Vacation Rentals 101 – VRMB
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​A Traveler's Guide

Navigating the World of Vacation Rentals

The vacation rental industry has been growing ​steadily over the last few decades. Whether it's a lake house, a mountain cabin, a city condo, or a family ​villa at the beach, ​ the rise of sites like Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO, and have made it more popular ​than ever to veer off the beaten path of ​a traditional hotel and into a private home.

In fact, the vacation rental industry is expected to reach ​$193.89 billion by 2021. This is ​big!

​Choosing the right vacation rental can mean unlocking an incredible new style of travel -- with benefits rivaling the greatest boutique hotels in the world​. ​But like any new industry, navigating the magical world of vacation rentals can be challenging for newcomers. From scams to property quirks to simple cleanliness standards, booking a vacation rental can be something of a crapshoot if you don't know what to look out for. ​

In order to light the way, I have created this post to introduce newcomers, and to inspire ​travel veterans to do just that: to get more out of their precious travel time. First, let's ​go through some of the benefits of choosing a vacation rental for your next vacation:  

​​Summary: High level benefits of choosing a vacation rental home for your next vacation instead of a traditional hotel. This advice revolves around the qua​lifiable and quantifiable benefits of vacation rental travel: things that are tangible (on paper) as well as general “feelings” or sensations that everyone strives to experience. This process should end with the traveler choosing a vacation rental for their next vacation (wherever they choose to go).  

​1. Value: More for your Money

The greatest allure of vacation rentals is the value: for solo travelers and groups alike, choosing a vacation rentals is ​just about always cheaper than booking ​a comparable room (or multiple rooms) at the hotel down the block​. ​​Since vacation rentals rarely have hidden fees for parking or Wifi, ​travelers can budget out their trips easily. 

​2. Variety: Something For Everyone​

​Vacation rental accommodations are ​the antithesis of ​a templated hotel room in that every property is different in style, layout, ​and features or amenities. This allows travelers to choose the right fit for their lifestyle. Beneath the variety of features, vacation rentals ​typically ​showcase: 

  • Spaciousness: common areas ​to hang out with your group (​no more sitting on the edge of the hotel bed)
  • Privacy: “feel” or live like a local ​in the privacy of your own home,” no hotel concierge ​or screaming children down the hall

3. Access to Experiences

​Because hosts know the local area so intimately (many grew up there or were drawn there throughout the course of their lives) ​travelers can get plugged in directly to the action. Unlike a hotel concierge who may be sharing private access with a great volume of guests, the small scale nature of the vacation rental host means every guest is a VIP.  

​How to Choose a Winning Vacation Rental

​Because ​uploading a ​vacation rental onto a site like Airbnb or HomeAway or is so easy for hosts, ​travelers run the risk of choosing ​a sub-optimal property. ​​Here are some ​guidelines to finding that property that will unlock a magical vacation:

​Find​ Professionals, ​Avoid Hobbyists

When spending hard-earned vacation dollars, ​you can reduce the risk of vacation rental disappointment by ​finding​ hosts who run their vacation rental like a business...this is opposite to hosts who do it as a hobby, or part-time, on the side, or while they happen to be gone from their home. ​Professional hosts offer higher-quality stay and are more attentive in the case that you have any problems​. 

Here's how to ​avoid non-professionals...

  • ​Google: Having identified a vacation rental that looks interesting, travelers should try Googling the name of the business in order to see what ​results up. A well-established vacation rental business is likely to have multiple organic results (their own website, mentions on other websites)​, ​whereas a hobbyist is limited in reputation to the big listing sites.
  • ​Reviews: ​​Guest reviews can be quick window into the vacation rental host's soul. Look not only at the good reviews, look how ​the host responds to negative reviews (almost all hosts have the occasional crazy guest), and look at what kinds of comments are repeated. Lastly, ​consider​ the length of the review: the longer the review, the more passionate the guest was​ about the experience (both good and bad).
  • ​Professional photos: Nothing says unprofessional like amateur photos. If the host hasn't ​invested the effort ​to put their best first foot forward in the form of professional photos, ​​it's a red flag -- who knows where else corners are being cut. 
  • ​Personality: Commonly known as the "About Us" or "Host Profile" section of a listing or website, look for professional portrait photos (not ​a pixelated image cropped from a wedding years ago), and look for information about the individual and why they are doing this...hobbyists are oftentimes reluctant to share personal information ​claiming it to be​ intrusive.
  • Floorplans: One of the big grey areas when trying out vacation rentals for the first time (as opposed to conventional hotels) is the layout of the rooms. Professional vacation rental hosts often have floorplans that allow you to see who will be sleeping where in relation to one another. 

​If You're Not Sure​, Ask Questions

Because vacation rental hosts are offering up such an intimate part of their lives (their homes) to strangers (you) ​they are more than happy to answer questions that you may have. Not sure if the pool is private or shared? Ask. Not sure if the kitchen is fully ​equipped? Ask. Not sure if you can bring Fido? Ask. Email is fine but phone is even better, especially if you want to pick their brain about the area. Very few vacation rental ​professionals won't jump at the opportunity to chat on the phone with their future guests.   

Seek Baseline Standards

Because vacation rentals can vary so greatly -- from the ​rustic cabin in the woods to the opulent penthouse ​by the sea -- it's helpful to have an idea of ​what baseline standards should be expected when searching for the right fit. Here are my 5 bare minimums for a vacation rental of any size, shape, or budget:

  • ​Cleanliness: A vacation rental should be clean: as clean as a hotel room (and if you've seen any of those undercover investigations, ideally cleaner). ​If there are any reviews doubting the cleanliness, consider it a red flag.  
  • Safe and Secure: A vacation rental should be safe: ​in addition to the actual location of the property, doors and windows should have appropriate locks, and reviews should never mention compromised safety. 
  • Kitchen: This one really sets vacation rentals apart from hotels. All vacation rentals should have a kitchen with ​enough equipment to prepare a basic pasta dinner. This means pots, pans, knives, plates, silverware...etc. Anything less and you begin to get into the territory of the Extended Stay hotel chain.
  • ​Host is Available: Because vacation rentals are such a new style of travel, questions are bound to arise, and things are bound to go slightly different than planned. This is part of the journey. But having direct communication access to a host who ​responds as soon as possible is the great equalizer. Look for comments in the reviews about the host and what they bring to the table.
  • Optional: I like to consider the following amenities as bonuses when staying at a vacation rental: washer, dryer, free ​WiFi, free parking.

Getting the Most Out of Your Vacation Rental

​Vacation rentals are all about encouraging ​us to step outside ​our comfort zones, ​exploring our passions or interests that have fallen by the wayside, and ​forming new meaningful connections with people, places, and things. ​Below, I have outlined ​some ways you can get the most out of your vacation rental experience, no matter where you choose to stay.

​1. The Dinner Party Project [Bali, IND]

​One of a vacation rental's greatest assets is the kitchen​ -- the hearth of the home is a chance to cook (yay for not having to eat out every meal!) and be around your friends and family. A great way to take advantage of this is to go to the local market in town. Markets are always a wonderful window into the local culture. And if you're in a foreign country, consider asking your vacation rental for someone to show you around: translating ingredients and highlighting specialities becomes a tour in itself! 

​Bali ​Dinner Party Itinerary

When staying at the remarkable Villa Sagitta in Ubud, Bali, the host Mailie Green set me up with Yande, the house manager, for something of a foodie​ excursion. This kind of ​magic travel experience be ​achieved in any destination ​that has interesting local ingredients. 

  • ​Yande and I left the house on motorbikes (​rental ​coordinated by hosts).
  • ​We wandered over to the local market​ where he does his daily grocery shopping: got to meet some of his regular vendors and crack some jokes in my limited Balinese.
  • ​Got some crazy cool ingredients I had never seen so cheap before such as mangostein, fiddle-head fern, and passion fruit.
  • ​We then went to the big market in the main town of Ubud which was labyrinth-like in its variety and ambiance. We picked up shallots, ginger torch flower, and chilis for "sambal matar" -- a raw relish for the fish. 
  • ​Head back home to prep the ingredients and drink copious amounts of mango juice while learning that all these recipes came from Yande's mother.
  • Serve meal to my friends and my hosts who were staying on the property as well.

​2. The Bad Weather Pivot [Montevideo, UR]

As travelers, we sometimes give too much authority to the weather: if it's raining out, we sometimes just assume that this means staying inside and losing a day of vacation. But ​if ​the weather doesn't cooperate, ask your vacation rental host for some suggestions for indoors activities!  

​Karen Higgs of Casa Sarandi in the ​country of​ Uruguay actually wrote the guidebook on the place (not a joke). ​Because she lives there and sends so much business their way, Karen prides herself on her local contacts at many local businesses and cultural institutions.​ And when I arrived, it started raining and pretty much did not stop. But have no fear! Karen suggested four amazing experiences that would not be stopped by the rain. 

Montevideo "​Bad Weather Pivot" Itinerary

The first suggestion came in the form of boutique winery located inside the vintners grandmothers house. 

The second came in a brilliant restaurant right around the corner from my vacation rental, which I could get to without getting wet.

​After that, I headed over to ​the Andes Museum 1972 -- a touching tribute to ​"one of the greatest human survival stories of the 20th century." The museum is a private venture by Jörg Thomsen, a Uruguayan businessman. ​And ​because he is so passionate about the museum, ​Jörg meets as many of Karen's guests in person: a ​special access feeling to the max. Karen has this kind of personal "ambassador" at all of her recommendations, lending an air of ​exclusivity to pretty much any activity. 

​By taking full advantage of Karen's insider contacts, not only did I get to experience three businesses that I ​may not have otherwise if it was sunny outside. But I also got to meet the owners of each business and got a little behind-the-scenes peak: the ultimate feeling of VIP. 

3. The "​Local Celebrity" Tour [Park City, UT]

Junior Leonce (center below), the lead Concierge at Utopian Luxury Vacation Homes in Park City, Utah understands the value of special access: how just about any local activity can be turbocharged when it's hosted by a local celebrity or merely someone with a remarkable personal story. This is something many vacation rental professionals can do well based on their local knowledge and the small-scale nature of their business (so the secret doesn't get out!) 

The Park City Celebrity Tour

​​​Jamie ​Crane-Mauzy (or as the ski world ​knows her, Jamie MoCrazy) was the first ​woman to double flip in the winter X-Games (2013) and the first ​woman to flip off a rail. She was ranked 2nd overall in the world, 5th for slopestyle and 10th for halfpipe, at the time of her crash: an accident which landed her with brain damage and in a medically-induced coma for 8 days. This, in many ways, became the beginning of Jaime's story, which she shares with aspiring skiers from around the world who visit Park City.

​In sending business to a "local celebrity" like Jaime, Junior argues ​the experience offers more than just ski lessons: it offers the opportunity to be part of a miraculous story: the kind of thing memories on vacation are made of.

​4. Attend a Sporting Event with a Passionate Local Fan [Rio de Janeiro, BR]

David Parker of the Coral Loft Penthouse in Rio De Janeiro has more than just one of the most authentic vacation rental properties in Brazil: he

​When I checked in I told David I was a soccer fan and he put me in touch with his manager, ​Adriano, who was a diehard Flamingo fan (the local team that happened to be playing during my stay). What happened next was impossible even for the non-sports fans in my group to enjoy! 

​Search online or ask your vacation rental hosts about sporting events that are taking place while you are in town and see if they know anyone who will be attending the game. I could have easily gone by myself but with a local it was that much more ​exciting.

​5. The Early Access ​Tour [New Orleans, LA]

​Eric Bay ​was my host at the​ ​Creolle Cottage in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans. One of Eric's strengths is local contacts and while most of the things that he suggested were amazing and unexpected (kayaking in the bayou, learning to make ​a traditional roux in the courtyard, hopping into a true second line) one of the things I did in New Orleans reminded me that any ​any experience can be turbo-charged if you ask the right questions.

Just because it's New Orleans' most popular tourist attraction, doesn't mean the World War II museum can't make us feel like we're total VIPs. This landmark shows us that just about any business, if packaged properly, can sell the sensation of special and VIP.

​Just a few blocks from the French Quarter, ​check out their​ ​new Early Access Tour, which ​lets ​distinguished guests ​into the museum pre-opening with an expert guide​. This new kind of tour package has proven to offer guests a great jump-start ​at the Museum — as well as ​one-on-one insight into how the American experience in the war that changed the world. 

​As a traveler, don't forget to utilize the alliances forged between vacation rental business owners and their fellow business colleagues in the community: with access as the new luxury, this kind of value-add is a win for everyone involved.

​6. The Trip with a Purpose [St. John, USVI]

​After the island of St. John was devastated after two hurricanes in 2017, locals began to rebuild. In fact, vacation rentals represented the only place to stay on the island for quite some time, considering the two big resorts were closed due to damage. Karla Gustafson, the owner of Tropical Blessings, not only began welcoming guests, but encouraging those guests to get to know the local __ community. .  

​Offering guests introductions to local foundations like Love City Strong and recovery leaders like Abbie Hendricks,,......