Home, condo rentals trim vacation costs

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Karen and Mike Conway, of Delmar, N.Y., love to travel with their two children, Ceili, 11, and Zephan, 7. But they don’t love paying rack rates for closet-sized hotel rooms.

So they reserve rental homes when visiting Florida, Arizona, Virginia and cities such as London or Cape Cod, Mass.

“We get more space and usually more amenities for our money,” Karen Conway says.

The Conways are among a select group of travelers who have found that for longer vacations, renting a house or condominium makes more economic sense than taking a hotel room.

For the price of a hotel stay, the Conways look for — and get — a full kitchen, two or more bedrooms, and one or two bathrooms. They also get amenities like decks, porches, board games, free Internet access and multiple TVs.

“If we’re staying more than a few nights, we always look for a rental,” Karen Conway says. “The economics work in our favor to rent rather than get a suite or two rooms at a hotel.”

6 steps to sweet deals on suites
  1. Research options.
  2. Go as a group.
  3. Be contrarian.
  4. Negotiate smartly.
  5. Ask about extras.
  6. Look for last-minute deals.

For example, having a kitchen can slash restaurant costs, which the AAA estimates at $80 per day for a vacationing couple.

With rentals, you’ll avoid the morning-after surcharges that plague many hotels bills — resort fees, phone-use fees, plus city and state taxes — that can add up to an additional 20 percent to your final tab.

Short-term rentals look even better in 2009 than in the past. While vacation rentals typically are not discounted, that has changed since last fall’s global economic meltdown, according to Pauline Kenny, co-founder of vacation rental comparison Web site Slow Travel and current editor of the Slow Europe Web site.

This year, 66 percent of vacation rental property owners are offering special deals, from reduced rates to pre-arrival grocery shopping services, according to a recent survey from HomeAway, a Web-based vacation rental site with listings in more than 100 countries.

“If you’re going to look for bargains, this is the year to do it,” Kenny says.

How do you find the deals and steals on vacation rentals? Here are some pointers:

1. Research options. Pick a general area and search for properties at that destination on owner-rental Web sites like Vacation Rental by Owner, Craigslist and local rental agencies like Italy Perfect.

Through a range of sources, get a better understanding of quality and pricing, so you can spy a bargain more easily.

“There is a vacation home for every budget, from $200 per week to $300,000 per week,” says Victor Wang, spokesman for Homeaway.com.

For example, vacation renters in Orlando, Fla., could stay in anything from a three-bedroom condo (which sleeps eight) for as little as $53 per night to a seven-bedroom estate (which sleeps 22) for $25,000 per night.

2. Go as a group. The cost of a rental becomes outrageously economical when divided with other travelers.

“Rentals are great if you have another family because you get a larger space for less,” says Michelle Duffy, co-author of “Wanderlust and Lipstick: Traveling with Kids” and a frequent vacation-home renter.

Seattle-based mom Cory Peterson, her husband and 17-month-old son slept in a condo with friends in Hawaii.

“We stayed in an amazing two-bedroom house with its own tidal pool, steps to the waterfront, boogie boards and sand toys for $125 per night,” she says.

The bill was split between two families — around $65 per night.

3. Be contrarian. Sometimes, it helps to move in the opposite direction of the crowd. For example, during summer, head to still-pleasant ski resorts and to tropical destinations.

“You’ll find a better property if you’re flexible,” Duffy says.

Duffy took her family to Lake Chapala, located in Mexico’s interior, in the dead of summer. She found a fully furnished, two-bedroom property in a gated community with a pool for a mere $200 per week.

“It was really hot, but much cheaper,” Duffy says. “The kids were very happy in the pool every day.”

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 pitfalls

There 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.