Before You Book That Beach House
From a spare bedroom in Paris to a luxurious vacation home in the Catskill Mountains that sleeps 20, nontraditional lodging options are easier than ever to book. Travelers who opt for non-hotel stays do so for several reasons: unique accommodations, significant savings, and insider tips provided by local hosts, among others.
But while the ability to access thousands of vacation listings across the globe from your kitchen table may sound great, there are important factors to consider before you commit. Here’s what you need to do make your stay memorable for the right reasons.
Always Use a Reputable Online Booking Site
Online booking sites offer a level of protection that you’ll never get if you rent a cabin from Craigslist — such as serving as an intermediary if you have issues that aren’t resolved by the owner.
There are dozens of major vacation rental sites out there, each with their own policies on booking, payments, and cancellations, so take the time to research what types of properties and/or locations the agency specializes in, what steps they take to ensure the accuracy of a listing, and what, if any, service fees are charged.
Airbnb, for instance, features both hosted stays (rooms) and entire apartments and homes. Both the host and the guest must verify their identities, and full payment must be made through the site and won’t be released to the host until 24 hours into your stay. You’ll pay a fee of 6 to 12 percent to book, and depending on the policy of your host, you may be able to cancel for a full refund up to 24 hours before your stay.
Homeaway, on the other hand, works more as a facilitator between owners and potential guests and generally specializes in full vacation homes. The guest must contact the owner to determine availability, method of payment (many owners — but not all — offer the ability to process the payment through HomeAway Payments, which makes you eligible for the Basic Rental Guarantee), and it’s up to the parties to sign and follow their own rental agreement. While there is no fee to book, cancellation insurance is available through HomeAway for an extra fee.
Read the Reviews
While hotels are usually graded by a five-star system, understanding the quality of your hosts and accommodations can be a bit more tricky. Depend on (and read between the lines of) online reviews from previous travelers when choosing a place to stay. “Personally, I prefer to book a place that has at least 10 reviews,” says Barry Choi, a budget-travel expert at MoneyWeHave.
Be wary of properties with no reviews, or reviews that note the owner is difficult to contact. Choi also suggests making sure the reviews are legitimate by checking to see whether the reviewer has reviewed other places as well. If you have the name of the the rental property (“Sunset Cabana”) or the name of the management company, it doesn’t hurt to do an online search to make sure everything’s on the up and up.
Talk to the Owner
Unlike a hotel, there will be no front desk if you arrive late or lose your key. Make sure the owner or a manager will be available if things go awry. To avoid surprises, exchange several emails or calls with the person responsible for the property before you arrive.
Some important questions to start with:
- “Tell me about the neighborhood.” Popular hotels feature convenient, central locations, but many non-hotel stays may be in residential neighborhoods farther from the action. Before you book, always get a general street address from the owner, and ask about the public transit or parking options for getting around.
- “Who should be called in case of maintenance issues during the stay?” says Sriram Srinivasan, who blogs at UPGRD.com. “Is there a 24/7 number available in case of an emergency like a broken water pipe? If renting in a foreign country, will this person speak English?”
- “Do you have any house rules?” When you arrive is not the time to discover that you’re not allowed to wear shoes in the house or play music after 9 pm. Also, if the host will be present during your stay, don’t assume they’ll automatically be able to show you around. “I'll sometimes have potential guests ask if I can be a daily guide for them — which I can't, as I have to work — but it's a good thing they ask beforehand as to not be disappointed upon arrival,” says travel blogger and host Jessica Festa.
Protect Yourself Against False Advertising
A loft in Tribeca with an in-ground pool for only $150 a night sounds like an amazing steal. But if a property looks too good to be true, then it most likely is, says Lori Zaino at ThePointsGuy.com. Pay close attention to the photos and be wary of too many close-up or poor-quality pictures. “Feel free to ask the host for more photos or to show you the property via Skype,” says Zaino.
Also ensure that there’s a process to address any issues on your arrival if your host won’t be present. Ideally, you want someone available to do a walk-through of the premises before checking in to document pre-existing damages and address any issues (e.g., dirty bedspreads, broken appliances), says Srinivasan. If not, ask how the pre-rental condition will be documented, and what the process is for fixing issues and/or refunding the deposit if the apartment isn’t to your satisfaction, he adds.
If you run into a problem, you should first contact the owner to see whether the issue can be resolved. If not, contact the booking agency or website immediately; any good one will have a 24/7 help line available.
Protect Your Payment
Booking with a credit card is the optimal form of payment, because you usually have recourse through the card issuer if there’s a dispute you cannot resolve with the owner or rental agency. “Although many legitimate owners request bank transfers as form of payment, use extra caution if asked to pay in this way,” says Laurel Greatrix of TripAdvisor Vacation. “Never send funds via instant wire services such as Western Union or MoneyGram.”
Before you send any money, make sure that you have a rental agreement with either the agency or the owner. Kelly McLean of McLean Property Rentals says that while a rental agreement can vary by geographic location, management company, or service, it should always include terms under which the deposit can be refunded, and a payment schedule for remaining funds due.
Is It Legal?
A complex web of national, state, and local laws regulate vacation and short-term rentals — especially in cities — and many travelers are surprised to learn that their stay in places like New York, Paris, or New Orleans may be illegal.
Unfortunately, there’s no one resource to tell you whether your type of rental (room stay, apartment, house) is legal at your destination, and many rental websites simply put the responsibility to determine legality on the consumer.
Kyle Stewart, travel editor at UPGRD.com, suggests searching online to determine legality before booking. “More and more I just ask the hosts if [an apartment rental] has been approved by their city and by their building, simply because it is rarely illegal. This question is usually enough to open some cracks and reveal how open and legal it really is. For example, I had a host say that I should refer to myself as a relative visiting from out of town — that's a clear sign that someone wasn't on board.”