First and foremost, renting a vacation home gives a traveler more space and the added benefit of free parking in the garage or driveway as well as the option to fix at least some meals in the home and save on dining out. Most importantly, a vacation rental nearly always costs a lot less than staying at a hotel and you get to live like a local.
As a result, a number of well-established vacation home rental sites have sprung up over the years – allowing vacation home owners and potential renters to connect, chat about the property, and exchange payment.
It’s important for vacation home renters to rent only from trustworthy sources, i.e., those with a good reputation, a long presence online, and lots of good feedback. It’s also critical that you never wire cash for your payment – this is a well-known and well-documented scam. Only use a credit card to pay for your rental because it gives you the most protection. Be sure to read the reviews about a vacation property before you book it too. In some cases, you’ll find a terrific set of photos and a great description for a home right where you want to be, but the reviews will tell you if other renters have had a bad experience.
The following are the most critical questions to ask before booking your vacation rental.
1. What is the cancellation policy and where can I read it?
Any vacation can be affected by sudden and unexpected situations: a death in the family, a hurricane, work demands, a sudden illness, and more. The cancellation policy defines the terms should you or the property owner have to cancel the vacation rental. Understanding the vacation rental’s cancellation policy gives you the information you need to determine whether it’s necessary to have trip cancellation insurance.
Tip: If you’re concerned about having to cancel the rental for a reason that’s not included in the rental contract or in your trip cancellation plan, get ‘cancel for any reason’. It’s an inexpensive way to be sure you’ll get your money back if something unexpected happens (like the bridges to the island wash out and you can’t get to your rental).
2. Who is my emergency contact if something breaks?
Stuff happens all the time at your home, right? The toilet won’t flush, the power goes out, the dishwasher stops working. When something breaks or stops working in your vacation rental, however, you’ll want to know who to call and how soon it can get fixed.
Tip: Store that emergency contact as well as the property owner’s contact in your phone so you have it at your fingertips if you need it. It’s also useful if you suddenly realize you’ll be arriving late, for example, and you won’t have to dig to find the number.
3. What supplies are not included with the vacation rental?
Every rental property is different. In some cases you’ll need to bring your own bed linens, for example, and in others everything is provided. Arriving with a family of seven to find a single roll of toilet paper and no soap or shampoo can be a problem, so ask what’s included and know what you need to bring with you.
Tip: If you’ll be arriving late and know that you’ll need to have some supplies like cereal, shampoo, and pet food, for example, sidestep the problem by putting together a box of items you know you’ll need and shipping it to the property in time for your arrival. Inform your host so they know to put the box in the kitchen and you’re set!
4. What are the total fees related to this rental?
While the cost of the rental is one thing, many agreements include additional fees like cleaning fees, security deposits, and even maintenance fees. If you’ll be securing the property with a deposit, review the rental agreement so you know how it will be returned to you and in what time frame.
Tip: Asking the property owner for a filled out rental agreement is a great way to ensure that you understand all the costs related to a particular vacation home. You’ll want to review the rental agreement before finally committing anyway, so you’ll accomplish two things at once.
5. Where exactly is the property?
Many online vacation rental sites are now linking the property address to services like Google maps that ensure you can see the property’s exact location, but these steps are in response to years of owners exaggerating how close the property is to the ski lift, the center of town, or the beach. It can be disappointing to arrive and find out that the home you thought was in a quiet neighborhood is actually right next to a train track.
Tip: Get the exact address of the property and use Google Earth to view the property itself. You’ll get a much better idea of the layout of the lot and surrounding area, the distance to the beach, and whether the property is right next to a busy highway (you won’t see that in any pictures of the property!).
6. Does the property typically get good cell reception?
This may not sound important if you’re trying to get away from it all – and that’s great – until you have a medical emergency and need help. If you’re traveling in an unfamiliar area and experience a medical emergency, you won’t know where the closest emergency room is and if you don’t get good cell reception, calling 911 could be difficult.
Tip: If the vacation home is positioned such that it doesn’t get good cell reception, ask if there is a connected landline in the vacation home. It’s a good backup for emergencies.
7. What cleanup is expected upon departure?
The cleanup that’s expected when you leave a vacation rental typically includes stripping the beds, taking out the trash, and loading the dishwasher, but all of the rules should be carefully spelled out in the rental agreement. In some cases, if the guests don’t do these steps, they forfeit their security deposit so it’s important to know ahead of time.
Tip: Read the rental agreement carefully so you know what’s expected and you can plan ahead to get everyone involved to help before you leave.
8. Are there any rodents, critters, or insects present in the home?
Go with us on this one because it’s important. If you’re a city dweller and the vacation rental you picked sits in a beautiful mountain by a lake and the property is well known for having deer, bears, cougars, bobcats, and the like appear for an early evening drink, you’d want to know, right?
It may be just fine that the critters are there, but without a little warning you could be in for a real shock. The same is true for squirrels that nest in the attic or an infestation of ants that sometimes appear in the kitchen – you’d want to know and perhaps have the local handyman or animal control number on hand.
Tip: After reading all the reviews, ask the property owners this question and see what they say. It’s likely that you’ll have a much better idea what special visitors you can expect to enjoy, but it’s best to have a good idea what you’re in for ahead of time.
9. When was the vacation home last cleaned thoroughly?
If asking whether the home was last thoroughly cleaned seems a bit odd, think about how you’ll feel if you have to spend your hard-earned vacation time to clean a home you paid to stay in. Reading the reviews will help you know if the home was clean for other guests and if there are no reviews, it’s best to either avoid the home, or ask the question directly of the vacation home owner.
Tip: Ask whether the home is professionally cleaned is a good way to get around the issue. In many cases, the vacation home owner themselves clean it but others will hire pros to do it between guests.
10. How, when, and where do I pick up the keys?
This is a step that catches many vacation renters off-guard. The vacation homeowner will have a way for you to pick up the keys, but it’s important to understand the location and timing of this exchange. In some cases, the key will be left for you in a lock box and the combination can be texted to your phone, but if the procedure is to pick up the key from a local and that person is out to dinner and unreachable, you could be waiting around to get into the home after a long day of traveling.
Tip: Read the rental agreement for details about the key exchange and note whether there’s an extra charge for lost keys. You’re far less likely to lose your own keys because you recognize them, but vacation renters often lose the keys to their vacation homes simply because the keys are unfamiliar.
One last note before you leave …
Before you leave for your vacation rental, make sure you pack these items:
The vacation home rental agreement and travel insurance – digital copies are fine as long as you can access them. See the 4 Best Backup Methods for your Travel Documents.
A travel medical kit with basic medical supplies (you can’t be sure your vacation rental will have tylenol for a late-night fever, for example).
A simple travel medical portfolio for each person on the vacation (this can save you loads of time and worry in a medical emergency).
Also, know how to find medical care from your vacation rental property. If you’re traveling abroad, the emergency hotline equivalent to the U.S. 911 will be different so it’s important to know what those numbers are. Your travel insurance assistance services can be helpful when you need to find emergency medical care too.