Your best bet is to compare rates, amenities, views and conditions before entering into a rental agreement. Keep in mind that certain sites are simply a forum for owners to list their properties, while other sites serve as rental agents and take a more active role in the process. You may pay slightly more when booking through an agent site, but they may also be more willing to step in if something goes wrong with your rental.
While there are many worldwide sites for vacation rentals, don’t forget about smaller sites that offer rentals specific to your destination; often you’ll find properties listed there that you wouldn’t find on the bigger sites. Local real estate offices can also be a great resource, especially if you live within driving distance of your destination and would like to tour properties in person with a real estate agent. Keep in mind, however, that the agent’s commission may inflate the price of your rental, and you’ll probably be giving up your chance to bargain with the property owner directly.
It’s important to understand how sites display search results. TripAdvisor, for example, rewards hosts for good behavior (fast response rates, new photos, up-to-date calendars) by giving them greater visibility. On Airbnb, look for listings with good and significant number of reviews, a “verified photos” caption (which means the site photographed the property) or a Superhost badge, achieved after hitting various milestones like completing at least 10 stays and receiving 80 percent five-star reviews.
Seeing what past guests have to say can provide invaluable insights into what you are (and are not) getting. When possible, book on sites that authenticate reviews—allowing only people who have actually stayed at the property to write in. Both Airbnb and TripAdvisor do this. And know the signs of fraud: if there is an unrealistic number of overly gushing reviews, beware. In fact, a proper mix of positive and negative reviews will give you an indication of the genuineness of the reviews.
When using Airbnb and other rent-by-owner sites, it helps to share a little about yourself (where you’re from, what type of traveler you are) on your profile or in the request to book. Remember: hosts are appraising you as much as you are them. (On Airbnb, instant booking is available only to renters with robust profiles and solid reviews from hosts.) If you have lingering questions for the owner or manager, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone.
Photos: Quantity and quality matter—the more professional looking the pictures, the more serious the host.
Reviews: The best ones reconfirm details and amenities you’ve read about in the listing.
Updated calendars: To avoid inquiring about a property that’s not actually available, always look to see when the host has last refreshed the calendar.
Response time: Hosts typically have 24 hours to respond to a booking request. (Factor this into your planning time-line.) Many sites actually display each host’s average response time—so you can get a sense of when (or if) to expect an answer.
Miscellaneous things: Need to bring Fido? Make sure pets are allowed. Have small children? Ask about facilities for children baby gates for the stairs. Vacationing with an older family member who isn’t very mobile? Try to find a property without many steps. Plan on having cookouts? Ask if the kitchen or barbecue facility is available.