Renting a vacation home is a great alternative to a hotel. You usually get more space, privacy and a full kitchen – often in an exceptional location. In this article, I'm sharing all my best vacation rental tips for families.
My friend Katie turned me on to vacation rentals a few years ago when she originally wrote this article for Tips for Family Trips. She has five children, and a vacation rental was nearly always more comfortable and less expensive than two hotel rooms for her large family.
I have a smaller family, but we often book a vacation rental instead of a hotel because we love having more space and a full kitchen. Vacation homes can also offer more interesting locations and extra privacy.
Large vacation homes can also be a great option for family reunions or multi-family vacations.
If you are ready to venture into renting a vacation home instead of a traditional hotel, here are my top vacation rental tips to help you find the perfect place.
Top Rental Sites
I'm sure you've heard of AirBnB.com. It's not necessarily my favorite site, but it usually has a wide variety of options, often at the best price.
Finally, search “[your destination] vacation rentals] to find local professional property managers who rent vacation homes.
Refine your search
You can spend hours searching for the perfect vacation home online. Focus your search to save time. Limit your search by your dates, number of bedrooms, beds, cost, location, etc.
Do you want oceanfront property? A dock on a lake? Swimming pool? Washer and dryer? Are you bringing a pet? Limit your search to optimize your time.
Look closely at pictures
Savvy vacation rental owners provide clear, well-lit photos of the property – and lots of them. Look for details that give you a feel for the quality of the home.
I look specifically at the appliances in the kitchen and the style of the kitchen counter tops. Both those things are easy to view in a picture and give you a good idea of the age and condition of the home. If the kitchen looks run down, you can expect the rest of the home to feel the same way.
Watch the Fees
The nightly rate is just the starting point with most vacation rentals. On popular rental sites like HomeAway and AirBnB, cleaning fees, service fees and taxes will typically be added to your base rate.
Look at the total cost, not just the base rate. Here's our total bill for a recent AirBnB rental in St. George, Utah.
- $495 for base rate of $99 x 5 nights
- $70 cleaning fee
- $79.77 service fee (goes to AirBnB)
- $79.44 occupancy taxes and fees
- Total – $724.21
So, we actually paid $144 per night on a condo with a $99 base rate. That's still a good rate for a two-bedroom condo with a full kitchen and resort amenities, but you can see how the extra fees add up on a vacation rental.
Know the Cancellation Policy
Cancellation policies are usually much more restrictive for vacation rentals than hotels. Pay close attention to the terms before you commit.
Consider travel insurance. It may be difficult to get a refund if you have to cancel your vacation rental at the last minute.
Related: What Does Travel Insurance Cover?
Where Does the Owner Live?
We have stayed in several vacation rentals where the owner lives in the main house and rents separate apartments or cabins on the same property. Other times, the owner lives somewhere else and we meet to pick up the keys, or we are sent a key code and instructions and never meet at all.
We have always found owners to be friendly and respectful of our privacy. Next-door owners are handy if we need something, and generally have good recommendations for activities and restaurants.
AirBnB even gives you the option to book rooms or beds in the owner's house. This is probably not the best option for most families, and you just choose the “Entire Place” option under Type of Place to filter these out.
Is the Owner a Superhost?
HomeAway, AirBnB and other vacation rental sites show you which owners are the most experienced and highly rated. On AirBnB, they are called Superhosts.
Booking with a Superhost is a plus, but not essential. It's just a little extra assurance that we are renting from a reputable and professional owner.
Top rental sites like HomeAway and AirBnB publish user reviews for every property. I prefer booking properties with lots of recent reviews.
I look elsewhere when there are only a handful of reviews, or no recent reviews. If it's a new property, find out if this owner has more reviews for other properties.
Obviously, you want to book a place with mostly positive reviews. Don't get hung up on any single review. Read all the reviews from the past year to get a general idea of the pros and cons of the place.
Use Google Maps
You should be able to see the approximate location of the property on a Google Map on the listing. Use the satellite view and 360-degree views if available to see what the location is really like.
Find out how quickly your needs will be taken care of in your vacation rental home by seeing how long it takes the owner or property management company to return your call or email. A quick response time indicates good customer service.
Is the swimming pool open year round? Do you have to pay extra to heat it in the winter months? Is the grill gas or charcoal? How often is the hot tub serviced and chlorine levels checked?
If you are renting from the owner, take advantage of their local knowledge and ask about the home, things to do in the area, recommendations for restaurants, distance from your vacation destinations, etc.
The best vacation homes fill quickly, especially for holidays and school breaks. I usually book vacation homes 6-9 months in advance and find that most homes are available for the dates I want. You can usually book at least 12 months in advance.
If demand is not high and you are willing to be flexible, you can wait until two weeks before your vacation and look for discounted rates. Many vacation homes drop their prices for weeks they are not booked during “high season.” You may be able to save money, but your choices will be limited to what is available.
Ask About Pets
Some homes are pet-friendly, and some are not. If you want to bring a pet or if you have a pet allergy, be sure to ask the question so you aren't met with any surprises. There is often a surcharge for bringing a pet.
Consider a Property Management Professional
Before the internet, people found vacation rentals through local property management companies. It's still a good option, because it can save you search time and you know you're working with a vacation rental pro.
Search “[your destination] vacation rentals” to find local property management companies.
We booked our waterfront vacation rental in Morro Bay, California through Beach-n-Bay Getaways. It was a great property in the perfect location, and they were easy to work with.
We love vacation rentals – especially for stays longer than 2-3 nights. We generally get a lot more space and a full kitchen in a great location for an affordable price.
As you can see in the photos, we have especially loved our waterfront rentals. We have also been delighted with city apartments, mountain cabins and homes large enough to share with extended family.
I hope these vacation rental tips will help your family find the perfect place for your next vacation.