For the past 8 years, I have owned and rented out a property in the Branson, MO area. As sort of an insider, I have seen ways that “in the know” folks can save on their vacation rental stays.
When I say ‘vacation rental’ I am talking about renting a condo, house or cabin directly from the owner or from the owner’s property manager.
As more and more folks come to appreciate the value and comfort that vacation rentals provide, the competition for online places for owners to advertise their properties has come to the attention of the big guys. When the concept first started, many smaller web sites existed to help facilitate putting owners and vacationers together to make a deal to rent properties. In the past few years, many of them (like the airlines) have been gobbled up by a few of the big players.
Where vacation rental owners advertise.
Today, most sites are controlled by 3 major companies:
- Expedia – which recently purchased Home Away (Home Away, Vacation Rental by Owner – VRBO, Vacation Rentals.com, Homelidays, OwnersDirect, plus other non North American sites),
- Trip Advisor (Vacation Rentals, FlipKey and HolidayLettings) and
Consolidation of sites is causing fees to rise.
As the sites gain more and more of the owner listings, they have all started to tighten their rules for both owner and traveler – to get the most revenue from both parties. For instance, VRBO (where I list my property) is currently in the process of removing several pricing options for owners. These options supported owners who paid more getting better online placement in VRBO search results.
Now they are going with a single pricing option (more expensive than their old basic level, less expensive than other prior options). Placement will now be determined by how actively the owner supports VRBO’s new policies. The new policies include things such as whether or not you allow online booking (vacationer books directly with VRBO instead of communicating with the owner or manager); ‘metrics’ such as number of bookings to inquiry ratio (and the only bookings counted are the ones booked directly with VRBO); how fast you communicate (through VRBO) back to the owner when communications are allowed. In addition, they are taking steps to seeminly remove the property owner/manager even further from the interaction – making the renters customers of VRBO and not the property owner. These tactics have raised a storm of contention on the VRBO owner community forums and in other places such as this post by Ski Silverthorne.
On the renter side, new fees have been initiated by and are paid directly to VRBO – approximately 3% of the charges for the property rental. These fees are in addition to the owners rental, cleaning, deposits and the governments sales taxes and can easily had hundreds of dollars to the cost of a stay.
It isn’t just VRBO that has these policies. Every one of the major rental sites seem to have the same or similar requirements for owners and renters: force (or strongly encourage) owners to let go of their customer relationships; charge more for owners and charge more for renters.
How to save when booking a vacation rental.
Here are my ‘insider’ strategies on things you might do to shave the cost of vacation rentals. Before we dive in, however, be aware that even without using any of these strategies, a vacation rental can be much more economical for your stay than traditional hotels or resorts – especially if you have a group of folks staying together. Not only will you typically save on the rent, but you also don’t pay for extra people (in most places) and the properties come with kitchens, grills and sometimes even supplies that allow you to save money on meals. Most often they also come with on site amenities typically included in the price of the rent – such as swimming pools, playgrounds, access to beaches and etc.
I won’t be mentioning other cost saving strategies, such as going in off season, staying a distance from popular attractions, etc. as they would apply to any type of accomodation.
Strategy 1 search multiple sites.
Although the big three own most of the vacation rental sites, different properties are listed on each of their owned sites – so a property listed on HomeAway might not show up when you search VRBO for instance. So once you figure out where you want to vacation, start looking at all of the sites.
Competition between properties on the various sites can be different, causing owners to price their rentals differently. For instance, an owner advertising on FlipKey might find that there are multiple similar properties in their area being offered on FlipKey, causing the owner to lower rental rates; whereas a similar property advertised on Trip Advisor’s Vacation Rentals might not have that same level of competition, encouraging the owner to price their rental higher.
Strategy 2 – look for properties where owner controls rates and all fees.
Some of the sites still allow the owners to do their own bookings directly with the renter. For those properties, you won’t have to use the site’s online booking and will get to avoid the extra ‘service’ fee imposed by the site. Owners may absorb credit card charges they incur by using credit card processors or services by Paypal, or you and the owner may cut out all of the fee-eating middlemen by paying/accepting checks instead of credit cards.
On VRBO to find those properties, filter your search criteria, then look for listings without the BOOK NOW yellow button. Hint, they will no doubt be at the very bottom of the search results.
Strategy 3 – look for properties with open calendars.
Individual property owners are well aware of the fact that non rental days are lost opportunities. Better to get some money than none for that open date. Properties with open calendars are ripe for discount negations, but see the next strategy!
Strategy 4 – read the reviews!
There may be a reason that property has a wide open calendar. Read the reviews posted to see what others have said. Look carefully at the information provided online and ask lots of questions of the owner/manager – noting how well they respond; what contracts they want you to sign and etc.
Strategy 5 – look for hidden gems.
These include things such as lower cleaning fees, no booking fees, new listings, owner managed properties (as opposed to resort managed).
Don’t forget to look for savings on things besides the actual rent. There is wide discrepancy on what owners charge to clean the property after your stay; some owners will charge a fee to cover credit card use (or give a discount for checks). Owner managed properties allow direct negotiation with the owner – allowing you to request discounts or perks and having a better chance to get them than with a property managed by someone other than the owner. New listings also can be a bargain, especially if they are listed right before or during the high season. The owner may be anxious to get the place rented out.
Strategy 6 – verify inclusion/exclusion of extra amenities.
Sometimes people charge for things like a boat slip, parking, pantry supplies, beach toys, rental car or boat discounts etc.
Instead of a discount, some properties may provide extra amenities. Some may come at an extra charge, but others may include them without additional fees. I’ve seen some lake properties, for example, that include use of snorkeling equipment, water toys, and even kayaks with the rent. If a listing mentions extras, make sure they are included without charge.
Strategy 7 – don’t book more than you need.
Smaller properties tend to rent for less than larger ones. Look for what you need and compare prices on that to places that seem more luxurious and spacious.
Most sites allow you to filter results to zero in on what you need/want in a vacation rental. You can typically filter for number of beds, baths and people. If you put in your dates, the sites are only going to show you properties that allow bookings (and are open) for that number of days. If you wanted to rent for 3 nights, but your perfect rental restricts to 4, you won’t even see it – unless you search first without dates. Often the owner will allow divergences from their stated number of days if you ask.
Be aware that if you filter, you are eliminating some properties. If you search without a filter for number of bedrooms, maybe you found the perfect place for your 2 couple get together, but it has 3 bedrooms and you only need 2. In that case, ask the owner if they will lower the rate. I know one manager that locks off one of the bedrooms and rents the place as a 2 bedroom at a lower rate.
Strategy 8 – ask for discounts, more days, advice, later check out, earlier check in.
Most properties have rules about what time you can check in and must check out. Usually those are in place to allow a cleaning crew to get in and prep the property for the next renter. Sometimes, especially in off seasons, no one is there either before or after you. In those cases, the owner may be amenable to loosening the check in/check out time rules for you – giving you more time for the same money.
It never hurts to try for a discount – but do it nicely without disrespecting the owner. If the owner thinks you are a cheapskate, they may be reluctant to rent their precious property to you at all!
I personally have offered discounts to my renters if there is a single day open on either side of their rental. I am unlikely to rent that one night to someone else. It is a case of ‘better some money than none’. If you see that situation, ask!
Free advice from a local can also be valuable. These owners typically either live in the area or visit it often. They may know where to find deals, the best food, the fastest way to get somewhere and etc.
Strategy 9 – honor the rules/instructions.
Many owners charge a damage deposit – typically several hundred dollars to hold as security against any damage caused by renters.
Honor the owner’s rules and instructions to insure that you get your damage deposit back!
When do you choose vacation rental properties over hotel rooms?
Reviews are so important! I’ve ended up picking a place that cost a little more, but definitely ended up paying for itself in the long run because of proximity to landmarks and hot spots that I’ve wanted to visit. You also save money on gas and possibly even needing to rent a car when you are parked nearby the spots you want to visit.
Learning how to read reviews is key too. So many fakes out there!