How to pick a BnB or Vacation Rental

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How to pick a BnB or Vacation Rental

Many readers email me asking where I stay as a traveling professional.  

As a 40 year old female, I simply prefer a little more personal privacy and a quiet place to work while exploring the cities I visit.  For longer stays, having a kitchen/fridge for some at home meals makes traveling easier for me as well.  

So, an alternative to hotels is the Bed and Breakfast and/or Vacation Rental.

1-3 Nights

For 1-3 night stays…I love bed and breakfasts. I call them hostels for Gen-Xers.  

You get the experience of meeting locals (your bed and breakfast host) who often give you great recommendations for the area. You also get to meet other travelers at the breakfast table in the morning and sometimes a parlor drink in the evening, exchange information, and often make new friends. 

AND (A huge AND) you can get a good night’s sleep avoiding one of the MAJOR negatives of the hostels that I hear backpackers complain about relentlessly.  Another major bonus is privacy and a delicious local breakfast to get you going at comparable or lower costs than hotels.

3+ Days Stays

For week long and up to a month, it is usually more economical to look into vacation rentals or AirBnB’s. These give you perks of a kitchen, laundry and ability to travel slow and really unpack and enjoy the area as a local.  

You can often rent some unique places – I have rented a barn, schoolhouse, historic homes, French chateaus, and part of a castle. I highly recommend this for friends traveling overseas and staying in one area for a week.

The Bad

Now my first few BnB & Vacation Rental experiences were not good and I almost swore them off for good.

In a rental in Hawaii, my friend and I thought we were renting a room in a BnB as advertised but upon arrival received older brother Joe’s room who was off to college. With two twin beds and not much else, we had a weird entrance through a back door through the kitchen to our room and zero hospitality or breakfast. Thankfully, we were only staying a few nights as every hotel we called was booked. The last morning when we had packed and were walking through the kitchen to leave, the youngest boy about age 8 was sitting spread eagle naked on a chair pulled up to the TV on the counter – buck naked. AWKWARD!

Another mistake was a vacation rental from by a guy in his late 20’s in Washington DC, trying to make some extra money by renting out the room above his garage of his newly purchased townhome. While the pictures looked nice, this was on the one and only day it was cleaned. He worked on his motorcycle daily and rev’d the engine and gas right into the apartment which had a see-through front door. Then had construction crews on property (I am sure with my rental fees) and had them re-point the house. Re-pointing is when they drill out the cement in a brick building and replace it with fresh cement. Needless to say, it felt like the place was going to shake to the ground and when I complained, he kicked me out – not that I was not already running to a hotel. Thankfully there was a rental agency as the intermediary and my costs were refunded.

The Good

I learned through mistakes… but I learned and have rented some really amazing places.  Now, with sites like HomeAway and AirBnB, individuals are renting out their own homes or guest homes in droves as both BnB’s and Vacation Rentals. So, how do I pick the good ones.  First off, you will either be renting from an Agency or direct from Individuals.


Agencies / Websites

Agencies, professionally managed vacation rentals or a by-owner rentals belonging to a trade group usually provide a little protection if you rent through the website or agency as part of their fee including guarantees.

HomeAway, Wyndham Vacation Rentals and Airbnb have customer guarantees that can ensure your rental will meet minimum standards.  Make sure you inspect everything immediately and report any issues as there is usually a 24-48 hour window before they release the funds to the owner and consider it a valid rental. Read the small print.

Renting from Individuals

I sometimes prefer renting direct from individuals which is usually BnB’s as you will get a more authentic experience. I rented from local Mom and Pop run BnB’s in Bosnia, Provence, Ireland and more and felt like family being invited for dinner and private local events. Sometimes this is all that is available in less commercialized countries and it can be really helpful in places where I am going to want/need more assistance (ie language barrier) and having someone on-site is an extra reassurance like a hotel.   However this is a little riskier as there is not an agency to act as an intermediary.

How to pick a BnB or Vacation Rental

Living on the road for 9+ years, I have developed the following checklist after trial and error:

  1. Is this a business? Are they running the rental as a business or just an extra way to make spare money? Agencies overseas (ie England/Ireland) often detail their audit system for on-site visits to make sure the unit is up to par. Some American websites however are just listing services with no criteria that someone has visited the rental, so dig a little deeper.
  2. How many rooms/units do they rent? If it isaBnB, three (3) is usually a good indication that it’s a business and not Johnny’s room after he left home.
    • Note: Vacation Rental Owners are usually just renting one unit ie their beach house or city apartment, so this usually does not apply, but if they have a few vacation rentals – this is also a good sign that they run them like a business.
    • Note: AirBnB offers entire home, private room, shared rooms, couches etc… Just make sure you know what you are renting and want that.
  3. Payment:  I put almost all rentals on a credit card which also gives me a layer of protection. In some countries, they only accepted cash but that was ON SITE. I have NEVER sent cash/money order to someone blindly.
  4. Upkeep: When did they last renovate? Ask a few questions to see if they are providing upkeep on the property.
  5. Pictures: Look at the pictures – are there personal items or is it setup like a hotel room – you want the latter so you are not dealing with other people’s clutter and “stuff”. A few personal items are nice, but not stuffed cabinets.
  6. Cleaning: Try to find out how the unit is cleaned. I usually ask about cleaning fees – You are looking to see if they have a professional/dedicated cleaner and not when someone gets around to it and maybe not thoroughly.  This one is a hard one to gauge, but something I look for.
  7. Access: How is the unit accessed? In some areas ie Bath, England and Ireland – I was staying in a home so there was not a separate entrance but these were BnB’s with 3+ units. Others I stayed in Guest Houses, which had gated entrances. Understand the security provided or not and make sure you are comfortable with it for that area.
  8. Independent Reviews: I use Tripadvisor mainly to read reviews on properties but also any other website.  Read the “Negative” and see what they are complaining about and see if it would bother you.  Sometimes people will complain about obscure things, so just do your research. I rarely rent without a review.
  9. Call: Sometimes this is difficult with overseas and language, but you will get a better feel of the hospitality you will receive or not if you call the person and discuss some of the items on the list.
  10. Google Map It: Put the address in Google Maps and take a visual look at the property. Is the accommodation as in the advertisement pictures?  Take the 360 view and look at the neighborhood. Are there vacant or boarded up buildings or does it look like a nice area?

Know Your Criteria

Everyone has their own list, but make sure you know what you want for the right fit for your vacation.

  1. Must have:
    • Clean – This is on my must list. I don’t mind more rustic accommodations (I actually love places with more history and character) as long as they are clean.
    • Safe – Is this is an area that I will be comfortable getting in and out of?  Did anyone complain about the area of safety of the rental in reviews?
    • Location – When traveling overseas, you really want to be in the area you are going to be touring (especially short stays where time if valuable). I will pay a little more to be in the center and/or close to the train station if it will save me time/money for transportation to and from the BnB.  If I am driving, this is not as crucial.
  2. Want:
    • Wifi – I always make sure the wifi is solid and not a hotspot which seem to never work. If they don’t have wifi, I make sure I know where a wifi hotspot is. Hopefully you can unplug and not need/want Wifi at all. Overseas, Wifi is almost a given.
    • Parking – If I have a car, where am I going to park it?  This can be a big pain in cities.
    • Laundry – If I am renting a longer stay, I often pick a place with laundry as this also makes travel so much easier.

Wow – that’s a long list!  However, once you start looking through the rentals, you will start to get a feel for things. Like all travel, a little research goes a long way. Having a safe, clean home away from home that meets your expectations will go along way in helping you enjoy your vacation and travels.

The last thing is really trust your gut. People are generally good, honest and want to make your stay in their country or area a good one and want repeat business!

What are your tips for how to pick a BnB or Vacation Rental?

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