Vacation rentals can provide an excellent alternative to staying in hotels while traveling, but there are possible pitfalls you need to know before you book with VRBO or Airbnb.
By David Goldstein
My wife and I have been booking vacation rentals through VRBO (vacation rentals by owner) and Airbnb for almost 20 years.
Both platforms offer great options for travelers who are looking for something a little different than a typical hotel experience. We enjoy the freedom that having our own place in a foreign city allows. We grocery shop in the local markets, explore the neighborhood bakeries, and start to get a sense of new cultures.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say we live just like a local while we visit, we certainly get more of a local feel than we would if we were staying in a hotel.
The author and his wife rented this two-bedroom condo in Puerto Vallarta through VRBO
When we started using VRBO and Airbnb, we made some mistakes — mostly because we based our choices on what we hoped the place would be like rather than really understanding what we were booking. Fortunately, we can laugh about those mishaps and have learned a few strategies that help us choose genuinely enjoyable vacation rentals.
So here are some suggestions for finding a great vacation rental through VRBO or Airbnb:
Before you start searching for vacation rentals, know where and when you want to travel
This may seem like an obvious first step, but I’ve spent hours just browsing properties before I know if we can actually take a trip.
While I enjoy looking through random listings in random locations, having a location picked out and dates in mind will prevent you from falling in love with a place that won’t be available or is priced too high during the time you plan to travel.
Search VRBO and/or Airbnb for properties
These two platforms are pretty easy to search.
Start by letting them know when and where you are traveling. Enter the number of guests and how many bedrooms and bathrooms you’ll need.
Use the filters if you want a free-standing house or a condo or simply a private room in the owner’s place. We always opt for “entire home” so we have privacy, but some people like the rent-a-room option.
If your search returns so many properties that it’s difficult to get through them all, refine your search, ensuring you get the features and amenities you want while eliminating any that you don’t need.
Check out the features listed in the filters and add anything else that’s important to you. For us, things like air conditioning, a pool, and reliable internet and WiFi are important. The more features you select the more defined your options will be, and sometimes you may need to trade something you’d simply like for something you absolutely require.
Once you identify your favorites, save them in a favorites list, because you don’t want to have to try and find those gems by searching again.
Read the owners’ descriptions, the refund policy or no refund policy, the rules of the rental and fee details, since they might affect your decision. We have found some great nightly rates — but after adding up the costs of cleaning and administration fees, discovered that the property would end up costing more than another with seemingly higher rates.
Pro Tip: If a property is listed on both VRBO and Airbnb be sure to compare prices. We just booked a condo in Mexico and saved $400 by booking on Airbnb instead of VRBO. How does this happen? Sometimes owners neglect to update both sites when they change pricing.
Read the Reviews
The reviews section is where you will find actual experiences that previous renters have had with the rental, the location, or dealing with the owner.
People tend to accentuate the positive and couch the negative in terms like, “Loved the busy location, so close to the train station.” This would be a clue for me to look for other reviews about noise. Is it truly convenient to be by the train station or was it too noisy to get a good night’s sleep?
Also, make a note of the restaurants and shops that pop up in reviews. You’ll get a feel for places you’ll want to try.
It’s more than likely that you’re going to encounter some negative reviews. I take these into consideration. Was the negative review about a temporary inconvenience? Or was it written by a grumpy person?
Did the owner respond and explain how the issue was resolved? We recently stayed in a place that had several great reviews and one really bad one.
The bad one stated that they received complaints about playing their music by the pool. A no-music-by-the-pool rule was not a problem for us — we prefer a quiet location and use our air pods to listen to music. But for some travelers, that same rule might dampen their stay.
Consider Renting a Property Managed by a Premier Host or Superhost
These are designations given by VRBO or Airbnb for hosts who have experience and have consistently provided excellent guest experiences. I would not entirely rule out newbies as they need to get experience somehow, but when we travel internationally, I prefer dealing with the more experienced hosts.
Pro Tip: Sometimes when we travel to a new location, we might stay seven nights at an Airbnb or VRBO, and then spend the last night at a fancier hotel. Adding a hotel stay at the end of the vacation can be a fun way to experience the destination from the residential and tourist perspective.
Before You Make a Final Decision
Send a note to the owner or property manager with any questions or concerns you might have.
Will there be someone available to you if you need to check in after business hours? Is there a person to contact with any issues while you are there? Do the owners answer promptly? Do they answer your questions to your satisfaction? When an owner is responsive and helpful, it sets the tone for a good stay.
Reserve The Property
Once you’re happy with your choice, reserve the property.
Both VRBO and Airbnb have safe, secure systems for making reservations. Once you book the rental you will receive information from the owner about the check-in procedure, property rules, emergency contact information etc. Read it so you are familiar with what to expect.
If you need help with transportation to and from the property, the owner will often have helpful suggestions. No need to figure out everything on your own!
Enjoy Your Trip!
Here’s a tip we learned the hard way.
When you arrive, you might be tired from your travels, but take a few minutes to get acquainted with the rental and how things like the internet, satellite, and air conditioners work. Let your property contact know immediately if you have any questions and resolve any issues right away.
The sooner you can relax, the better.
David Goldstein and his wife, Alice, are semi-retired and live in Las Vegas, Nevada. They publish Boomer Buyer Guides to help other retired and semi-retired people make better financial, health, relationship, and travel decisions.
Just be aware that VRBO is now charging the renter an 8 to 9% fee on top of the rental that was not charged in the past when the owner paid all fees to list the property. Also be sure to check the location as some rentals might not be in good or safe locations. Also make sure that Airbnb and other rentals are still available before you go. I know of certain cases where the rentals do not meet local regulations for not having proper permits and inspections and can be unavailable when you arrive!! — Bob Glaze globalphile.com firstname.lastname@example.org
Response: Thanks for the additional warnings, Bob! It pays to do your homework, including checking fees, locations, and, as David Goldstein points out, perhaps sticking with “Superhosts,” especially in unfamiliar territory. — Clark Norton
My experience staying in Airbnb apartments in half a dozen countries is that there is often some overlooked detail that causes a problem or inconvenience. In Koh Samui access to buying groceries at a seemingly great location in a beach complex was limited to a poorly supplied convenience store nearby and the nearest restaurant was a difficult 3-kilometer walk along a busy highway. As Samui taxis are notoriously overpriced, it was nearly a week before I learned that there was a free shuttle to a town with a supermarket. The apartment was also sparsely equipped. After a couple of days the absence of a broom become a noticeable oversight. — Dennis Cox DECoxPhoto@gmail.com
Response: Whereas our experiences with Airbnbs (haven’t tried VRBO) have been mostly positive ones. It does pay to read the reviews. I trust you warned other travelers about your experience in Koh Samui? — Clark Norton