Before the world changed in March, my family had rented vacation homes only a handful of times.
Usually, we looked for large spaces to accommodate family reunions with siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. During a typical trip, however, we preferred a full-service hotel. We often booked with points and took advantage of amenities such as complimentary breakfast, club access, and daily (sometimes twice daily!) housekeeping.
When we checked out of a hotel on March 10 after a spring break getaway, the world was already changing. Since then, we’ve overwhelmingly turned to vacation rentals over traditional hotels. While we did have some previous experience with rentals, we’ve now tried everything from a tiny home costing $99 night to a luxury stay in sprawling beachfront property.
Our rental experiences have, fortunately, been overwhelmingly positive — but we’ve still learned from our mistakes and the mishaps of others. Avoid these 13 common mistakes to have a perfect stay the next time you book a vacation home.
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Forgetting your toiletries
While there are exceptions to every rule, don’t forget to pack your own soap and shampoo. While you’re at it, you probably need paper towels and toilet paper, too. Your stay may cost thousands of dollars, but rare is the home rental that provides guests with toiletries and paper goods. Or, if there is some shampoo or soap in the bathroom, it may just be a starter kit or what a previous renter left behind.
Sorry, but there probably won’t be bottles filled with Le Labo in your next home rental, so don’t forget to pack your own favorites. And while there might be laundry detergent and dish soap under the sink, you’ll often need to bring more than what’s provided. Always ask your host about these essential amenities, and it never hurts to pack them just in case.
Not knowing local regulations
Short-term vacation rentals are handled differently all over the world. In Croatia and Cuba, hosts will likely ask to see, and even make copies of, your passport — and if you’re not expecting that, it can be deeply unsettling.
And in Ljubljana, Slovenia, travelers must be prepared to pay a tourist tax in cash upon arrival, meaning you’ll need to pocket a few euros before arriving at your vacation rental. Being unprepared can arriving to your vacation rental stressful, if nothing else.
Declining travel insurance
Unlike most hotels that let you cancel a day or two before check in, most rental home cancellation policies aren’t that lenient. Airbnb’s most flexible cancellation policy allows travelers to cancel until 14 days before check in, and Marriott Homes and Villas is a notable exception right now, as many properties available allow you to cancel up to 10 days out for a $75 fee.
But that’s rare. Canceling a home rental often comes with a penalty, or must be done at least 30 before your arrival date at a minimum. That’s still quite risky, especially during a global pandemic, as you could be dealing with illness, quarantine, new travel restrictions or any host of other complications.
And even during normal times, things can and will go wrong. But buying a comprehensive travel insurance plan has never been more important. Just be sure to read the fine print and know exactly what’s covered by your insurance. Your best bet may be a cancel-for-any-reason policy.
A beach house we recently booked through VRBO, for example, was nonrefundable within 30 days of the stay — even if a massive hurricane hit the coast. Travel insurance would likely cover that kind of crisis, but the property owners themselves aren’t obligated to be flexible.
Paying too much
If you rent a home through a site like Airbnb.com or VRBO.com, you may have some added protection, but you’re also almost certain to be paying extra fees.
So, don’t rule out renting directly with an owner or property management company — you may save serious cash by simply making a phone call.
When you do book through a vacation rental platform, be sure to use a cash back site, such as Rakuten, as well as your favorite airline shopping portal. Additionally, a home can have different prices and fees on different sites, so shop around even once you’ve found the rental of your dreams.
Regardless of the grand total, vacation rentals may not always code as travel — so be sure to book with the right credit card to maximize your purchase, or follow-up with the credit card issuer to have them manually reward the points you should have earned.
Overstocking the fridge
You’ve got a home rental with a kitchen, so you can — and probably should — make at least a few meals to save money (and, especially right now, avoid unnecessary in-person interactions).
But be realistic with yourself. If you know you’re going to want to eat out most nights, don’t bring a ton of perishables for a pot roast, casserole and meatloaf. If you’re really not sure what to expect, stick with long-lasting ingredients that won’t spoil and can make the return trip home with you. You can almost always run to a local grocer for any last-minute ingredients you might need.
Conversely, if groceries might be hard to come by in the small vacation town you’re visiting, bring a cooler with you that’s stocked with the essentials.
During a recent stay at a home rental, we cooked for almost every meal and ran out of groceries by the last night. Unfortunately, that was a Sunday evening, and most local restaurants had closed. Because we hadn’t brought enough groceries, we had to order pizza from a grocery store and pizzeria that moonlighted as a hardware store — and it was about as good as you might expect.
Counting on air — or heat
While I haven’t personally had this issue, many travelers say they’ve checked into a rental property only to find there’s no air conditioning. And while you may expect this to in cooler destinations or even in Europe, it can theoretically happen anywhere. We’ve even heard a report of a Los Angeles home rental without air conditioning.
And when it comes to heat, know that sometimes using heat is an added charge — or that you may have to be handy with a wood fireplace.
Assuming you’ll have bedding
Most high-end home rentals come with linens, but that’s not always true — especially during a pandemic.
And if you’re staying in a more budget-friendly home, it may never have included sheets and blankets. Always read the fine print on the listing carefully, or talk to the owner or management company directly. Also know that even if the home does include linens, it’s very possible that only the sheets are laundered between guests.
If this is a concern for you, get clarification before you walk into a vacation rental ready to crawl into bed for a much-needed nap. And either way, it doesn’t hurt to bring an extra blanket or two. Some rentals may simply skimp on the bedding.
Getting the wrong address
It’s common for a home rental listing to not advertise the exact address. We’ve even heard of the address listed just being a meet-up location to get the key. If you want to be right on the water, near the train station, on the slopes or in a specific neighborhood, find out the actual address before making any commitments. A mile or so in either direction can sometimes make a huge difference in walkability to the beach or public transportation.
Booking at the last minute
A single resort may have hundreds of rooms, but rental homes are an entirely different story.
There’s a very finite number of home rentals, and if you have specific amenities you’re after, are working with a firm budget or are otherwise selective about where you want to stay, you’ve got to plan far in advance — or get lucky at the last minute.
We’ve heard tons of stories from travelers in the Northeast who are now ready to venture out to a home rental for a week this summer, only to find there’s almost nothing affordable left in the region outside of periodic cancellations.
If you’re considering a fall or holiday home rental getaway (or maybe even something further out than that), find one you can cancel and lock it down now.
Thinking you have more time than you do
Let’s say you rent a home for a four-day, three-night-long weekend. That might sound like plenty of time to relax, explore and enjoy. But let’s do the math.
It’s very common for the home rental check-in period to start around 4 p.m., and the check-out time is typically 10 a.m. That means on your four-day, three-night getaway, you really only have two full days to work with, as the first and last day are very short. And while it never hurts to ask for early check-in or late check-out, that’s even less likely than before, as hosts are more likely to be spacing out renters and allowing more time for professional cleaning.
Also, remember that even if there’s a cleaning fee (and there’s probably a cleaning fee), you’re still expected to do some initial cleaning on the day of departure. So, you’ll need to factor in time before checkout to not only pack up but also strip the beds, empty the trash, clean out the fridge and wash the dishes.
Being fooled by great photos
A picture may tell a 1,000-word story, but looks can also be deceiving — especially in staged photographs. If a property has amazing photos but worrisome reviews from previous guests, don’t let the slick photos fool you.
Perhaps the home has undergone a renovation or repairs since the negative reviews were posted, but find out for sure before assuming you’ll walk into a home ripped straight from an interior design magazine.
Not having a Plan B
If something is wrong with a hotel room, the hotel usually has another available — or can at least move you to a nearby hotel. But if something is wrong with your home rental, that isn’t always true.
If you rent from a professional management company with a number of rentals in the area, they may be able to move you to a different property. But either way, consider carefully what you’d do if the home doesn’t work out at the last minute — say, the host didn’t leave the keys or the lockbox code is wrong. These things happen, and you don’t want a mishap like this to derail your entire vacation.
Sure, the house may sleep 24 people, but does it actually have parking for two dozen guests? Probably not.
Whether you’re renting an urban condo or a mountain ski house, research the parking situation in advance. If you’re renting a home and anticipating snow, also check to see if the road and driveway to the house are plowed.
A home rental can be a fantastic way to get away while still staying, well, away from other people. A change of scenery can do the soul wonders, even if the home is only an hour or two from home. But if you typically bed down in hotels and are newer to the home rental game, be sure to skip the learning curve and avoid making these all-too-common mistakes and assumptions.