Vacation rentals and amateur travel tips

Oct. 1, 2018 – for 'Senior Connections' publication
By Dale Kovar

First the disclaimer: this is not professional travel advice, but it is unpaid-for pure opinion from a relatively inexperienced traveler who would be willing to do much more if life’s circumstances would allow.

When the kids were young, we found the small resort scene to be plenty adequate for our needs. A few cabins with a beach and boat rentals, and we were pretty well set.

Later, we discovered Vacation Rentals By Owner (vrbo.com), which took our trips to a new level.

The main point is that you can often rent an entire house – some pretty nice ones! – for a price that’s often equal to or even less than a hotel.

So do you want 1,500-2,000 square feet, or 325 square feet?

In some vacation areas, a lake home rental may include use of a boat – sometimes for an extra charge, sometimes not.

Over the last 10 years or so, we’ve done a number of these rentals, and we’ve regularly been pleased.

Only once did we have an issue with a rental that had not passed a water certification test and the owner didn’t let us know until a couple days before. Fortunately, we found another one nearby that was available, and it probably was even better than what we originally planned.

Otherwise, the process has been very smooth.

Search the website for the area you want to visit, and play close attention to the details that matter to you – number of bedrooms, bathrooms, wifi, refund policy, etc. – whatever is important to your preferences.

When we book a place with an outhouse and no running water, the kids ask “You did that intentionally?” while smiling because they don’t have to go with.

Yes, we have, but we’ve also got some pretty plush places as well for less than a hotel cost.

Sometimes the host wants to meet you at the property to check you in, answer any questions, or give instructions how to do something. Others will give you an access code for the lock and you never see them. Some call after your arrival just to say hi and let you know they’re available should any problems arise. Occasionally, there’s even a basket of fruit or a baked cake awaiting on arrival.

VRBO has been our mainstay. HomeAway is a sister company but operates are separate website.

Airbnb is another major player. The difference seems to be that Airbnb also includes shared rentals – a room in someone’s house while it’s occupied, or even just a place to sleep – while VRBO focuses on space that is “yours” (temporarily).

The one time we used Airbnb it seemed to have a more elaborate screening process. I had to upload a photo ID, and both guests and hosts are encouraged to write reviews about each other so the next people will have a better idea who they’re dealing with.

For a quick one- or two-night trip, a hotel will suffice (that’s another story – see my amateur tips later in this article), but otherwise our main vacations now are all VRBOs.

We’ve had gorgeous mountain views, lake homes with a pontoon, a garage to park in, acres of woods to hike in, a rushing creek just a few feet outside the window, elaborate patios, etc.

One was so clean, we were afraid to touch anything. Another seemed so lived in it took a bit of getting used to.

The worst part is all vacations come to an end, and the only remedy is to start planning the next trip.

Amateur tips:

• First the hotel advice: if we are doing a hotel, I start with Trivago or one of the booking sites just to get an idea of what hotels exist where we’re going. Then I go to the hotel websites directly to compare, and in my limited experience, that seems the best.

My most recent error was getting sidetracked into a booking site (stay away from reservations.com!). What started out as a below market price offer got very expensive and was only disclosed after I clicked the non-refundable order. A $67 bill suddenly became $99 with a service charge plus a “taxes and fees” charge.

Of course, I could cancel the reservation, but would still have to pay for it. Only a complaint to the Better Business Bureau got me out of it but I still had to eat the service charge.

By the way, I even contacted the city and chamber of commerce in that area, and confirmed that the actual taxes were only about half of what reservations.com was charging for “taxes and fees.”

• Tip #2: if you’re traveling where you need to rent a car, I’ve found that it is well worth going through the work of searching each rental agency’s site – again dealing directly.

Enter your dates for the type of vehicle you want, and shop hard. The prices for the same thing vary dramatically, and it’s not always the same companies that are the cheapest. I attribute it to supply-and-demand. If cost matters, it’s worth the effort.

• Tip #3a for flying: if I’m checking a suitcase anyway, I now put everything possible in the checked bag and use only a small drawstring bag with the absolute essentials as a carry-on. I can put the drawstring on my back for walking through the airport, and there’s no wrestling with the overhead compartment on the plane.

Which leads to tip #3b: once you’re checking a bag, there’s no hurry to get off the plane – you’re going to end up waiting at baggage claim anyway, so why rush?

Other than the risk of lost luggage (which is really quite rare), there’s no point in trying to carry on half your stuff. Let the airline do the heavy lifting and enjoy the trip.

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