How to Find the Perfect Vacation Rental

It sounds like a dream vacation: Watch the sunrise on your private veranda with freshly-made espresso – no rush! Spend the morning visiting quaint villages and small museums, lunchtime in the yard barbecuing freshly-caught fish, and the afternoon lounging around your private pool.  In the evening, stroll to a nearby café for a simple dinner, made by the owner, while listening to the banter of the local residents as the sun slowly sets on the horizon. A vacation rental is an excellent way to experience life in a place like the locals.

But before you jump online and shell out well-earned dough for a villa with an expectation of a memorable stay “…under the Tuscan sun,” keep the following information and advice in mind to help ensure you don’t arrive at your destination only to find a hovel with a parking lot view.

What is a vacation rental?

Vacation rental - guatemala

A travel industry term, “vacation rental” means the renting out of a fully-furnished apartment (or house, condo, studio, maisonette….) to tourists on a temporary – usually weekly or monthly – basis. Different countries and locales may use different terms such as villa, holiday rental, self catering rental, holiday cottage, tourist rental, “gites” (France), “agriturismo” (Italy). A vacation rental may range from a budget studio apartment to a sumptuous private villa with luxury services (e.g. cook, concierge) and a price tag to match.

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Although first common in Europe and North America, the concept has expanded around the world, and you can find vacation rentals almost anywhere you want visit: remote island beaches, mountain-side ski areas, major city centers, and anywhere in between.

Pros & cons of a vacation rental

Pros and cons

Two of the most compelling reasons for choosing a vacation rental are cost and space/location. Generally, you will pay less per night for a one-week vacation rental than a hotel room of the same quality in the same area. Using the kitchen facilities will also lower your food expenses as compared to eating your meals at restaurants. You will likely have more living space with a vacation rental, including multiple bedrooms and separate living/dining areas (perfect for traveling couples and families!), enjoy more privacy, benefit from a more convenient location (oceanfront, ski in/out, in the city center) and be staying in an area where you can live more like a local.  And the kitchen is always open.

However, a vacation rental may not be your best choice if you are uncomfortable with, among other things: non-standard reservation processes, weekly – versus daily – cleaning (i.e. making your own beds and hanging your bath towels every morning), having to call the off-site owner or his/her representative if you have problems. However, some of these concerns can be mitigated in various ways, including dealing with reputable, trusted owners or their representatives such as vacation rental management companies that manage properties for owners and offer some of the same services hotels offer to their guests, including centralized check-in, 24-hour on-call maintenance, and optional daily cleaning.

Where and how to find a reputable vacation rental


Many property owners contract with a management company who has an on-line presence and sometimes a local office. These companies market the vacation rentals, provide information and photos, and handle reservations and billing. They may also manage on-site check-in, housekeeping and maintenance. If you book through a management company – like HomeAway or VRBO – you should expect more consistent quality control standards, housekeeping services, and professional and locally knowledgeable on-site or on-call staff. Reputable companies will also bear at least some liability for the accuracy of the information provided, and will have standardized, formal agreements covering cancellation policies, responsibilities of the company/owner/renter, guarantees/warranties, etc.

Some vacation rental owners may provide information about their properties through on-line aggregation portals, also known as listing services. Listing services typically display property information and photos provided by the property owner, but take no legal responsibility for the accuracy of the information and do not provide on-line or centralized booking services. Also, because they do not generally verify the information provided, you will be more likely want to do some extra work and obtain, from the owner, references and a formal agreement covering such details as deposit and payment requirements, cancellation policies, key-pick-up procedures, etc. prior to sending them your money.

More and more general travel related websites also provide information on vacation rentals.  This information can be helpful in addition to other means of finding and investigating a rental. Also, do a web search for the property owner’s name and the name and address of the place you are interested in and see what appears. You may discover complaints from previous renters, or glowing and/or anonymous reviews (of which you should be skeptical). You can also find your vacation rental through off-line means such as a travel agent, a newspaper’s classified ad section, or from referrals from friends who have had positive experiences.

More and more websites seem to pop up each year that cater to travelers wanting to rent on their trips. Sites like AirbnbFlipkey, and Roomorama are just a few of the more reputable options out there. You can also just google the city you wish to visit + “vacation rentals,” and you’ll get a plethora of options.

Is it the right place?

Is it the right place

How can you tell if a specific vacation rental is for you?  Very few websites or listings provide every detail that you may need to make your decision, so consider asking the following questions:

  • References: Do you have repeat visitors?  Can we check with them?
  • If there are multiple units:  What are the “typical” renters’ demographics?
  • Linens/towels: Are these provided, and if so, exactly what and how often are they changed?
  • Kitchen:  What is provided in terms of appliances, pots/pans, utensils? Is there a coffee maker, toaster? Full kitchen or kitchenette? Full size fridge or mini?
  • Cleaning service: How often, and what does it cover? Or can you waive the cleaning fee and clean yourself before checking out?
  • Laundry: Is there a dryer and/or washer in the unit? If not, what is available, and where?
  • Phone: Is there a phone in the unit for local calls? If not, where is the closest public phone?
  • General claims: What do the terms that are used to describe the property – such as “oceanfront” or “ski in/out” – really mean?
  • Internet:  If you need to stay connected online, what options are available?
  • Children: Does the unit have stair gates and/or a crib?
  • Supplies: Will you need to provide your own soap, toilet paper, etc.?
  • What is the closest town? How near is it?  What is available there?
  • Outdoor activities: Where are Beaches? Pool? Skiing? Tennis? Gym? Related equipment?
  • Will you need a car, and if so, what is available for parking? If not, what transportation is available?
  • General security: What type of security is there?
  • Is the rental “certified,” if required?

Determine your “must-haves” beforehand to make this process efficient.

How much will you really pay?


The price quoted for your vacation rental may not cover additional on-site charges.  Be sure to ask for clarification, including cost, in writing, regarding the following:

  • Security deposit: many require one, in cash in local currency, in case you damage the property; make sure to get a receipt, and that it is returned at the end of your stay – don’t leave without it!
  • Additional occupants
  • Phone/Internet: If these are available, is there an extra cost?
  • Laundry:  You may need to purchase tokens or pay the owner/manager to use the washer or dryer (if available)
  • Parking: Some properties in smaller, older towns in Europe may not have on-site parking and may direct you to public parking spaces or lots.  As well, ask if a parking pass will be required, and if so, obtain details.
  • End-of-stay cleaning: Sometimes an added charge.
  • Heating/air conditioning: In some European countries you may have to pay for all usage or any usage over a fixed amount.

If you can tell that vacancy rates in the area at the time you plan to visit are low, or you want to stay more than one week, you may be able to negotiate the price.  Call the owner or management company and see what they can do for you. Often times the price drops dramatically if you want to rent for a month or longer – perfect for those on long-term, RTW trips.

Securing your reservation: The deposit

Regardless of how and where you find your vacation rental, their are three key ways to protect your investment:

  • Review the rental agreement in detail before sending any payment; ask for one if not offered
  • Pay by credit card or credit card by Pay-Pal. Do not send your money via wire transfer, or send cash, a bank draft or cashier’s check  to pay any owner or manager who wants immediate and full payment in advance via these methods.
  • Demand a confirmation with all the details of your reservation!

If the owner or manager refuses any of these, find another place.

Before you go

As you prepare to leave for your vacation, make sure you have the following items, as applicable: copies of relevant correspondence, signed Agreement and photocopy, security deposit in local currency (i.e. cash), and copies of the identification page(s) of everyone’s passports -some countries’ laws require that the owner/manager obtain these at check-in. Also, make sure that you have confirmed where and when you will meet the owner/manager, and have an address of and detailed directions to the meeting place.  It is a good idea to double-check the directions with one of the online mapping service, or with your GPS.

When you arrive

When you arrive

The extent of orientation depends upon the place you rented, but following is a checklist of things you may consider asking the owner or his/her representative about when you arrive:

  • Security deposit: Get a receipt
  • Heat, air conditioning – how controlled?
  • Location of circuit breakers – You never know!
  • Doors/windows: Open/close/lock
  • Kitchen: Location of dishes, utensils, pots/pans, etc.
  • Trash: Where does garbage go? If there is recycling?
  • Appliances, including small appliances: How do they work?
  • Bathroom: How do the shower and toilet work? Restrictions on “foreign objects” in the toilet? Enough TP for your stay?
  • Internet: If WiFi, what is the network name, and if secured you will need the current key/password
  • Living Area: Where are the clickers, how do you turn on the TV/change channels? Stereo?
  • Nearest grocery store and pharmacy/drug store.
  • Security: How does the in-unit security system work, and who do you call if tripped by accident? Any other keys/passes/codes required for using other areas of the property? Is there restricted access to any areas (e.g. no one under 12 in the pool area alone)?
  • Safety: Local Emergency number if not “911”.  Fire escape/route?
  • Local contacts: Landline and/or cell numbers for owner or his/her representative.

If you find during the orientation that something is missing, or not as promised, just ask!  Most concerns can be resolved immediately.


You should leave your vacation rental in the same condition in which you found it. If you paid a security deposit, schedule a time for the owner or his/her representative to meet you to return it.  Do not leave the property if your deposit has not been returned!

Some closing thoughts

A note on languages: In foreign countries, the owner or his/her representative will probably be a regular citizen who speaks the official language of that country. Some of them will also speak some English, but fluency is the exception rather than the rule. This may make communication a bit hard (and at times, humorous) but not impossible. Try speaking slowly, do not shout, and use your hands and you will get along just fine.

Finally, remember that you are renting a private home, and it will reflect the owner’s habits, tastes and culture. It may be quite unlike accommodations that you might find near home or at a hotel, and this should be something that you look forward to. Appreciate the differences – they are neither right nor wrong, but just that: different.  And isn’t that what you want?

To read more about accommodation options on your travels, check out the following articles and resources:

manifesto - slow down and enjoy

Photos by: Section_Eight,ALWHBocas Villas, belivekevin, smithysteadsVancityAllie


Leave a Comment

Older comments on How to Find the Perfect Vacation Rental

05 July 2010

Good article Maureen – just two comments:

“If you book through a management company – like HomeAway or VRBO – you should expect more consistent quality control standards, housekeeping services, and professional and locally knowledgeable on-site or on-call staff.”

They are listing sites rather than management companies are they not?

Regarding suggested questions to ask the owner, if they need to be asked, then the information provided by the owner in their advertisement or on their website is inadequate. So this article also serves as a useful guide to owners to check that their text covers all these matters. For one thing, vacationers are spoilt for choice so the more important information you can provide without making them work for it, the greater chance you have of securing a booking!

05 July 2010

PS: I was referring to the questions to ask before arrival that you listed. Those listed separately for post arrival ought to be covered by the owner’s guest manual, but not always, and I’m sure I’m not alone in striving constantly to improve or update this section!

Kelly Hayes-Raitt
06 July 2010

Maureen, this is a GREAT article. As one who both rents out her home to vacationers and stays in vacation rentals, I wholeheartedly agree with the tip to know what’s important to you and ask about it beforehand. I’ve found the happiest guests are not only those who are most flexible, but those who are most clear about what they want and need in a rental. I have NO desire to have unhappy guests in my home, so if they ask about something I can’t offer, I’m honest and let them make the decision. I send out a 7 page agreement for people to sign that lists everything from what can go into the toilet to where they can park and smoke. I list the strengths and shortcomings of my home to minimize surprises and complaints.

I rent out my home to support my work helping refugees. ( During the past 2 years, I’ve rented to people from all over the world (incl Russia, Thailand and Turkey) and have “met” via email people doing the most fascinating things in our world! I love sharing my home…

I have a couple of other comments about your thorough article: Generally, it makes sense to suggest that people see the rental beforehand or connect with the owner via telephone. For me, those suggestions are simply not practical. My home stays rented nearly back-to-back, and when it’s is available to show, I’ve found potential guests are not always on time (or fail to show up at all!). That means I’ve paid my manager to be there and I’ve lost money, which means if I continued scheduling “viewings,” I’d have to raise my prices. I do suggest that people ask for recent photos and study them well to see the furniture style, the level of “clutter” or “fussiness” and the general layout of the rental. I also suggest they drive by the home and see the neighborhood.

Similarly, because of my travel schedule, of time differences and of the cost of international calls, I discourage phone calls inquiring about my home. I have an extensive email I send out describing my home and its amenities that will answer most questions. If people want to talk with me after that at their own expense and after scheduling a time to talk, I’m fine. But, I can respond to easily a dozen emails a day, and if I had to field all those phone calls, my prices would definitely go up!

I highlight these two points because I want to underscore your opening: Renting a vacation rental usually involves nontraditional booking. I’d hate to see vacationers lose out on a great place because they insisted on a phone conversation when it’s 3:00 am where I am!

It’s a terrific tip to google the owner. When potential renters of my home google me, they find I ran for office in my community and was on the Women’s Commission for 7 years, proving I have a reputation I want to maintain. References and web site recommendations are too easily forged, so I personally don’t rely on them when I am renting a vacation rental for myself.

Tips from an owner to those considering renting a vacation rental?

1. Read what I send you…It’s very likely someone else has wondered about the things you are pondering. Asking me a question I’ve just answered raises a red flag for me. My home’s ad is titled “8 Block to Beach,” yet I actually had someone email me to ask how far my home is from the beach. Do I really want to trust her to follow directions about not plugging up my toilets?

2. Ask if the info isn’t provided. Yes, do ask me about things that are important to you! More than anything, I love sharing my home and I want you to be happy!

3. Don’t start out asking for a discount. It’s rude and presumptive. Emails asking me, “What’s the best deal you can give me for the 4th of July weekend?” go to the bottom on the pile. My home is already priced low so I can keep it rented with happy people. My experience is that people who push for constant discounts are rarely fully satisfied.

And renting last minute is really not an incentive for an owner to lower his or her price. While I can and do accommodate people last-minute, it’s a lot of extra scrambling for my manager and me. Often, it’s simply not worth it if I’m renting at a discount.

4. Do let me know right away if there’s a problem. It’ the only way I know to fix something to make your vacation more enjoyable — and for the people coming after you.

5. Drop me an email when you arrive and let me know all is well. Usually people don’t; I understand you are on holiday! But, it really warms my heart when people do and I can imagine them enjoying my home to its fullest!

That said, I’m sitting outside on the banks of Lake Erie on a warm breezy summer day, enjoying a great local chardonnay, while staying at a vacation rental in Western NY. It’s quiet, there are no other tourists, my fridge is stocked so I can stay in tonight and work, and I feel like it’s “home”!

Kelly Hayes-Raitt