Ah, the holidays: The promise of gathering the whole family under one roof for togetherness. But which particular roof you assemble under, everyone knows, has the potential to lead to some holiday sneer.
As an alternative, renting a vacation home for the holidays can factor a degree of neutral ground into the get-the-whole-gang-together equation. Staying in a rental property has the potential to be more rewarding than gathering at a hotel, depsite the latter being more likely to offer a bargain (year-to-date revenue for the U.S. hotel industry is off 15 percent, at $80 billion, according to Smith Travel Research).
Yet rental properties have the added advantages of full kitchen facilities, private hot tubs under starry skies and multiple floors of accommodation to keep combative parties apart. Nevertheless, there's still an art to picking the right rental home for your crew.
First things first (and this is where controlling types need to either step up or relinquish all power completely): Delegate a decision-maker in your group.
"Unless you're in a nuclear family, there are usually several adults involved," says Liza Graves, co-founder of BeautifulPlaces, a luxury villa rental company based in Sonoma, Calif. "It helps to have a decision-maker to organize the group and talk to the rental company," she says. "Sometimes we have people tell us they have to go back to their brother-in-law, or someone else, before making a decision. And by the time they want to rent the house, it's gone."
That's doubly important because a large family could otherwise get stuck with too small a rental if the right one is snapped up by another family. A big group — related or not — in a tiny space can be a catalyst for conflict. Key to getting along is having enough space for everyone to retain some sense of privacy. So when researching rental homes, it's vital to understand the layout of the property, particularly the size and number of bedrooms.
"Make sure to clarify the setup of the beds," says Christine Karpinski, director of owner community for HomeAway.com, a Web site offering more than 170,000 vacation rentals worldwide. "Owners don't try to be malicious on their ads, sometimes they are just poor writers," says Karpinski about deciphering listings. "So if they say 'sleeps eight,' then be sure to ask if it's eight on a sleeper bed, on a blow-up mattress, whatever it is — find out what the layout of each bedroom is."
Getting specific about how the rental home is equipped can also save some unpleasant surprises on arrival, too, particularly if you're planning to prepare a big holiday meal.
"The kitchen is very important to many people," says Graves. "Most of our guests want to be able to go to a local farmer's market at least one day and buy ingredients to cook for themselves in the villa."
And gourmet chefs tend to be knife and pan snobs. So as a general rule, if it's something you can't live without at home — whether your favorite garlic press or your down pillow — err on the safe side and tote it along.
When it's time to check out, leaving a rental home isn't quite the same as vacating a hotel room — there's a certain cleaning etiquette that often gets swept under the proverbial rug.
"We have a cleaning service come in after people leave," says Bob Malkin, who owns a Victorian-style rental property, The Waterfall House in Woodstock, N.Y. "But what we expect is the house not to be messy. It's not like you're leaving a hotel — it's expected that you want to come back," he says.
"We call it 'broom clean,'" says Karpinski about rental-company expectations, "You don't have to wash and sanitize, but you kind of leave the house similar to the way you found it, and maybe even use a broom."
Taking a personal approach to finding a rental home goes a long way, too, says Karpinski. And the process is not so unlike a job interview.
"I choose a rental home based on the homeowner quicker than I will choose a home based on the photos," Karpinski says. "I want the inside information that owners have about the best local restaurants, the best grocery store — and I want to know they'll be responsive."