How to Choose a Safe Vacation Rental

I left hotels behind years ago, and since then, I’ve stayed in castles, houseboats, and ancient guard towers. I’ve stayed at dude ranches, on top of mountains, on private beaches, and in the shadow of ancient cathedrals and even older Roman bridges. For me, where I stay on vacation is just as important as what I do. When I visit Oregon, I don’t want to stay in a hotel room that looks like the same hotel rooms in Missouri; I want to stay in a cabin with breathtaking views of the Columbia Gorge.

The view from our Airbnb in Spain 

Understandably, COVID has people flocking to book places that are away from others. There is a definite risk with booking a home and not a big company that is more easily held accountable. For us, the reward with vacation rentals outweighs the risks. BUT you do have to be smart when booking, and I am here to help with that!

Vacation Rental Search Tips

    1. Know EXACTLY how much a place will cost. Airbnb and VRBO both give the “base price” when searching, but this will go up (a lot) with fees and taxes. For an accurate price, search with accurate dates and number of guests.

      Dude Ranch Airbnb in New Mexico
    2. Specify the number of people staying in the home with you, including children and babies. Don’t list children/babies as adults because some homes are not recommended for children.
    3. Specify the number of bedrooms you need and know that “beds” and “bedrooms” are not the same. A bed can be a bed, a cot, a pull-out couch, etc. Check the listing’s descriptions to see exactly what type of bed is in each room. 
    4. Utilize the filters tool to specify your needs and wants. House? Self check-in? Washer/Dryer? Wi-Fi? Pool? Pets allowed? Beachfront? Free parking? Whole home? Shared space? 
    5. Search on both Airbnb and VRBO. 

Vacation Rental Listing Red Flags

    1. Reviews average below 4.4/5 stars.
    2. No recent reviews (this one is tricky given COVID halted travel).
    3. Few reviews after years on the website.
    4. An incomplete listing lacking basic details.
    5. Frequent complaints about cleanliness, safety, or smell.
    6. Bad pictures. I don’t mean bad photography. Some gems have poorly taken pictures. A good listing should have a picture of every room, including bathrooms. You can Google Image search the listing’s pictures. Did you know you can submit a picture to a Google search and find out if it’s elsewhere on the internet? This is a good way to find out if a listing is using stock photos or is a scam.

Safety Tips for Booking Vacation Rentals

    1. Book places with reviews if possible and read all of them, not just the most recent ones. Search for the listing on other websites to see if there are different reviews. I’ve been saved from booking bad places because even though the reviews on Airbnb were good, the reviews on another site were not.
    2. Never exchange money outside of the official website/provider (no cash, Venmo, etc).
    3. Always check out the host’s profile. Talk to the host through the app (not via text or email) to keep a record of the conversations. Google the host. Are they a real person? Or, Google the rental company — are they legit? Do they have a real phone number? An address you can see on Google street view? Does the company have active social media accounts? 
    4. Use Google Maps to search the listing area for safety.
    5. Contact the provider directly if something seems fishy.
    6. CYA. Cover your… booty (see details in the last section!).
    7. Trust your gut.

      Artist’s Loft in an Italian castle

Tips to Save Money on Your Vacation Rental

    1. Book early, months in advance if you can. 
    2. See if the same listing is cheaper on other websites.  I typically save $300 a booking by doing this. Hosts often cross-post their listings, meaning their same property is available for booking on multiple websites (most commonly on both Airbnb and VRBO). I also book directly through the management company’s website if available. Finding the alternate listings is as easy as Google searching the first paragraph in the listing description. I’ve actually made a TikTok video expanding on this idea.
    3. Book a newly listed space without reviews yet. I know this goes against my previous advice. But if you want an amazing space for cheap, grabbing it when it is new, and the hosts are trying to gather reviews, is not a bad method. When I do this, even after booking, I go back and check the listing reviews every few weeks to see what other guests are saying. 
    4. Don’t box yourself in with search parameters. I’ve booked places listed as a “shared space” when really it was totally private basement with a separate entrance. 

CYA (Cover Your… Booty)

I’m sure we’ve all heard the horror stories about Airbnb hosts who falsely claim their guest broke something, stole something, or left the place a mess and therefore charged the guest $$$. It never hurts to play offense and CYA so that this nightmare can’t happen.

    1. Read the host’s rules before you book. They will be visible on the listing pre-booking. Most include the usual: no parties, no smoking, no pets, etc. But occasionally, I’ve run into more specific rules like no sleeping on the couch, no shoes on inside, no outside lights on after 8 p.m. etc. Read the rules, know what you’re signing up for, and follow them.
    2. Immediately report any issues/broken items upon arrival. Just the same as you would do with a rental vehicle or a hotel room. Use your camera to document any issues to prove it was broken before your arrival.
    3. Upon leaving, document the space the way you left it. Take a video or photos of the home the way you left it. That way, they can’t claim you broke something or charge you a cleaning fee for a mess.

I know. All of this might seem like a lot, but truthfully, 99% of the time, you’ll end up in a good place. Enjoy your vacation and the freedom from other people a home rental offers!

Kelsey was born and raised in Branson, Mo. It was there, in the town that boasts the “World’s Largest Banjo” that she met her husband, Samuel. It was his first day at a new high school and she was the only person to say “Hi” to him that day, so he married her! A decade later and now they take up residence in KC-adjacent-Suburbia, but tell out-of-state people they are from “Kansas City” because it is way easier. Kelsey taught high school English for 6 years, but now she stays home to hang out with her adorable toddler, Theodore. Her passions include traveling (34 countries and counting!), playing board games, writing murder mystery parties, reading, and talking to as many people as possible.

1 COMMENT

  1. Loved your article Kelsey. I’ve been traveling a long time but you have given me some amazing tips. Thank you!

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