Pros, Cons, and Tips to Booking Rental Homes

It seems everyone is using Airbnb these days. If you have been wondering whether or not this type of travel will work for you and your family, I’ve pulled together the pros and cons, as well as some tips to guide your search.

View from our Airbnb home rental in Barcelona, Spain

View from our home rental in Barcelona, Spain

Pros:

YOU HAVE SPACE
Sleeping five to a room just isn’t that fun most of the time (if the hotel will even let you do it!). Having enough space means no more whispering in the dark after the kids have fallen asleep, or having all of you awake at 5am when your three-year-old decides he’s slept enough. Having beds for everyone, more than one bathroom (especially if someone gets sick, because, you know, they do), and a living room is pretty sweet. Having a kitchen can also be a huge time and sanity saver, especially on a long trip. As much as kids like to eat out, it can get old quickly, and you might be grateful for the ability to pour everyone some cereal in the mornings.

THE RENTAL CAN BECOME THE VACATION
If you’re traveling to a major city or resort area, you just need a place to crash, but sometimes you can find a rental can be the vacation. For two years running, our family rented a beautiful home, called The River House, which was only an hour where we live. Built in the 20’s, with 6 bedrooms and a lot of rustic charm, the house was perched on a bluff overlooking an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay. With a shuffleboard court, a beach, a dock, canoes and kayaks, and a rope swing into the river, we were in heaven. The kids were outside from the moment they woke up until we pried them off the hammocks at night and rolled them into bed. We shared the home with two or three other families, and it was one of the most cost effective and relaxing vacations we’ve ever taken.

YOU CAN LIVE LIKE A LOCAL
For some, this might fall into the “con” category, but our family really values this aspect of home rentals. Most hotels are situated in tourist areas, which give you easy access to the most popular spots, but often no real sense of what the area is actually like. Renting a home or apartment in a residential neighborhood gives your children a peek into what living there would actually be like. You’ll get to know the local bakers, play in neighborhood playgrounds, and see a side of your destination you surely would have missed otherwise. A good host will provide you with a local guide to help you find what you need.

IT’S AFFORDABLE
Like hotels, there’s a huge range when you’re looking to rent a home. And like hotels, you usually get what you pay for. But as a rule, you always get significantly more space renting a home vs. a hotel room. In one rental in Los Angeles, we ended up with a pool, a trampoline, and three bedrooms for the same price as two hotel rooms. The downside was that the kids never wanted to leave the house! Once we did, everyone had a great time.

THERE’S A WASHER AND DRYER
Enough said.

Cons:

IT’S MORE WORK
All the way around – from finding the perfect rental, communicating with the owner, to the actual stay, it’s more work. While the extra space can be a blessing, you’re in someone else’s home, and it can be nerve wracking trying to keep your kids from breaking everything in sight. Unlike a hotel room, you can’t just run out the door when you leave. Most hosts expect you to leave the property picked up and in good shape when you check out – and they can withhold part of your security deposit if you don’t. Upon arrival you may find you need to lay in supplies quickly (some places don’t even provide toilet paper or soap!), so plan accordingly and and ask for details ahead of time.

THERE’S GREATER ROOM FOR ERROR
When you book a hotel, there’s more accountability. If the AC doesn’t work, if there’s a leak, if you’re locked out, you can get help from the desk. We booked a home a few years ago (which we loved!), and the host instructed us to text her when we landed. After our six hour flight, with three sleepy children, we texted her and got no response. And then we called, and got no response. There had been a miscommunication, and she thought we were arriving several hours later. We managed to stall, and go to the grocery store, and get some ice cream, and hit a playground, and she did finally call. But it made me think that you probably want to have a good backup plan and make sure you feel comfortable with your communication with the host (see TIPS). A friend just got back from Paris, where they had to abandon their Airbnb rental after the first night. It turned out that their idea of AC was quite different than their hosts, and there was a heat wave going on.

THERE’S LESS HELP
If you’re staying in a hotel, there’s usually someone around 24/7 to help out. Everything from finding a good place for pizza to finding a pediatrician to help with an ear infection so that you don’t have to brave the ER in a new city – hotels are equipped to assist you. On a recent trip to Japan, we went back and forth on where to stay, but in the end decided that we would like to have some help navigating when we were so far from home.

Tips:

LOOK FOR REVIEWS
I’m sure there are lots of great properties without multiple reviews, but I like to read reviews before I go. I also love it when I see “Owner responses”, because it lets me know that the owner is paying attention.

COMMUNICATE. COMMUNICATE. COMMUNICATE.
I can’t stress this enough. If it takes someone three days to get back to you, how long will it take them to respond when the electricity goes out in the apartment and you’re calling to find out where the fuse box is? Ask questions, get a sense of what they are like.

THINK ABOUT WHAT’S IMPORTANT TO YOU
If you can’t sleep without air conditioning, ask about it. One place we rented had AC listed as a “yes” in the description, but it turned out to be a “no”. Luckily, it was cool during our whole stay, but I would have been pretty mad if we’d needed it. Is WIFI crucial to you? Ask about reliability.

USE GOOGLE STREET VIEW
I like to get the address of a place and check it out on Google street view. Hey! Look! There’s a biker bar next door!

IS IT SOMEONE’S HOME?
You might be renting someone’s home, and they might clear out and go stay with their girlfriend, or you might be renting something that’s set up to be a vacation property. You can usually tell from the photos, but you can also ask. I usually don’t like staying in people’s primary residence. Their clothes are in the drawers, their food is in the fridge, their soap is in the shower. It’s a little too close for comfort, though we’ve done it and had fine experiences with it. Think about your preference.

LOOK BEYOND AIRBNB
Airbnb is relatively new to the game, and we’ve been using HomeAway and VRBO for years. TripAdvisor owns FlipKey. There are also specialty sites, which often come with more concierge services. Sometimes they are specific to an area (Paris Perfect, At Home In Chicago, One Fine Stay), and there is at least one that’s geared toward family friendly rentals (Kid &Coe).

MAKE SURE YOU’RE RENTING THE WHOLE PLACE IF THAT’S WHAT YOU WANT
On AirBnb you have the option of renting a room, or renting the whole place. Make sure that you search accordingly. I have at least one friend who got a big surprise when they learned that one of the bedrooms in their beach house was occupied by the owners grown son. They found alternate accommodations pretty quickly.

ASK AROUND
Use social media to put the word out if you’re traveling somewhere. We’ve been lucky enough to have rented places all over the world, some hits and some misses. The hits have been passed along to friends quickly, and we are always grateful to hear reviews from people we know and trust.

ASK FOR A DISCOUNT
It never hurts to ask – especially at the last minute and especially with a longer stay. Many hosts pick a competitive rate, and hope for the best, but many of them would rather get some money than no money. Be nice, and just let them know that you have a budget for your travels, but love their property and thought you’d check to see if they would be willing to accept your price. One rental we stayed in for two weeks cut their rate in half, and I would have never known unless I asked!

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Santa Monica Pier, California

Whether you’re traveling an hour from home or around the world, home rentals are a great option for traveling families. Here are some links to some homes we’ve rented and loved.

Wintergreen House — Central Virginia, USA (listed on HomeAway)
Loft with Old World Charm — Barcelona, Spain (listed on VRBO)
Hollywood Hills Cottage — Los Angeles, California (listed on Airbnb)
Ile St Louis–180° — Paris, France (listed on HomeAway)

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