In 1995, I demanded a refund after discovering roaches, rusting pans, and broken down furniture in my first vacation rental. A few years later, the memory had faded and I tried again. While the French apartment I found on a fledgling rental website was far from perfect, it was infinitely better. That minor victory set me on a 20-year path of exploring the world with the goal of living like a local. For those who are willing to spend time searching through property listings with an open mind and a critical eye, Airbnb, VRBO, and many other excellent websites can help you find a suitable base for your next adventure. My evolving checklist began the day I fled that first apartment. I hope it provides useful vacation rental tips so you can avoid the traps I’ve stumbled into along the way.
If every room in the house is not clearly photographed, walk away. Artsy shots of vases or local sights are nice but no substitution for images that show rooms and furniture. Is the bathroom missing from the slideshow? There’s probably a reason. Landlords who won’t spend time adequately presenting their rental may not spend time taking care of the property.
Photos can tell you a lot: Is there enough seating? Are rooms cluttered with knick-knacks or overcrowded with furniture? Are there drawers or only hanging space for clothing? Think about details you’re not used to living with. Footers on beds, for example, can feel confining for tall guests.
Know what you care about and ask if you’re unsure. A washer/dryer are requirements for me but electric dryers aren’t common around the world. You may arrive to find that your dryer is actually a clothesline. The handheld shower nozzle in a bathtub with no curtain or glass wall results in a wet floor and chilly bathing experience. Like to cook? Kitchen knives are often dull (I bring a knife sharpener), and pots and pans are limited. When traveling in winter, ask if and how the property is heated. Thick stone walls in sunny climates stay cool in summer, but radiate cold in winter. They are impossible to warm up without a substantial heat source.
I work when I travel so I need fast Internet. A slow connection can make remote database work and Skype calls impossible. If you’re concerned, ask the landlord to do a Google speed test. Renting for a month or longer? Landlords will often agree to upgrade their Internet and cable service. If some reviews say the Internet is fine and others hint that it’s frustrating, dig deeper. An influx of tourists in high season means you’ll compete for overtaxed bandwidth. Rentals rarely include a landline. If you plan on using your own phone, make sure there’s signal.
Renters don’t like to be too harsh in their criticism. Learn to read between the lines.
A “simple, rustic cabin” I stayed in had splintery wooden walls, thin blankets, and a rusty cast iron stove. “Cozy” can also mean cramped. “Historic” will be old, but it also could be tired. Study the photos.
“Noisy at times?” Bring earplugs. Even pleasant sounds can interrupt sleep—cathedral bells, a mosque’s calls to prayer, roosters, and cicadas are good examples.
“Limited storage space.” Often code for there’s a lot of stuff you’ll have to work around.
“Bring a sweater for hanging out.” This house won’t have enough heat, guaranteed.
Cleaning and parking fees are usually the renter’s responsibility, but some properties include utilities and some don’t. Ask what you can expect to pay if you’re required to settle up at the end of the trip. One rainy fall, I rented a Tuscan villa for twelve people. No amount of heat could keep it warm, and the electricity we used for that huge space turned out to be wildly expensive.
Without a concierge, you’ll be on your own when it comes to sorting out transportation. I often start planning by thinking about the end of the trip—will I be able to find a taxi when I need to leave at 3 a.m. for the airport in a country where I can’t speak the language? If you rent a car, where will you park? What size car will you rent? Some parking garages are so packed, a compact vehicle requires a 10-point turn to get into a space.
Is there a grocery store close by? What about the sights you want to see? If health is a concern, are you close to a medical facility? Are you on top of a steep hill that you’ll dread walking after sightseeing all day?
If you’re going to a high-crime area, consider renting an apartment several floors up as a measure of protection. In South Africa, thieves climbed onto our second floor balcony and stole our furniture.
As expected, a well located, nicely appointed property generally costs more. If the price seems too good to be true, investigate why. Most often there are hidden problems like an out-of-the-way location. Sometimes, though, you can find newly posted apartments for a song. The landlord’s below-market price is designed to quickly build up rental traffic and positive reviews.
Longer trips can equal incredible value. Landlords often post discounts for multiweek visits but if you’re planning to stay for a while, try negotiating a better deal. Longer rentals are easy for landlords and guarantee income for a period of time. Do the math. Sometimes paying for an extra day or two, even if you won’t be there, can trigger a reduced rate. Off-season travel and last-minute travel are good reasons to negotiate, too.
You’ll find that some properties are strictly used for rental while others are someone’s home. That means they move out when a renter moves in. A lived-in home can be fine if you’re comfortable dealing with someone’s personal possessions. Sometimes, though, it can be a lot of work—kitchen cabinets packed with food, drawers full of clothes, tables stacked with trinkets and mementos. If you choose this direction, make sure you won’t have to shove the landlord’s clothes over in order to fit yours in the closet.
Think about the time and date you’re arriving. In some countries, major holidays like New Year’s Day can practically shut down a city. Ask your landlord to stock a few essential food items (an extra charge) or pack what you need to get you through the closure.
Some landlords own multiple properties in the same building. When searching, you’ll begin to see the same landlord pop up on listings and numerous apartments will look identical. Sometimes these are representative photos and not necessarily images from the apartment you think you’re renting. Clarify if you’ll be living in the exact apartment you’re seeing online. Usually the rentals are similar but features such as washer/dryer, views, and furniture may differ.
What if you arrive and things don’t pan out exactly as planned? Sometimes you just have to make the best of a situation. Twice now my Internet service hasn’t worked after reviews and the property description indicated it would be fine. I ended up working in Costa Rican cafes and Hungarian Burger Kings and pubs. While not ideal, I think back fondly on these adventures and the people I met.
Even if these vacation rental tips don’t address everything you might face, remember, travel is about more than seeing the sights; it’s also about experiencing how other people live their daily lives. Renting allows you to easily drop into someone else’s world. Don’t be shy about inviting the neighbors over or getting to know the landlords. What better way to learn something new about your temporary home?
Now, be sure to take along those travel essentials every prime woman needs on that next trip!