Vacation rentals have grown increasingly popular over the last decade. For family travelers looking for more space or the amenities and conveniences of home, renting a condo or a vacation home instead of staying in a hotel while traveling just makes sense. A lot of additional travelers discovered vacation rentals in 2020 and 2021 when looking to keep some distance from the crowds while traveling. As a result, the demand and interest in vacation rentals is greater than ever.
But where can you go to search for and book safe, clean, and trustworthy vacation rentals? Most travelers have heard of – and perhaps even used – a few of the major sites in the vacation rental space. The marketplace is definitely bigger, however, than just VRBO or Airbnb. Savvy travelers who know where else to search can find some unique properties and save even more money.
Here are the vital details about the best vacation rental sites as well as my most helpful tips for staying in vacation rentals as you plan your next family vacation.
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Best Vacation Rental Sites You May Already Know
Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) is the site that most casual travelers have probably already heard of if they’ve heard of nothing else. VRBO offers a wide variety of property types (homes, apartments, condos, short term rentals, long term rentals, etc.) pretty much anywhere in the world. It was acquired and integrated into one of the other major players in the vacation rental market, HomeAway, several years ago, bringing more properties onto a single platform.
Although the name suggests that rentals are made “by owner,” a number of the properties on the site have a professional management company behind them. Your experience and the time required to make a booking may vary considerably depending on what type of property you book and whether you are dealing with an owner or management company. VRBO began as a site with more conventional home and condo rentals in vacation destinations, and those kinds of rentals remain its strength.
Another top vacation rental site that most travelers have heard about is Airbnb. The company started out solidly in the budget travel market – many listings were extra private rooms in shared apartments or even couches to crash on. Cities and urban locations were the focus as well.
The company has evolved and now offers everything from high end beach houses to wild and wacky accommodations like yurts, castles, and treehouses. It now is also larger than VRBO with more total listings. A lot of property owners will list their vacation rentals on both Airbnb and VRBO, which can occasionally give travelers a chance to find a price differential or slightly different policies and protections.
With the power of TripAdvisor behind it, FlipKey is another vacation rental site many travelers have used or will stumble upon in searches. FlipKey offers a mix of listings probably a little closer to VRBO than Airbnb, since it doesn’t included shared spaces. What also makes FlipKey different is that it is informed by the user ratings that TripAdvisor is known for.
The site doesn’t have as many listings total and has even fewer outside of the United States. But if you are planning a domestic trip, it’s a valuable site to search to see more potential vacation rental inventory in your destination of choice.
Booking.com has grown to become one of the major players for accommodation rentals of all sorts these last few years. Booking.com is one of several brands in the major travel conglomerate that also owns Priceline, Kayak, and Agoda.
The site has quite a number of vacation rentals, including homes, condos, and apartments. Many of these were absorbed into the search engine from the prior Villas.com site.
It’s a little harder to find true vacation rentals on Booking.com though in the midst of all the hotel room search results. To search only vacation rentals, be sure to click the small “I’m looking for a vacation rental” checkbox on the main Booking.com front page. Depending on the destination you are searching, you may still see results at hotels that include suites and condos. You can then further filter the search results pages by rental homes, apartments, and more to find different property types.
Best Smaller and Specialty Vacation Rental Sites You Need to Know About
While the big names in vacation rentals can deliver a lot of options, there are a number of other smaller and speciality vacation rental sites to explore for even more choices. These are sites many travelers may not know about…but should! Some of these sites specialize in a certain type of vacation rental or focus on certain destinations. Here are several to keep on your radar.
With a name like Holiday Lettings, you probably guessed that this vacation rental site’s roots are in the United Kingdom. It was the largest vacation rental site in the UK before being acquired by TripAdvisor several years ago. The site still operates as a standalone, but travelers can have the convenience of logging in with their TripAdvisor account and knowing that TripAdvisor’s policies and name are behind it.
If you are headed to Europe, Holiday Lettings may yield more fruitful results than VRBO and Airbnb. Our family had much more luck looking for vacation rentals for an upcoming trip to Italy on Holiday Lettings and ultimately booked two of our stays in different Italian cities there. We found many quality properties that weren’t listed on some of the other sites we usually use.
Vacasa is a vacation rental management company, taking the tedious work of managing, promoting, and maintaining vacation rentals off owners’ plates. The flip side as a renter is that you can trust that all the vacation rentals listed on its search engines are professionally managed. That can mean more reliable service in case a problem does arise.
Vacasa has properties in 35 states as well as Canada, Mexico, Belize, and Costa Rica. It gobbled up a lot of smaller destination-focused vacation rental sites, giving it breadth and strength in certain vacation markets. A vacation rental we booked in Palm Springs a few years ago, for example, is now listed on and managed by Vacasa.
Vacatia offers an interesting value proposition in the crowded vacation rental market: it only lists properties in full-service resorts. These “resort residences” are usually timeshares and condos. They have the benefits of a house – kitchens, extra bedrooms, and extra space – along with the services and amenities of hotels – housekeeping, pools, and sometimes spas and more.
Vacatia focuses exclusively on the North American travel market (US, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean). Its property partners are in the kinds of destinations you might expect – beach destinations, ski resorts, etc.
David’s Vacation Rentals
Travelers headed to a Disney destination also need to know about David’s Vacation Club Rentals. . This service acts as a brokerage clearing house for owners in the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) timeshare system. Owners with extra points sell them to the service, and non-owners can then use the points to rent condo style accommodations at a Disney resort for less.
We have rented DVC points for a vacation at Disney’s Aulani resort and are always checking David’s for availability and price when we head to Orlando as well. While it’s entirely possible to rent DVC points directly from an owner, David’s provides a secure process to make certain the rental is legitimate.
Pros & Cons of Vacation Rentals
Before you book on any of these sites, however, be certain that a vacation rental is the right fit for your trip. While my family stays in vacation rentals quite a bit (and increasingly so as our kids get older), there are times and places where hotels make much more sense. Here are a few of the pros and cons of vacation rentals to consider as you weigh your choices.
Pros of Vacation Rentals
- More space: Vacation rentals often serve families and larger groups far better than a hotel. They may have separate living and sleeping spaces, additional beds for siblings who don’t want to share, or space to bring along grandparents, friends, and more. We especially valued them when we had babies and toddlers to provide a separate space for the little one to nap or go to bed.
- Kitchen and laundry facilities: Having the additional amenities of home can help travelers save money on vacation by eating in and make trip logistics easier.
- Locations that often let you live more like a local: Many vacation rentals are located in residential neighborhoods and offer the opportunity to have a more authentic travel experience away from the tourist traps.
- Lower cost: Vacation rentals can often be more affordable than hotels. Often they are a way for travelers to get more for the same amount of money.
Cons of Vacation Rentals
- Communicating with individual owners: While there are certainly vacation rental owners who go above and beyond the best of hotel concierges, there are many more who may not be as reliable, reachable, or as easily held accountable if things go awry.
- Variability and lack of quality control: Vacation rentals aren’t subject to the same quality control standards of major chain hotel. While photos and reviews can help you ascertain the quality somewhat, you never truly know what you are going to get until you get there.
- Pricey cleaning and other fees: Vacation rentals tend to tack on a lot of fees, particularly the cleaning fee which may add several hundred dollars to some rental properties. These service fees may make shorts stays prohibitively expensive.
- No luggage storage before check-in and after check-out: Most vacation rentals have no front desk. So if you are arriving to a destination early or staying late after check out, your luggage has to go with you.
- No housekeeping: Vacation rentals are usually only cleaned between renters and few have daily housekeeping.
- Greater risk of cancellation: While it’s possible for a hotel to overbook and “walk” you to another hotel, the risk of a vacation rental owner cancelling on you is much higher. You may be stranded last minute with fewer methods of recourse if a rental is cancelled on you last minute.
- Less flexible cancellation policies: Many vacation rentals have draconian cancellation policies or require large deposits or full payment well in advance.
Additional Tips for Successful Vacation Rental Stays
If you ultimately decide to book a vacation rental for your next trip, how can you improve your chances of success? Here are a few additional tips that have worked for our family to find the perfect vacation rental.
- Look and book early: The best vacation rentals, especially in top tourist destinations during high season, book up early. The earlier you can book, the better. For example, my family often goes to Palm Springs, California for the week of Thanksgiving. To find quality rentals there during such a popular week, we often plan a full year ahead.
- Don’t book places without reviews: While newly listed vacation rentals without reviews yet may look (and may in fact be) fantastic, they are risky. You don’t know whether the new listing is legitimate or a scam that will leave you high and dry. Especially when traveling overseas or with young kids, you should probably skip those listings to be extra safe.
- Look for superhosts: The safest strategy to avoiding scams or just disappointment that the rental isn’t what it advertises is to book with hosts who have a long and successful track record on the vacation rental search engine. Airbnb calls them superhosts. Other platforms have different names and rating systems.
- Sneak a peek on Google Street View: Before you book, scope out potential vacation rentals on Google Street View to see their precise locations. This can help you judge whether an area is clean and safe and what the walking distance to major sights and transportation connections looks like
- Read cancellation policies carefully: Cancellation policies for vacation rentals are truly all over the map. Some are extremely rigid but others can be as flexible as a refundable hotel booking. Read the fine print. And then read it again. When I book a vacation rental, I immediately calculate any cancellation deadlines and put a reminder on my calendar so I have an alert in time to make changes.
- Always book with a credit card: Reputable vacation rental sites will let you make bookings with a credit card. It’s vital to book with a credit card to get the full protections your card issuer may provide in addition to the vacation rental platform in the rare instances of a scam or problem.
- Know where to search vs. where to book: There are a lot of websites that look like they are vacation rental sites but really they are simply search engines with results from the major underlying players (TripAdvisor, Expedia, and Tripping.com, for example, often are really displaying borrowed results from VRBO, Holiday Lettings, and others). By all means, use these sites to search. But ultimately go directly to the source – or at least cut out as many middlemen as you can – when it’s time to book.
- Don’t forget about hotel brands: While there are a lot of helpful middlemen and search engines you can use to find a vacation rental, it’s entirely possible to book vacation rental style accommodations directly with a brand that you probably think of as a hotelier. Plenty of hotels now have timeshare and condo style properties you can rent too. For example, my family stayed at the Marriott Grand Residence Club Lake Tahoe in a 1 bedroom apartment on a recent ski trip to Heavenly. We booked this unit directly on Marriott’s site. Hilton, Hyatt, Disney, and other major hotel booking sites have similar offerings.
Are there other vacation rental sites you’ve used that you would recommend?