Aug. 9, 2012 at 5:55 PM ET
Hotels often rely on inflated descriptions of their rooms. Got a single room with a tiny balcony? That's a deluxe. Or throw a couch in there and it turns into a suite, with the extravagant price tag to match. In response to travelers wanting better options, a new crop of vacation rental websites has sprouted up offering everything from sprawling mansions to air mattresses, often with significantly more space than your average hotel room. Combine that with lower prices and locations in less touristy neighborhoods, and you could be experiencing your destination just like the locals do. Here are some vacation rental sites to look into for your next holiday.
With over 200,000 listing in more than 25,000 cities in 192 countries, Airbnb allows guests to rent accommodations directly from their owners. From entire estates, like a 33-acre California property with a pool and vineyard, to a shared bedroom in Manhattan’s East Village, the majority of these listings are located on the coasts of the United States and in Western Europe, with a concentration in New York City, San Francisco and Paris. Search either by price, property type, amenities or other parameters, and when you find something you like, confirm your reservation either by credit card or PayPal, with a booking fee of 8 to 12 percent, depending on the cost of the entire booking. To protect guests from fraudulent or misrepresented listings, Airbnb holds the payment for 24 hours before releasing it to the host.
For the utterly penniless (or more adventurous), there is CouchSurfing. With over four million members in more than 90,000 cities, CouchSurfing offers everything from free accommodations (typically on someone’s couch), to meals and activity partners. Both “surfers” and hosts are required to create a profile page, and trusted hosts can receive a verified status confirming that their names and locations have been authenticated. Other members can also vouch for one another, certifying them as trustworthy. As accommodations are based on how willing your hosts are, guests have to put in a request for a couch or a meet-up and hope for the best.
FlipKey is TripAdvisor’s attempt at breaking into the vacation rental market. With over 150,000 rentals in 7,000 cities worldwide, most listings are found in the United States, Europe, Mexico and Brazil, with Florida, Italy and Rio de Janeiro being the most popular. Search either by price, available deals, property type and other parameters, and their “My Pick” feature allows guests to make multiple selections and compare them later. The user reviews that drive TripAdvisor’s success also make an appearance here. FlipKey bills itself as “the largest collection of verified and trusted guest reviews in the industry,” and reviewers are allowed to submit their own pictures. When you find something you like, contact the host for the rental agreement, which spells out all prices and policies, before paying either by credit card, PayPal or other arrangements. Unlike many of its competitors, FlipKey doesn’t charge a booking fee.
No airbeds or pullout couches here. Instead, HomeAway focuses on traditional vacation homes that are rented out by their owners. With over 315,000 listings worldwide, about 183,500 properties are found in European countries like Spain and France, and about a third in the United States. Narrow your search by price, ratings, amenities and other filters, and book by contacting the owner directly. Depending on the owner, a deposit of 10 to 50 percent may be needed to confirm the booking, with some requiring full payment eight weeks before check in. For an additional $49 (or more, depending on your rental cost), HomeAway guarantees guests up to $10,000 against homes that are double booked, misrepresented or have been foreclosed.
Traveling for a festival? iStopOver has got you covered. This Toronto-based company was founded in 2009 with an aim of providing cheaper accommodations for large events, such as the 2012 London Olympics, Comic-Con and Oktoberfest. With listings in 16,000 cities, the website allows guests to search by destination, level of privacy and other filters. Their Wise Ask! option also allows you to send out a list of your preferences to all available hosts in a specific location, before sitting back and waiting for their replies. Payment can be made either by credit card or PayPal, with a 10 percent service fee added. To make sure the accommodation matches its listing, guests are given a reservation code after payment, which they hand over to their hosts upon arrival.
Unlike the global focus of HomeAway (which is owned by the same company), VRBO’s 190,000 rentals are mostly in the U.S. Guests can browse by location types, amenities and other filters. As with HomeAway, properties are either run by their owners or property managers, and guests can book by contacting the host directly. Since April 2012, HomeAway also began migrating VRBO’s listings onto its main website, making properties searchable on both platforms. And, if you apply for their Carefree Rental Guarantee (which costs from $49 on average), your payment is protected up to $10,000 against misrepresented, double booked or foreclosed homes.
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