If you watched the Super Bowl you probably saw the HomeAway ad for its vacation rental service.
HomeAway, which owns vrbo.com, charges the owners of vacation homes, condominiums and apartments to list their properties. Travelers can search the database for a property and rent directly from the owners.
HomeAway and vrbo.com (it stands for “vacation rentals by owner”) are by no means the only entrants in this field. Arthur Frommer found and published a extremely helpful hot-linked list of 44 such agencies.
The HomeAway ad tells us that vacation rentals provide a more satisfying and economical experience than you can get from a hotel. Which is true, sometimes.
In my opinion, hotels usually make more sense for short stays. Arranging a home rental for just a day or two is rarely worth the trouble — for the traveler or the property owner. Hotels may also sometimes make more sense for people looking for such amenities as airport shuttle service, hot tubs, on-site restaurants, room service and the like.
But in other circumstances I’ve used vrbo.com and similar rental agencies with great success. My husband and I have rented a condominium on Kauai through vrbo.com and an apartment in St. Peterburg (Russia, not Florida) through a local agency recommended by guidebooks. In both cases we saved substantially over the prevailing hotel rates and also saved money by cooking for ourselves.
More recently, I’ve also used craigslist, the (mostly) free online classified ad service, to locate vacation rentals. Because the rental ads are free, craigslist tends to draw some of the least expensive properties on the market, including rooms for backpackers and inexpensive apartments.
Some of these properties may be in the hands of people with little experience in renting, which can make for a bumpy experience. There is also a potential for fraud. So I use craigslist with caution. I look for ads that link to a listing with vrbo.com or another agency — or at least to a substantial website with reasonable terms and lots of photos.
I’m not going to send a check or credit card number to any stranger who posted a free ad, and neither should you. If you can’t get completely comfortable with a rental you find in this way, stick to the agencies. Even then, be careful to read the fine print and understand cancellation policies. If you proceed carefully, renting a vacation property can provide the home base for a terrific vacation.