4. Negotiate smart. Don't be afraid to ask for discounts. If you're staying for a week or longer, you may be entitled to a reduced rate -- the owner doesn't have to hassle with cleaning and re-renting twice in a week. The longer the stay, the bigger the reduction.
Do your price research, so you'll know when to ask for a discount. For example, Duffy says seeing properties listed at 25 percent off in Florida is a sure signal to ask about special pricing for other comparable properties.
It's also important to know when you can't negotiate down. At Christmas, spring break and other peak times, you'll probably need to book at least six months in advance and pay top rates. However, these rates may still be less than the cost of a hotel.
5. Ask about extras. Some condo properties in Hawaii are offering grocery coupons or dining deals as a booking incentive. Other rentals may allow you to bring pets for a small damage deposit. The Conways save on kennel fees by booking properties where pets are welcome.
Some rentals come with washer and dryer, so you can bring fewer clothes and skip those outrageous luggage fees charged by airlines.
6. Look for last-minute deals. Booking a few weeks to a month in advance is eleventh-hour planning in the vacation rental world. Look for nearby destination cities, resorts or rural getaways, and jump at summer specials.
Duffy stayed in the Canadian resort town of Whistler, British Columbia, (a five-hour drive from her home and an Olympics 2010 destination) this year for less than $100 a night by staying tuned into deals on Alluradirect.com and staying flexible on her dates.
Potential pitfallsThere are a few potential negatives to vacation rentals. For example, most rental owners expect you to pay 25 percent to 50 percent of your rental fee as a deposit upfront, with the rest due shortly before or upon arrival.
While U.S. rentals often allow you to reserve and pay by check, international rentals rarely do. To reserve a rental, most owners require payment by credit card, PayPal or bank wire in the local currency. This may involve additional fees and charges.
Also, unlike hotel rooms, you can't make a rental reservation only to cancel much later and expect a refund.
"There's no changing your mind at the last minute," Kenny says.
In addition, Duffy acknowledges the hard work that is necessary before vacation renters can save.
"It's more difficult to find a property when looking for owner-direct rentals rather than just booking a hotel room," she says.
Still, the cost savings make up for the headaches, Duffy says.
"I've found that the additional effort is truly worthwhile," she says.
Besides the cost savings, a rental's neighborhood appeal can give vacationers a priceless glimpse of authentic everyday life, as the Conway family found out when visiting London.
"We watched the World Cup with a bunch of sobbing Brits," Conway says. "We had to explain to the kids why all these grown men were falling apart over their pints."
Let's face it -- everyone worries they'll fork over funds for a rental only to find upon arrival that they've just booked the equivalent of some guy's basement.
You don't need a spy satellite to figure out whether you're getting a deal or a dud, just a bit of savvy:
Trust, but verify
- Look for photos, and judge them critically, says Michelle Duffy, co-author of "Wanderlust and Lipstick: Traveling with Kids." She says to beware of "odd angles and 'missing' pieces, such as a photo provided of just the main bedroom but none of the second bedrooms."
- Use a detailed map to identify and compare landmarks, housing and transportation routes.
- Confirm specifications and amenities with the owner, preferably by phone. "It seems that people are less likely to lie if they're speaking to you rather than just sending you (an) e-mail," Duffy says. Ask to speak to a satisfied customer.