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Private vacation rentals are proving especially popular with those seeking a safer, more socially distanced vacation. As a result, inventory on Airbnb might feel quite limited, especially when booking last minute or at popular times. There are many other vacation rental services, but if you're not used to booking vacation homes, there are important points to consider before booking. We compiled 6 things you should know before booking a vacation rental, plus top places to search if Airbnb is booked up or too expensive. Read more: Everything to know about vacation rentals, COVID-19 safety, and the best places in the US
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 understand 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 and looking for a change of scenery, it's worth considering booking a socially distant 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, it has become surprisingly competitive to find an Airbnb, especially if you want to be beachfront, enjoy pool access, savor fall foliage, or perhaps are looking ahead to holiday travel. I tried to find an Airbnb 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, they are hardly the only offering. There are many other vacation rental services, but if you're not used to booking vacation homes, be sure to understand the following important tips and recommendations, which I've compiled based on my extensive experience as not only a travel editor but an avid traveler.
Keep reading for how to find the best vacation rental, plus top places to search for vacation homes and socially distant lodging online. Blend Images (LWA/Dann Tardif)/Getty Images 6 things you should know before booking a vacation rental during COVID Establish where you want to go and be flexible with dates.
To weed out destinations, determine how far you're willing to travel, especially if you are driving. Factor in needing to stop for gas, food, and bathroom breaks, which all may increase exposure during a pandemic, especially at peak travel times, such as the holiday season.
Then, decide how flexible your dates are. Pandemic or not, weekends are always more expensive than midweek or off-season stays. If it's peak season, and your schedule (or WFH setup) allows it, make it an entirely midweek trip. You might save hundreds by skipping the weekend completely and will encounter fewer crowds, too.
Identify the amenities or criteria most important in a stay first. Then, commit to a certain type of lodging.
Before you limit yourself to a specific platform, establish the type of stay you desire.
If you seek a standalone home with a private entrance, kitchen, and contactless check-in, you might be surprised to learn that many small hotels offer cottage-style residences where you won't brush shoulders with other guests. Plus, hotels won't charge arbitrary cleaning or service fees — though it's always possible there will be a resort fee.
If you know you want to stay in an actual home, narrow it down further and ask yourself: Is an apartment or mother-in-law unit acceptable or do you prefer a single-family house? Do you want to something exceedingly private or do you like chatting with your host?
You may 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 my 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.
Once you know where you want to stay and when, input that data into multiple sites. The search process doesn't have to feel overwhelming; our list below includes some of the most popular platforms, which we've broken down in detail.
And, as you'll see, the same home can sometimes be listed across websites with different prices and policies. A quick search can save money and also provide peace of mind about the home you ultimately book.
Confirm cleaning and cancellation policies, especially when booking far in advance.
When traveling in a pandemic, it's crucial to consider policies put in place by hosts and management companies related to cleaning and sanitization. Enhanced cleaning programs are often promoted but not required. Company-wide statements promise safety and cleanliness, but it is ultimately the host's choice to comply and to what degree.
Similarly, some hosts go the extra mile but may not include it in their description, and small, independent hotels might not promote new policies online if they don't have a strong web presence.
It's a good idea to reach out to the host, property manager, or owner to verify their policies and ask questions related to cleaning products, contactless services, social distancing, and how those procedures are enforced.
And don't forget to read the fine print. Cancellation policies are typically strict for vacation rentals, pandemic or not. Know that COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving situation and a place with low infection rates now could be a hotspot later. No matter what happens, the policy will likely stand.
Double-check for amenities, house rules, what's included — and what's not.
If you're not used to staying in a vacation rental, you may be surprised to see some hosts specify that guests must bring their own linens, pillows, towels, or cookware. Or, they might leave you with a laundry list of chores to tackle before check out.
My family once spent the last day of an otherwise relaxing vacation stripping all beds, cleaning the kitchen, and taking out bags of trash.
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.
We interviewed several doctors, cleaning experts, and travel industry pros to identify how to travel safely and steps you can take to mitigate risks.
This includes taking preventative measures such as running utensils and dishware through the dishwasher, laundering or bringing your own linens, and running a disinfecting wipe over all flat surfaces, phones, TV remotes, door handles, faucets, and toilet handles. If there hasn't been a significant period of time before the last guest or cleaning, open all the windows and air out the space for a few hours.
These are the best vacation rental sites to search when Airbnb is booked up. Vrbo 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. Vacasa 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. onefinestay 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, as well as untraditional hotels such as cottages, villas, and other standalone accommodations.
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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