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11 useful tips for booking vacation homes and how to get deals

There are many reasons to stay in a hotel room as there are for a vacation home. It all depends on the traveler, each has its own appeal and benefits. First and foremost, vacation rentals are great if you want the entire place. Besides, you’ll get more space than a hotel room.

You’ll find all kinds of vacation properties all over the world from budget-friendly to luxury. It’s a mix of apartments, condos, townhouses, houses, resorts, villas, cottages, and cabins. Besides more space, they offer the comfort of a home. And most will have the convenience of a kitchen, fridge, washer, dryer, internet access, and television.

Booking vacation rentals is not like booking a hotel. There are many things to consider. If you don’t know where to begin, here’s a guide on how to book vacation rentals. It’s a compilation of helpful vacation rental tips to find a property that suits your needs. Tips also include how to get cheap deals to help you save money.


Suggested Vacation Rental Sites

Suggested vacation rental sites
Photo by Márcio Sousa

Airbnb and Vrbo are without doubt the most popular sites for vacation rentals. With their huge inventory all over the world, there’s a good chance you’ll find a place to stay almost anywhere. But there are other good travel sites as well. Their inventory may not be as large but often offer properties not available on Airbnb or Vrbo.

So here are 9 top picks for booking vacation rentals to get you on the right start. Some may be familiar to you – like Airbnb and Vrbo – and some new. All are reputable, have a secure payment platform, and provide reliable customer support. You can click the links and check out the travel sites.

Best for All Kinds of Vacation Homes

The following are well-known travel sites for vacation rentals. They offer a wide range of properties (around the world) for all types of budgets and travel styles. They range from modest apartments in the cities to luxury villas by the beach.

  • Airbnb – Over 6 million properties worldwide. You’ll also find homestays where hosts rent out their spare rooms instead of the entire place.
  • Vrbo – Over 2 million properties across the globe. There are special filters where you can select homes that welcome families and children.
  • Tripadvisor – It’s a list of over 800,000 in more than 190 countries. It’s also the largest travel review site written by travelers.

Best for Upscale Vacation Homes

These websites offer only exclusive homes. Each is professionally inspected and only those that meet high standards get listed. Expect to pay premium prices but there are vacation homes cheaper than a luxury room at a 5-star hotel.

  • Homes & Villas – Part of the largest hotel chain in the world, Marriot International. It’s posh apartments, penthouses, bungalows, villas, and chateaus.
  • Plum Guide – For the affluent traveler looking only for deluxe homes. A Plum Guide staff reviews each home but only 3 in 100 passes the test for listing.
  • Sonder – Offers vacation properties with hotel-style hospitality and services. It’s a list of over 5,000 in more than 30 cities in 9 countries.

Best Hotel Sites for Vacation Rentals

These are the top hotel booking sites that include vacation rentals in their inventory. Prices range from budget-friendly to luxury. Besides, you have the option to search for only vacation homes or all types of accommodations for comparison.

  • – Largest booking site for all kinds of stays around the world. It’s often a big list for every kind of vacation home.
  • – A big list of rentals in North America and Europe. Outside the two continents, it’s still a decent list of the major cities and top tourist spots.
  • Agoda – Has a worldwide list but performs best for finding a place to stay in Asia. These include lesser-known destinations on the continent.

Examine the Actual Rental Cost

Examine the actual vacation rental cost
Photo by Towfiqu Barbuhuiya

Beware of hidden costs! You research a couple of vacation properties, planning to stay 6 nights. Then you find a “great deal” for a nightly rate of U$129. When you go to the booking page, you realize the cost is actually U$210 per night. It’s way more than what you initially saw and for a 6-night stay, it’s out of your budget.

What you initially saw was the base price without the taxes and fees. These two items could add 25-50 percent more to the base price. Some travel sites will show the actual or total cost at the start. Others are not so upfront until you reach the booking page. Among the websites mentioned:

  • Airbnb, Vrbo,, Agoda, Homes & Villas, Turnkey, and Sonder initially mentions the base rate, not the actual cost.
  • Tripadvisor,, and Plum Guide mention the actual cost with taxes and fees at the very beginning.

Besides the service fee charged by the rental sites, the host may tack their own fees. When not initially shown, it gives the impression you’re getting a cheap deal. The following are fees that could add to the base price.

  • Service fee
  • Cleaning fee
  • The owner or host fee
  • Charges for linen
  • Extra guest fee
  • Utility fee
  • Pet fee

So pay close attention to all the fees to find the actual cost before learning more about the property. If it’s too much to pay, look for another.

Find Your Preferred Location

Find your preferred vacation rental location
Photo by GeoJango Maps

Be sure the property is in the area you want. Rental sites usually don’t give the exact location (street address) until you’ve booked and paid. Initially given is the approximate location and a brief description of the area. There’s a genuine reason – security, to protect the owner’s property from criminals.

Though you can’t get the address, at the very least you want to stay in the right place. On the search result page, use the location filter to find vacation homes in your preferred area. It’s often by neighborhood, near major landmarks, or both. Also, use the map view for a better idea of the location.

Do Your Research

Descriptions about an area are sometimes hyped or have little information. Obviously, you want a true picture of the place, especially if you’re unfamiliar. So do some research over the web. Say you want to know about Kensington, a neighborhood in London. Then search “kensington neighborhood london”.

See Street Views from Google Map

Google Maps is more than just a street map. It’s a handy tool to learn more about an area. And there are two key features you should use.

  • On the map are several buttons like “Restaurants”, “Attractions”, “Museums”, and “Transit”. Click a button and markers will pop out pointing to the places of interest.
  • You can get street views of an area in many major destinations. Drag the “yellow man” from the bottom right and drop it onto a road. Take a “drive” and see the area.

List What You Want

List what you want in vacation rental location
Photo by Sidekix Media

A vacation home is not a hotel. It could be a bachelor pad, modest apartment, posh penthouse, family home with a garden, or luxury villa. You more or less know what to expect from a hotel, especially from a well-known hotel brand. But rentals are different, it’s a home like yours and each is different.

Know what you want when looking for your ideal vacation property. If cooking your own meals is critical for your trip, you surely want an equipped kitchen and not just a microwave oven. If traveling with youngsters, you want a kid-friendly place. If planning to bring your dog, you want a place that welcomes pets.

Don’t take things for granted! It may not have all the things you want – list the “must have”. If traveling as a family or group, discuss the list of “must have” together. After all, no one wants to end up upset on the arrival day.

Here’s a list of things to look for in a vacation home. It’s by no means finite and not all will be relevant to you. It depends on the traveler.

  • Your preferred location
  • Type of lodging
  • Welcomes kids
  • Accepts pets
  • Number of bedrooms
  • Type of beds
  • Number of bathrooms
  • Has a fully-equipped kitchen
  • Has a washer and dryer
  • Has air-conditioning
  • Has a swimming pool
  • Entertainment items
  • Has Wi-Fi access
  • Allows parties or events
  • Allows smoking

Rental sites normally have filters to narrow down the search. Typical filters include location, nearby activities, type of home, amenities, house rules, and properties good for families.

Read the Property Description

Read the vacation rental's property location
Photo by Vojtech Okenka

The description of the vacation home should be clear, precise, and have all the key info. For the host, the description is the most important selling tool. It’s what the host promises to deliver if you decide to stay. For the traveler, it helps you make an informed decision.

A good description should answer many of your questions. The key point is it should answer whether the home has the things you want during your stay. Review the features, amenities, and the things that make the home stand out. A good and honest description should give you no surprises when you arrive.

A good description should also have useful info about the neighborhood or area. Surely, you want to know about shops in the area to buy groceries and essentials. You may want to know about nearby restaurants and attractions. You may also want to know about how to get around including public transport.

Photos are a visual journey through a home. And a good set of photos will tell a lot about the place. Important views to look for include the living area, bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, amenities, garden, parking area, and the neighborhood. It’s a red flag if the photos are few or don’t match the description.

Get Opinions from Guest Reviews

Get opinions from guest review about a vacation rental
Photo by John Schnobrich

Guest reviews and ratings are priceless. On most websites, property descriptions are written by the host and some tend to overrate. But guest reviews and ratings are independent assessments from past guests. Their opinions provide unbiased insights about the home. So don’t skim, read the reviews in detail and look at the ratings.

Look for listings that have more than 5 reviews and at the very least a 3-star rating. More positive reviews and a higher rating add more trust to the property. More reviews also mean the home is a popular place. But new listings don’t have any reviews and ratings. In this case, ask the host a few questions before you decide.

Each guest has different expectations and standards. And it’s hard to please everyone. Besides, picky guests will always try to find fault in anything. That being the case, expect a few bad reviews. If there are too many, it’s a red flag.

There are exceptions to the rule though. You won’t find any guest reviews on Homes & Villas, Plum Guide, and Sonder. They offer only posh and upscale vacation homes. A company rep evaluates each property. And only those that make the grade for high standards of quality get a listing.

Be Familiar with the House Rules

Be familiar with the vacation rental's house rule
Photo by Martin Sanchez

House rules are what you can and can’t do. Each host has a set of rules for guests. Sounds repressive but understandable. For hosts, they want to feel assured that unwanted things don’t happen. For guests, house rules prevent conflicts with the hosts. Surely, you don’t want to ruin your vacation by breaking the rules.

Don’t take things for granted. If the house rules are unacceptable to you, look for others that are accommodating. Make sure everyone staying with you are also aware of the rules. It helps keep everyone out of trouble before anything happens.

Here are the often-seen house rules. If you need clarification or have questions about the rules, don’t hesitate to ask the host.

  • Check-in and check-out instructions
  • Maximum number of guests allowed
  • Whether kids are welcomed
  • If pets are permitted
  • Whether smoking is allowed
  • Policy on parties or events
  • Neighborhood prohibitions like loud noise
  • Rules for parking the car
  • Policy for damage and breakage
  • Guidelines on cleanliness
  • Returning furniture to its original place before check-out
  • Clearing the fridge and kitchen before check-out

Check the Terms of the Security Deposit

Check the terms of the vacation rental's security deposit
Photo by Karolina Grabowska

No matter how careful you are, accidents can happen and things get broken. Sometimes, small items get lost. On that account, many hosts ask their guests to put down a refundable security deposit. If there are damages or missing items, the host will deduct the value from the security deposit. But should not claim for normal wear and tear.

Some hosts may ask for the security deposit to be given directly. It’s not preferred. If you agree, only when you arrive at the property – not before. And the host should inform you about the deposit before you decide to book – not after. The rental contract that you sign should clearly mention the deposit and how you’ll get your money back.

The preferred method is “pre-authorization” whereby no money is given immediately to the host. In this case, the booking site temporarily reserves a certain amount from your credit card. What happens if there are damages or missing items?

  • The host will discuss the charges before checking out
  • The host has a time limit to make a claim
  • Claims will be deducted from the reserve
  • The balance from the reserve is released to you.

There’s no set amount on the security deposit. It depends on the host. But generally in the range of 15-25 percent of the total cost.

Check the Cancellation Policy

Check the vacation rental's cancellation policy
Photo by Jeffrey Czum

Many hotels allow you to cancel a booking 24 hours before check-in. Anyway, they can easily recover their losses from last-minute bookings and walk-in guests. But owners of vacation homes can’t expect the same from last-minute cancellations. For this reason, vacation rentals have less flexible cancellation policies.

Be sure to check the rental’s cancellation and refund policy. Travel plans can change, especially if your reservation was made months ahead. Hosts decide their own cancellation policies, often selected from a list of standard options provided by the rental sites.

Cancellations for a full refund (minus service fee) are normally 60, 30, 14, or 7 days before the check-in date. Some hosts give a 50 percent refund if you cancel (within a time limit) after the full refund period. But some give no refund at all! Best to pick those with lenient cancellation policies.

Don’t Hesitate to Ask the Host

Don't hesitate to ask the host of the vacation rental
Photo by Brett Jordan

You’ve read the property description, read the guest reviews, and seen the photos. But you need more information before deciding. Don’t hesitate to text the host using the rental site’s messaging platform. But read about the property before you ask. After all, you don’t want to ask about things that are already mentioned.

Keep your message polite and concise. Initially tell about yourself, your intentions, and why you like the place. This helps build trust with the host. A good host will reply within 24 hours. But if it takes too many days or no reply at all, time to look for another.

A reliable host will answer all reasonable questions. It’s good to ask before you book so you know what to expect when you arrive. Things you may want to ask:

  • Whether the host provides dishwashing soap
  • About the cleaning service or housekeeping
  • Whether there are bikes for kids
  • Clarification about the house rules
  • About the area or neighborhood
  • Nearby shops and dining options
  • Nearby attractions or places of interest
  • Cheaper rate since you plan a long stay

How to Get Cheap Vacation Rentals

How to get cheap vacation rentals
Photo by Sasun Bughdaryan

Just as there are many ways to get hotel deals, there are also ways to get cheap vacation rentals. So here are the key tips. There are no secret hacks or deceiving tricks here. They are simple actionable steps used by most seasoned travelers.

Book Early

Booking your vacation home early means you’ll have more time to plan your trip. Besides, there’ll be more properties to choose from before demand picks up.

  • A wider selection means you’ll get the best choice for your accommodation before others book the property.
  • And you’re likely to get cheaper rates since there are plenty of vacant properties waiting to be rented.

How early should you book? Prices tend to go up between 15 and 60 days before arrival when most hosts receive their bookings. A safe bet is to book 3 months ahead. Even earlier at popular holiday spots like beaches and ski resorts. Many book 6 months ahead and some even a year. So book early for more options and cheaper vacation rentals.

There’s always a possibility you could change or cancel your travel plans. And already made your reservation months ahead. So pay close attention to the rental’s cancellation and refund policies before you decide to book. Choose a property that has a flexible policy and gives a full refund.

Get a Weekly Discount

Most rental sites don’t show listings that offer weekly discounts. But Vrbo has a search filter to find properties offering discounts for at least 7 nights stay. There’s even a filter for at least 28 nights (a month). It’s usually 10-15 percent less for weekly stays and up to 30 percent for monthly.

Even if the rental sites don’t promote weekly discounts, you can negotiate directly with the hosts. While there’s no guarantee, it’s worth a try. After all, it’s no secret that some hosts do give discounts for long stays if you’re willing to negotiate.

Key in the destination, your travel dates, and number of guests to begin. Then send a polite note to the host using the rental site’s messaging platform. Mention how long you plan to stay and request a cheaper rate. Start with 20 percent less than the listed rate. Around 10 percent for weekly and 15 percent for monthly are the usual replies.

Negotiate for Last Minute Deals

Negotiate with the host for last-minute deals. There’s no guarantee but worth a try. Your best bet is within 10 days before a trip. Your luck improves as your travel date gets nearer.

  • You’re out of luck if the host realizes properties in the area are in high demand during your travel dates. Try other properties but what’s left may not be many. Besides, other hosts could also be unwilling to give discounts because of the demand.
  • Then again, you’re in luck if there’s low demand during your travel dates. You’d be in a better position to negotiate for a discount since it would mean lost revenue for the host if the property remains unoccupied.

Normally discounts are 10 to 20 percent less than the listed rates for last-minute deals. During the low travel season, it can be as much as 50 percent for long stays. Especially so if there are plenty of vacant properties in the area.

Find New Listings

Guest reviews and ratings provide important feedback for potential renters. But new listings don’t have any reviews or ratings. Because of this, many newly listed properties on Airbnb and Vrbo offer discounts as a promotion. It’s 20 percent less for the first 3 bookings or within 90 days after listing, whichever comes first.

Nonetheless, Airbnb doesn’t show which are the new listings. It’s easy at Vrbo. On the search result page, new properties are clearly marked as “New listing – 20% off”. You can also use the filter to show only new listings offering discounts.

New listings are another great way to save money. But some travelers may have doubts without reviews from past guests. Having said that, they are quickly taken up. If you’re willing to take a chance, make your reservation early.

Become a Member of a Hotel Site

Several top hotel sites also include vacation rentals in their inventory. Those mentioned earlier include,, and Agoda. With hotel sites, there’s no way to connect with the host to negotiate for a cheaper rate. But you can still get cheaper rates if you join as a member of a hotel site.

As a member, you earn reward points for your reservations. And you can use the points to claim a discount on your vacation rental for your next trip. As a member, you also enjoy 5-10 percent discounts on selected properties including rentals. And many offer last-minute deals of up to 20 percent less than the listed rates.

Hotel sites offer hefty discounts for non-refundable bookings. These include vacation homes and you could pay up to 40 percent less. But remember, non-refundable rates are only for those with firm travel plans and the risk of disruption to your trip is minimal.

Use Coupon Codes

Travelers familiar with hotel sites are all too aware of coupon codes. Do a web search and you’ll find plenty of websites offering hotel coupon codes. These coupons will even get you discounts for vacation rentals on hotel sites. Do a web search like “ coupons” or “agoda coupon codes”.

Less familiar are coupon codes for vacation rental sites. Yes, they are there and you could pay 5-20 percent less than the advertised rates. Airbnb and Vrbo are regulars. Again, do a web search like “vacation rental discount coupons”, “vrbo discount coupons” or “airbnb coupon codes”.

Travel Outside the High Season

The high season is the busiest time of the year for travel. Demand for accommodations goes up and as your travel dates get nearer, your choice of properties gets fewer. It’s also the most expensive time when rentals for vacation homes are at their peak. Travel outside the high season if you want better accommodations at a bargain.

The low season is the quietest time for travel. There are plenty of accommodations and rentals are at their cheapest. The shoulder season is between the high and low seasons. It’s not the cheapest period but still cheaper than the high season. Traveling outside during the high season is not about balmy weather.

  • It’s still nice weather during the shoulder season just before and after the summer holidays. Not a quiet period, but not as busy as the high season.
  • Summer may be the low season at the ski resorts. But there are scenic mountains, lakes, nature, and walking trails to enjoy after the snow has melted.
  • In tropical Southeast Asia, the rainy season is the low season. Though it rains almost daily, it’s usually short spells but the rest of the day is fine.

Travel seasons vary in different parts of the world. You may like this article from Culture Trip about the three travel seasons around the world. Take note, rates may rise for short periods during the low and shoulder seasons due to local holidays and major events.

Search Other Travel Sites

Always search at least a couple of travel sites before making a reservation. Ideally, search at least 3 websites 3 months before your travel date. Here’s why. First of all, the same vacation home could be cheaper on another website. Secondly, you could find alternative properties that are much more friendlier to your budget.

Metasearch sites like HomeToGo and are time-saving tools for searching several travel sites. They search various websites in one go and aggregate the results on one page. This makes it easier to compare prices from multiple sources. Searches include Vrbo, Expedia,,, and