6 things to know before booking a vacation rental, and where to search if Airbnb is booked or too expensive
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The way we travel has been upended in the wake of the novel coronavirus. With an eye towards safety and social distancing, private vacation rentals are being increasingly booked over amenity-rich resorts.
It’s a strategy supported by experts, too. After breaking down the risks of both hotels and vacation rentals such as Airbnb or Vrbo, doctors and cleaning specialists agree you’re less likely to risk infection in a private home than in a shared space such as a large hotel. This is because the virus is mainly transmitted via respiratory droplets from person-to-person interactions.
Though no matter the type of lodging, the main factors to consider are the degree to which you’ll encounter other people and whether the region is experiencing high rates of infection. Without a vaccine, there is no guarantee of safety, so follow CDC and WHO guidelines and wear a mask, wash your hands, and practice social distancing. You’ll also want to weigh your own risks and whether you’re traveling to or from a hotspot, before deciding if travel is right for you.
If you’re comfortable with those parameters, it’s not too late to book a socially distant summer or fall getaway — if you can find one.
Airbnb reported that from May to June 2020 — yes, at the height of the pandemic — there were more nights booked for listings in the US than during the same period in 2019. With quarantine fatigue at a high, this summer has become surprisingly competitive to find an Airbnb, especially if you want to be beachfront or enjoy pool access. I tried to find one for a long weekend in Cape Cod, booked three weeks in advance, but was met with limited results that did not meet my search criteria, or far exceeded my budget once cleaning and service fees factored in.
And while Airbnb might be top of mind for vacation rentals, it’s hardly the only offering. There are many other vacation rental services, but if you’re not used to booking vacation homes, there are important points to understand before booking. I’ve compiled the following tips and recommendations based on my extensive experience as not only a travel editor but an avid traveler.
Keep reading for 6 tips to find the best vacation rental, plus top places to search for vacation homes and socially distant lodging online.
6 things you should know before booking a vacation rental during COVID
Establish where you want to go and be flexible with dates.
Identify the amenities or criteria most important in a stay first. Then, commit to a certain type of lodging.
You may also be surprised to find that many listings adjoin the owner’s home. I once stayed in a cottage in my host’s backyard that was pleasant enough until the owner spent most of our visit working in his adjacent shed, while his kids played in front of our patio, which made it feel far from private.
Search and compare vacation rental platforms to find the best deal.
Confirm cleaning and cancellation policies, especially when booking far in advance.
Double-check for amenities, house rules, what’s included — and what’s not.
Finally, if you’re booking a home to take advantage of nearby attractions, verify what the host provides. For example, does the beach house come with beach chairs, towels, parking passes, and other gear you’ll want? Knowing these details will leave you with more time to enjoy where you’re staying.
Once you arrive, follow our expert-led advice on how to lessen COVID risks.
These are the best vacation rental sites to search when Airbnb is booked up.
Book a vacation rental on Vrbo
An acronym for “vacation rentals by owner,” Vrbo lists private vacation homes searchable by destination, price, and amenity filters. They tend to be large and well-suited to families and groups, though there are plenty of attractive options for couples or solo travelers, as well.
Unlike Airbnb, Vrbo listings are exclusively for entire homes, so there’s no chance you can accidentally book a shared room or space. It also now includes HomeAway, which used to be its sister company.
Read our overview of how Vrbo works.
TurnKey Vacation Rentals
Book a vacation rental on TurnKey
While you may find some TurnKey homes listed on Airbnb or Vrbo, you’ll find their largest inventory on their site directly. TurnKey specializes in premium luxury homes with hotel-like amenities managed by a team of professionals, as opposed to the homeowners themselves.
TurnKey vets every property, which means guests can expect high standards in customer service, cleanliness, and amenities. They also incorporate tech features such as time-coded digital locks for contactless check-in, in-home tablets for requests, noise decibel monitors to ensure peace and quiet, automated housekeeping schedules, and more.
However, so much white-glove attention comes with a higher price tag, and TurnKey homes aren’t as widely available as other rental platforms.
Read our overview of how TurnKey Vacations Rentals works.
Book a vacation rental on Vacasa
Vacasa is another property management company that lists homes on Airbnb, in addition to operating over 25,000 vacation rentals across the globe that are accessible through their site.
Their booking process is extremely transparent, with all homes listing past guest reviews as well as 3D virtual tours so there are no surprises upon arrival.
The platform also promises flexible, no-fee options for changes and cancellations, which many competitors don’t provide. Reschedule your trip, cancel and receive 100% credit for a future stay, or cancel for a refund (minus the booking fee) at least 30 days before check-in.
Each trip is also backed by 24/7 customer support, a local property manager, smart locks or lock boxes for a contactless check-in, a mobile app for requests and instructions, and professional housekeepers that clean and stock each home using EPA-approved disinfectants.
Marriott Homes & Villas
Book a vacation rental on Marriott Homes & Villas
If you really love a hotel, or want to show brand loyalty, look into the homes listed and managed by Marriott International.
Their portfolio includes over 2,000 homes in over 100 destinations around the world that deliver a hotel-like experience in a private home environment. Marriott’s vacation rentals are professionally managed and vetted with 24/7 customer support. Just like in a hotel, they provide excellent cleaning and high-end amenities.
You can even earn and use Marriott Bonvoy loyalty points for stays, which is a perk not provided by most other rental companies.
Read our overview of how Marriott Homes & Villas works.
Book a vacation rental on onefinestay
Another offshoot of a well-known hotel brand, onefinestay is part of the Accor group, which includes luxe brands like Sofitel, Raffles, Banyan Tree, and more.
Their highly-curated homes and villas are design-forward, spacious, and quite posh. They’re found everywhere from cities such as New York to beachfront escapes in Turks & Caicos. They too tend to be larger abodes with sleek, sophisticated styling.
Every booking includes local guest services and the option to add amenities and experiences. The starting price tag, however, is a bit higher than some others on this list.
Booking.com, Hotels.com & Expedia.com
Book a vacation rental on Booking.com, Hotels.com, and Expedia.com
You likely already turn to Booking.com, Hotels.com, and Expedia.com to book the best deals on hotels, however, you can also find private homes and apartments.
Most searches include these results, but you may also filter specifically for “homes and apartments,” “vacation homes,” and “guest houses.” Just like hotels, these vacation rentals list review scores, amenities, and more.
It’s also worth looking at these OTAs for less traditional hotel experiences when vacation homes are unavailable, but you seek a similar style of lodging.
Filter for property types such as “villas” or “cottages,” to yield small, intimate properties that often count just a handful of guest rooms. They typically come with private entrances, kitchenettes, and contactless check-in, so you’ll limit interactions and avoid shared enclosed spaces. You’ll also remove inflated cleaning and service fees. Just make sure to check the hotel’s COVID policies before booking.
I took this approach when I searched for a vacation home in Cape Cod this summer. The vacation homes on Airbnb that met my search parameters were limited or exceeded my budget when cleaning and service fees totaled more than one night of lodging. I ended up booking a cottage-style hotel on Hotels.com with all the privacy and social distancing features I wanted in a vacation home, for at least $600 less than Airbnb or other sites.
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