As a mid-30’s traveler, I’ve come to love vacation rentals. I’ve done enough traveling to know what I want out of my accommodations, and in my experience, vacation rentals offer the best bang for your buck. For example, I like having my own space that is quiet and clean. I prefer to spend my money on experiences and not amenities (because I probably won’t use them anyway). I want to eat at home at least once per day so that I can save cash for an amazing brunch or highly-rated dinner. This is why I love vacation rentals, because they offer all of these experiences at a price that is comparable, or often better, than staying at a hotel.
In choosing a place to stay, I like to use a little checklist to make sure I’m making the right choice.
While I’m a big fan of vacation rentals, they’re not always the most appropriate choice. I like to consider rentals, hotels, and hostels; there is definitely a right time and place for each. When planning my accommodations, I first take a moment to consider my priorities:
- Duration – less than five days
- Occupancy – four people or less
- Location – pretty important
- Price – highest price
- Duration – less than three days
- Occupancy – less than two or more than two non-couples
- Location – very important
- Price – cheapest price
- Duration – five days or more
- Occupancy – two or more
- Location – less important
- Price – mid range price
Beginning the Search
There are many ways to find vacation rentals online. The most popular sites are AirBnB, VRBO, and HomeAway. My personal preference is Airbnb as it is easy to use and have locations all over the world. Another idea to find local specialties with Google searches and travel specialists.
If there is a neighborhood I like, I will visit Google Maps and see if there are any “self-catering accommodations” or “guest houses” listed. It is a little riskier, but sometimes the risk can really pay off. Another option is to consult a location specialist. My friends at Little Roads Europe have amazing taste in small, well-priced restaurants and accommodations in Italy and Ireland. For a small fee, specialists like them can help arrange your trip. The service is one similar to a travel agent, but with a greater focus on local experiences that don’t pay out commissions.
Find the Best Vacation Rental
Josh is particularly picky about where he likes to stay, so I take great care in picking out the perfect vacation rental. There are several search options available on Airbnb. Here are the ones I use every time:
- Room Type
Josh and I travel without a car, so the proximity to the city center is important. I know that I can easily walk one mile and that I can comfortably walk up to about 3. So, I narrow the map radius so that I am within 1.5 miles of the major sights (3 miles round-trip). If a host advertises that their home is “only 10 minutes to the city center”, make sure to get clarification! Is that 10 minutes by car or by foot? Is that the distance to the outer ring of the City Center or is it to the literal center of the city?
Of course, the closer you get to the city center, the more expensive the vacation rental will be. If the prices start to become too dear, I’ll expand my search along major, public transit routes and ask the host if I can borrow two unloaded transit cards for the duration of our stay. This costs the hosts nothing, but saves us as much as $20. There is no harm in asking.
Websites like AirBnB have a great filtering options to help you find the perfect vacation rental. Go wild and see if your perfect rental exists. If not, slowly subtract the least important features one by one. The filters that I always have on include: Entire Place, Wifi, Kitchen, Private Bathroom, Dedicated Workspace.
Some of those options may seem a little basic, but remember that, throughout the world, there are many forms of travel. An “Entire Place” rental should allow you to have the entire house or apartment to yourself with a private entrance that locks. It does not, however, have to have a kitchen or private bathroom. We’ve stayed in many “Entire Place” rentals that were more similar to hotel rooms, with only a microwave and minifridge. Our third least-favorite BnB (don’t ask why it’s only the third least favorite) was a nice apartment that did not specify a private bath, and I thought, “Why should it? Every apartment has a bathroom.” It did have a bathroom: a beautiful porcelain toilet, sink, and mirror at the foot of the bed. Literally at the foot of the bed, without any sort of privacy. My sleeping quilt gently caressed my knee while I did my business.
If you’re traveling solo or are particularly charismatic, try the “Private Room” option. We’ve used this option a couple of times for short layovers. Having just a room in someone’s home can be a little scary at first, but it is a great way to meet the locals and to enjoy an overnight stay for a fraction of the cost of a hotel.
This piece can really limit my options, so I try to only select amenities I can’t live without (first world style) like high-speed WiFi, kitchen, washing machine in building, and a television with HD input. Again, it is important to remember that it’s a crazy world out there. Never assume anything is necessary. Things like hairdryers and coffee makers are not always commonplace throughout the world. If you need these things, make sure they are listed or ask the host to provide one (in advance). In heavily touristed areas, it may also be necessary to double check that the apartment offers free linens, toilet paper, and soap.
I’m not saying that you need to verify every detail of the rental, but simply read the list of amenities offered and be prepared that those might literally be the only amenities. If you are worried, read the reviews and see what other guests have said.
When finding the perfect price, be sure to check out the host’s weekly and monthly discounts. This is especially true if your stay is only 5 or 6 days. It may actually be cheaper to book a full week. I’ve even extended my booking a full week beyond my actual visit because the monthly rate was nearly $100 cheaper than the 3 week rate.
Another tip is to search outside of the major tourist neighborhoods. Moving your search to residential areas along the city’s border can significantly reduce the price without adding much distance. While in Rome, we stayed in the Aurelio neighborhood, which most guide books don’t even have on the map. For a fraction (nearly 50% less) of the price of the neighboring Trastevere neighborhood, we were still able to walk to the Vatican and travel only 10 minutes by bus to the Colosseum.
People of the internet, please correct me if I am wrong, but from what I can tell, the hosts don’t seem to care what I write in my request letter. I started by writing beautiful, heartfelt requests, but quickly realized (based on the questions my hosts asked me later) that they never even read my request. Now I either use the Book Instantly option or I write a generic request email:
My husband, Josh, and I are visiting location on holiday. We are clean and respectful renters who enjoy experiencing local neighborhoods. We would love to stay in your beautiful apartment if it is available for the selected dates.
I suggest booking as soon as possible and sending requests to your top choices early. Keep an eye out for hosts that are quick to respond with a friendly note. If the host takes more than two days, they may be considered unreliable (imagine if it took them two days to respond to my “I lost my key and am now locked out” email).
I’ve landed and it’s time to head to my vacation rental! Woot! Now what?
By now, the host and I have emailed back and forth and made arrangements for meeting up at the apartment. Some rentals have options to pick up the keys without ever having to see anyone, but I like to take the time to meet with the host and ask them questions:
- How do I use the appliances?
- This may sound silly, but foreign machines can be a little different.
- Don’t forget to ask about the shower. We once had a rental with five knobs. It was a chilling experience trying to figure them all out… haha. See what I did there… chilling…
- Where is the nearest grocery store frequented by the neighbors?
- I don’t want to shop at the over-priced petrol station across the street. I want to shop at the everyday grocery store where I will find everything I need at normal prices.
- This question often inspires my host to tell me about some of the other fun neighborhood quirks.
- What is your favorite place for a cheap lunch?
- This was our million dollar question in Barcelona. The host sent us to a restaurant that was off-the-beaten path, was filled with locals, no one spoke English, the food was 100% authentic, and the prices were set for the working class.
- What is your favorite special occasion restaurant?
- I can read reviews online all day about the hottest restaurant in town. I’ll usually pick my top five restaurants for my one fancy dinner before I leave home. If my host answers with one of the five on my list, that one turns into THE one.
Once we’ve said good-bye to our host, the place is ours and I like to try and think of it as our home. I rearrange the furniture and decorations to my liking (after taking a picture of where it was so that I can put it back before we leave), unpack my bags, and take stock of the cooking supplies provided. This part is very important. The majority of the vacation rentals we have stayed at are lacking important items like prep knives, can openers, and wine openers. There is nothing worse than coming home with the perfect meal plan and no way to cut the vegetables. Usually, simply asking the host for these items will suffice, but it could take up to 48 hours to be delivered.
Being a good guest is almost as important as being a good host. That is why the final day can be so important. If you booked your vacation rental through an online site, it is likely that you are going to get rated by the host. Make sure to earn that five-star review so that you can get first dibs of rentals on your next vacation. The perfect time to earn those stars is on the last day.
Follow Check-Out Policies
The host will have left some sort of note either in the apartment or within the booking app on how they prefer the check-out process to go. Like a hotel, there will be a check-out time and directions as to where to leave the keys. Be careful not to just leave the keys in the house, assuming the host has a spare. Some old European homes have keys that are very difficult to replicate.
It is a common misconception that if you pay a “cleaning fee” that you then don’t have to clean. This is not true. The cleaning fee only covers basic services like floors, bathrooms, and surfaces. This isn’t to say that you need to make the apartment spotless, but you do need to tidy up the majority of your own mess.
- Dishes – Do not leave dishes in the sink. I like to put the last of my dishes into the dishwasher, then run it as I’m leaving. I never know if the host re-washes dishes, so this way they know that the dishes have been freshly washed and untouched by anyone.
- Trash – Some Check-Out Guides request that the trash actually be taken out to the street cans. If not, it is still proper etiquette to pick up all the waste around the house and tie up the bags.
- Linens – Another subject commonly covered in the Check-Out Guide is the linens. If not specified, I suggest you strip the beds and make a collection of used towels on the bathroom floor. I do not suggest washing the linens on your own. Some countries require a professional linen cleaning service so they will get re-washed anyway.
- Left Over Stuff – I hear hosts complain about this a lot. Do not leave your unwanted items behind. Neither your host, nor the vacationers after you, want to see an opened jug of milk in the fridge. I understand the sentiment, but there are better options. Grocery stores regularly have donations boxes in front for non-perishable goods. For food, consider offering it to a homeless person on the way to the airport.
Not only is it polite to say good-bye to someone who has hosted you, it is also very helpful for them to know when they can begin resetting the rental. I will often send a text to the host about an hour before we leave for the airport. I thank them for a nice time, leave notes about any outstanding issues, confirm the key drop-off location, and let them know what time I’m leaving.
When you get home and settled, don’t forget to write an honest review about your stay. Many travelers rely heavily on these reviews, so yours is important. It is also a great time to start looking into your next vacation rental.