What to Know BEFORE you Book through a Vacation Rental Company

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Like many travelers, I’ve experimented with the new vacation rental sites like VRBO and Home Away. These sites allow you to rent a vacation home or apartment using filters like location, features and price. They are becoming formidable alternatives to hotel bookings.

I’ve stayed in a wide variety of with varying success. Here’s what you need to know before you book your next vacation.

The Bad Stuff

Hyperbole. Many landlords are vague and flowery in the language to describe their rental property. One example for my extended family was a holiday spot which said “sleeps 10” — 4 of those “beds” were air mattresses on the third floor (leaky ones at that!).

Location. Like many real estate listings, the description will always accentuate the positive and minimize the negative. We once stayed somewhere which was described as being in the “hip” neighborhood, which it was. But it was also next door to a very loud construction site.

Illegal rental. The instructions we were given at a gorgeous property during a girlfriends’ getaway were: ‘if you’re out walking and you encounter a neighbor, tell them you’re friends of John and Mary.’ This is less likely now than when these services first cropped up, but as a renter, you might want to make sure that the landlord has the right to do short-term rentals.

No dishwasher. Gross. How do I know the last tenant actually washed the dishes?

Really bad beds and lumpy couches. In several rentals, the furniture was old, in bad condition and might have been moved from a college dorm.

Junk. Or Missing Junk. We stayed in one place with no kitchen towels and only one washcloth, but a heap of junk in the closets and stale food in the cupboards. Who wants to navigate all that clutter?

Maintenance? What maintenance? One location had such a large crack in the bathroom window, you could make ice for drinks in the cold air that was streaming through it. No problems, we used the only available washcloth to plug up the hole.

Terms. Bad terms. Paying the entire trip in advance is a stretch for some people, not to mention the various cleaning/damage/replacement costs that vary from location to location. Equally frustrating is the method by which many rentals are calculated. Minimum stay requirements and event weekend surcharges often apply. Because of these terms, vacation rental sites lack the flexibility of a regular hotel.

The Good Stuff

Entertaining in Style! If you’ve ever planned a large gathering where everyone has individual hotel rooms, there’s nowhere to gather. Vacation rentals allow you to hang out in the kitchen, lounge in the living room, and connect with your fellow travelers.

Quirky perks! Beautiful freshly ground coffee in one location, complimentary wine in another and local produce and special treats in a third. All things you’d never expect in a standard hotel.

Local information! There’s nothing like getting a local’s perspective on area restaurants and attractions. “The binder” left by most rental managers is always worth a look.

Investing in the Experience. Some landlords invest in a quality bed and usually highlight it in the description. The same holds true for those with plenty of extra towels and quality wifi. Combined with an amazing travel destination, it can make all the difference in your trip.

Be a Smart Trip Planner

Unlike hotel chains with brand standards, each rental property is owned and operated individually and managed under the vacation rental company’s umbrella. There are potentials for misunderstandings between landlord and renter and all have had their share of scandals. If you’ve never done your vacation in this way, do your homework before your next vacation. Check out these online stories before you make your next booking.

VRBO and Home Away are two brands by the same company. And they were purchased by Expedia last year. Read some of the reviews here.

Some cities are legally challenging the short-term rental market. Paris is one example and San Francisco is another. Here’s what the travelers on Rick Steves travel forum have to share about France and Italy using vacation rental sites.  This story, in the Los Angeles area, addresses the real reason why cities are trying to regulate rental companies – hotel occupancy taxes.

This story on tripping.com outlines all the information about various rental companies.

Scams have been reported about rental companies in Seattle.  And on Buzzfeed.

So before you book your next vacation rental experience, do your homework. Happy travels.

Survive Your Holiday Trip with These Tips

Christmas in San Antonio by Nan PalmeroThanksgiving was a warm-up to the big Christmas trip for many travelers.  With the peak travel period just weeks away, it’s time to look for some serious coping skills for the trip.

Traveling this time of year is stressful.  More than 46 million Americans traveled for the Thanksgiving holiday this year according to AAA. Based on statistics from last year’s Christmas season, double that amount will be “en route” for December and January. With fuel prices way down, it  just might be a record year for travel. There are bound to be weather issues, crowds and unexpected surprises during the journey, but it don’t let that ruin the trip.  Here’s real advice from some seasoned travelers, including me.

Tips for the Plane Ride 

Take zippered plastic bags–fill them with a change of clothes for you or your kids and later, they can transition to laundry bags or to contain wet things or trash.

Carry on your essentials—your toothbrush, one or two days’ worth of medications and a change of clothes will hold you over if your checked baggage is lost.

Travel Wipes – Lots of them.  For you, for your kids, for dubious-looking surfaces along the way.

Tips for the Car Trip

Window clings are great for the car (or plane) window and kids can color the surface safely.

Stickers to Count down the Time—this is brilliant! My friend Christie puts stickers on the visor, one for every 30 minutes their family will travel, then removes them as the time passes. Great visual for kids to manage the “are we there yet?” syndrome.

Always have an Activity Bag.  I have seen numerous parents traveling by car and plane who may have remembered diapers and the pacifier but expect their kids to sit quietly for hours!  The Huyse family has a “go bag” with activities, books and toys that the kids have never seen before. The Pfitzenmaier family wraps them in foil, so the unwrapping becomes part of the fun.  These don’t have to be expensive, just new to “them.”  This is true for adults too. Don’t forget books, crossword and Sudoku books to keep your brain engaged.

Tips for the REALLY LONG Plane Ride

My family has a ton of personal experience with this phenomenon.  With half of our family in Australia, we’ve made the trip from the US to Australia (and the reverse) more than a dozen times.  It usually involves 3 or more airplanes and 14-24 hours of travel (the beaches are WORTH it!).  This involves a different set of coping skills entirely.The author and her son getting ready for a long plane trip

Quick Change Artist — My husband takes a full change of clothes plus a wash cloth, towel and soap in his carry-on.  At the halfway point of the longest flight, he takes a “bush shower” (washed up in the sink).  The timing of this activity is essential.  If you wait until the flight attendants are serving breakfast, it’s too late because the line for the restrooms is LONG.

Books for Gifts – On one trip, I got a bunch of paperbacks from a used bookstore, read them on the plane, and then left them with people who hosted us during our trip. That was before e-readers, of course.

More Carry-on Essentials – For longer flights, you need more stuff. Ear plugs, eye mask, neck pillow, especially if you are traveling coach.

Take off your shoes – On really long flights at higher altitudes, your body actually swells. Taking off shoes and wearing slipper socks is far more comfortable.

Strike a pose – Check out the stretching exercises in the flight magazine and make sure you get up and move throughout the flight.

Packing and Organizing Before You Leave

There are plenty of resources for better packing and organizing, including a lot of video demonstrations which you can see at this link. But some of the best advice is always from friends. Here’s what mine had to say:

Learn to Chant – Lisa Lauf says every time you get to a checkpoint, a plane, etc., say to yourself “phone, computer, wallet, passport” so you don’t forget something (there’s probably a story there).

Clothes Make the Trip – Beth Graham packs “from the floor up”—shoes, socks, pants, underwear, shirt, etc. Also rolling is the universal anti-wrinkle treatment for clothes. Wear your bulkiest shoes so you can get more into your suitcase.

Travel Documents – lots of people recommend travel wallets which can be very useful. For a family, a snap shut plastic file folder will work too. Print out your maps and other confirmation numbers in case your cell service or wifi is spotty.

It’s about those Bags – Make sure they have wheels and if you can bring two, do it in case you take a side trip!

Don’t Forget – an extension cord, umbrella, scarf, coat. Oh and where you parked at the airport – write that down or take a picture with your phone so you can find your car when you return.

Pack Your Smile – If you do a little bit of planning, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy the experience.  Merry Christmas and happy travels this season.

Many thanks to friends and colleagues who contributed ideas for this story, including:  Kami Watson Huyse, Jennifer Duplantis, Julie Pippert, Alysia Cook, Katie Hornstrom, Debi Aronson Pfitzenmaier, Jennifer Hatton, Christie Goodman, Patty Constantin, Lisa Lauf Rooper, Jennifer Navarrete, Sheila Payson, Kristie Guthrie, Beth Graham, Taylor Williams and Melody Campbell Goeken.

Photo of Christmas and the Alamo by Nan Palmero.  See more of his work on Flickr. 

Taking a Fall Vacation? Take My Advice

Welcome Sign at a Tennessee State Park This time of year is considered off-season by the travel industry, and for many, the lure of lighter crowds makes a fall getaway very appealing. But if you’re thinking about taking a vacation in fall or spring, the travel industry’s “shoulder periods,” you should be prepared for a different experience. Here’s what I found on two recent fall getaway trips.

Crowds were lighter, but so were available services. Many destinations power down toward the end of the season (or are gearing up before summer). You might also find some experiences which happen only in this time frame, which make the trip very desirable.

Rate changes abound. Sure, you’re not paying the same rate as July or August. You might even find a bargain or two. But hundreds of destinations have fall or spring festivals of some kind. Art, craft, music, heritage, are all celebrated in these shoulder periods. These events tend to have loyal followings and nearby accommodations fill fast. Shop ahead and book ahead, unless you like sleeping in your car.

Still, there can be cost savings in an off-season vacation, according to a story in last week’s US News and World Report.

“It is important to remember that sometimes a destination’s peak season is not the best time to be there; rather, it’s the time when school is out in locations nearby and that’s why crowds arrive and prices go up.”  Said Wendy Perrin in the story, which you can read here.

A boat making its way across a lake under stormy skies Whatever the weather! Forget the lovely postcards of trees turning orange or beautiful cherry blossoms emerging after a long sleep, the weather is a crap shoot.  When you’re from Texas (like I am), it doesn’t matter where you travel, you are just never prepared for rain.  Be prepared for rain – or any weather, for that matter. This fall, a huge storm system caused a power outage at our rental unit which lasted several hours.

Bring stuff with you. Take the time to print out a map or two. During our recent getaway to the Tennessee Hills, our cell service was sporadic and we relied way too much on our mapping applications, which was a mistake.

Surrender to the middle seat or “friendship seat” as one airline calls it. There are still no empty seats on the plane. Summer season or shoulder season, it really doesnEdgar Evins State Park’t matter. the airlines are running at full capacity. Be prepared to be cozy during your flight.

In a recent story from Travel Leaders Group, it appears that travelers are embracing the off-season. 90% of the travel agencies polled said fall bookings are the same or better than 2013. Their top 5 destinations for fall – Orlando, Las Vegas, Maui, New York City and Honolulu – means that less known destinations have room for more travelers! You can read the results of that study here.

We loved our fall vacation, despite its quirks and crazy weather. My advice: It’s worth considering — just take an umbrella and have a Plan B!