews, not many know of its entire family of websites. Many of them are vacation rental sites, including FlipKey, HolidayLettings and HouseTrip.
Collectively, TripAdvisor Rentals includes 830,000 properties in 190 countries and averages 390 million unique monthly visitors, according to the website. You could access the main TripAdvisor rental website, but let’s take a deeper dive into its specialty sites.
FlipKey has 300,000 properties around the world, but some are only bookable directly with the owner offline. The site gets 19 million visitors per month.
Focused on UK and European rentals, HolidayLettings boasts 600,000 privately owned cottages, villas and apartments in 150+ countries worldwide.
Similar to Holiday Lettings, HouseTrip features 130,000 active European vacation home listings. Today, the site’s language indicates a focus on European rentals, but you can access the entire database of TripAdvisor properties here.
Moving outside the realms of Expedia and TripAdvisor, Couchsurfing provides a twist on vacation rental sites in that the situations listed are free! The site connects travelers with hosts who have a free couch to let others crash on. Sometimes you even get your own room. Many fans of Couchsurfing like the idea that they get to build relationships with locals and see how they live.
You’ll have to pay a $60 lifetime verification fee to join the platform. But the site has over 15 million users and 400,000 active hosts, so you’re sure to find somewhere you want to stay, as long as you don’t mind sharing your space.
15. Home Exchange
Home Exchange is a platform that allows you to exchange your home for someone else’s in another part of the country or the world. Rather than paying to stay in these homes, you do a straight-up home swap. Home Exchange lists more than 65,000 rentals in 150 countries.
To join the site, you will have to pay $150 a year, though.
Founded in Berlin, Germany, Wimdu is a global vacation rental platform with 350,000 property listings in 150 countries. Think of it as the European version of Airbnb. You get worldwide listings from a European rental broker.
Innclusive aims to eliminate bias that can keep some visitors from being approved by other vacation home sites. The founder says he created the site after he was discriminated against as an Airbnb renter because he was black. He devised policies for Innclusive that discourage discrimination.
For instance, hosts can only see the photo and name of the renter after the booking is confirmed. And 99.9% of the properties are booked instantly, meaning the host is not allowed to approve the visitor other than on the basis of the property’s availability.
Not much is known about the size of its listings database.
Vacation Rental Basics
There are two types of vacation rentals on the market. You can rent a whole home or rent a room in someone’s home.
If you’re renting a home outright, you’re getting a unique experience. Whether it’s with a group of friends or a large family, you can have the space to get everyone under one roof. These homes could be condos, cottages, apartments, or single family houses.
If you choose to rent a room inside someone’s home, you’ll typically be staying with a host. The benefit of that is you can get great insights, suggestions, and travel advice on how to visit like a local. Of course, expertise varies. But more often than not, you’re getting a jump start on understanding the local culture from a live-in host.
Understanding the difference between these two options will help you to figure out what type of vacation rental will suit you best.
Tips on finding the best vacation rentals
How do you go about finding the best vacation rental for your needs? We’ve got some expert tips to keep your vacation on track.
1. Nail down what kind of accommodation and amenities you want
It’s easy to focus too much on the location and not enough on the rental itself. Forgetting about the accommodation details leaves way too much to chance.
How many bedrooms does the rental have? How many bathrooms? Is there a communal space? What about other amenities, like a hot tub? If you’re cooking, is there a stove, oven and cookware?
Some amenities like a large living room may be found more commonly in a single family house. But if you don’t need them, an apartment or a condo could be a better fit.
Have a big family? Make sure everyone wants to stay in one house. If not, consider reserving a couple of rentals near each other and shuttling folks between the two. Or, if you’re at a resort, ask about adjoining rooms.
Visiting an extremely hot or cold area? Make sure there’s an air conditioner or heater that’s sufficient for your needs. You’d be surprised what some properties don’t include.
2. Gut Check
With millions of vacation rental listings worldwide, there are bound to be some fakes out there. While spotting a scam is getting more difficult, there are some red flags.
Does the host want to conduct rental business outside of the rental platform? Is the landlord asking for an unusual payment method? Does something seem “off” about the rental?
Trust your gut. At the very least, consider doing a tour of the property via Google Maps Street View.
Check out the reviews — the more reviews a rental location has, the better. Make sure the rental platform has a guarantee to help you out in case of a fraudulent listing.
3. Where is Management?
If you’re renting a vacation home for a trip away, the last thing you want to hassle with is a broken air conditioner or a stuck door.
It’s important to find out what your options are and who to contact if you have problems. Some properties are professionally managed. Others are meticulously cared for by their owners. Both situations have their pros and cons.
Does the management company have a 24/7 emergency hotline? Is the individual homeowner easy to reach?
If you’re at a resort type location, is there a front desk? Does that agent have the authority to make decisions to help correct a problem?
Also, make sure the rental representative is reachable the way you want to reach them. If you want to reach them by text but they only communicate by email, that will be another hassle you won’t want to deal with on vacation.
4. Is the Rental Legal or Allowed?
In some circumstances, the vacation rental you’re eyeing may not be above-board. For example, many homeowners’ associations or city ordinances these days prohibit short-term rentals.
It’s easy enough to check city ordinances online, but harder to get to the truth about HOA rules. Are you going to call the homeowners’ association before renting? How would you even know if the property were part of an HOA?
In this regard, you’re taking a chance on vacation home rentals. One line of defense is to stick to well-known rental sites, but that’s not always a guarantee.
And even if renting a vacation home is legal in that particular community, there may be extreme restrictions in place. Just look at the big stink happening in South Lake Tahoe, California.
Vacation home renters there can be fined $1,000 for parking too many vehicles in and around the property. Or they can be fined for using the home’s hot tub at the wrong time of the day.
Many owners think they won’t get caught for listing an illegal rental. And renters are none the wiser. But the reality is that once the owners are caught, so are the renters. And you don’t want to be the one holding the bag.
Bottom line, renter beware.
5. Review the Contract
Review, review, review. The rental contract tells you everything you need to know about the property. And it covers your obligations and the obligations of the landlord. Read it backwards and forwards so you are fully aware of what you’re getting into.
Pay special attention to the check-in and check-out process. Determine who is responsible for the cleaning, wear and tear, and other unforeseen damages.
Ensure that you understand what is off limits to you, what you’re responsible for doing (like taking out the trash), and other rules of the rental.
The last thing you want to deal with is a “gotcha” on vacation.
6. Have a Backup Plan
The most important part of renting a vacation rental is to have a backup. Imagine if one of the items above happened to you and your vacation home became uninhabitable. On vacation, you don’t want to be sitting on the curb scrambling for a last-minute hotel room.
Have a Plan B and a Plan C ready to go.
Find out what sorts of guarantees and assistance the rental platform will give you in the event of an issue. Separately, see where the closest hotel is to your rental property.
There are horror stories circulating about bed bugs, broken plumbing, and unsafe accommodations. Make sure you have an immediate out by having a backup plan at the ready.
Whether it’s a house, condo, apartment, or cottage, renting a vacation home can lead to a once in a lifetime experience. Not only are you staying in a unique setting, the location could lend itself to more impactful cultural experiences than you would have staying in a regular hotel.
Just remember to follow the steps above to protect yourself from unscrupulous landlords and take the time to research the best places to find a vacation rental.
Have you had a great experience with a vacation rental home? Or a really bad one? Tell us about it on our social media accounts.