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As much as I love hotel points and elite status benefits, from time to time, staying in a hotel with a decent loyalty program just isn’t possible for any number of reasons including…you might be staying for an extended period of time, room rates are simply too expensive, the destination you’re interested in doesn’t have any chains you have points with (or any hotels at all!)…you’re staying with a large group, and any number of other factors.
Whatever your reason, sometimes it’s a better idea to rent a home or apartment through a service like Airbnb or VRBO – both of which I’ve had great experiences with in the past. However, just because you’re not staying at a hotel or having a traditional travel experience doesn’t mean you have to give up the opportunity to earn points by doing so.
There are several other aspects to home or lodging rental that, if you keep them in mind and maximize them, will have you racking up bonus points if that’s what you choose to do on your vacation.
Airbnb is a great service that was started back in August 2008 in San Francisco (of course) as a service that connected travelers with folks who wanted to rent out their properties. What sets Airbnb apart is a secure payment platform and a fair system of guarantees and insurance so that both landlord and renter are protected in the case of damages, no-shows, misrepresentations and other things that tend to go wrong in these situations. Listed properties actually get up to $1 million in insurance for each booking.
Airbnb created a social community aspect to its service where landlords and renters can rate each other, comment on properties and profiles, and generally monitor each other so that everything is transparent and above board.
It tends to be a congenial marketplace and one where there are amazing properties to rent now that the service has expanded to over 300,000 listings worldwide in over 33,000 cities and towns. In fact, it boasts over 10 million nights booked. The site also fields on-the-ground contacts who can show you around the city or destination you visit if you want.
The site also has innovative features like Airbnb Picks according to themes from the typical, like honeymoons, to eccentric, like “Cabin Fever,” to the truly out there like “It Yurts So Good.” Basically, there’s something for everyone…and then some.
What you might not realize, though, is that Airbnb lets you use your credit card to pay for your lodging, meaning there are plenty of opportunities to rack up points on your normal spending. However, Airbnb actually counts as a “Travel” merchant for a few credit cards that classify travel as a bonus spending category.
Based on personal experience and confirmation from the team at Chase, Airbnb is categorized as a travel merchant through Chase, so if you use your Sapphire Preferred, you will get 2.14 points per $1 you spend through the site.
For example, TPG Managing Editor Eric rented an apartment in Buenos Aires last spring and charged it to his Chase Sapphire Preferred – both because he wanted to see if he would get the 2X travel bonus, but also because the card does not levy foreign transaction fees just in case the transaction was processed abroad (which it was not).
Although his statement didn’t overtly show that Airbnb was a travel charge, based on the fact that the charge was about $1,670 and the overall statement was $3,400 and he earned 2,069 bonus points in addition to his base points (apparently he ate out at restaurants a lot that month, too) it was clear the Airbnb charge counted toward his bonus earning.
The other card with which Airbnb is coded as a travel merchant (under Travel Agencies and Tour Operators) is my favorite fixed-value points card, the Barclaycard Arrival. The version of the card with no annual fee earns 2X miles per $1 on travel expenses, while the version with the annual fee waived the first year earns 2X points per $1 on all purchases.
However, when it comes to redemption, this makes a big difference since when you redeem your Barclaycard Arrival miles for travel expenses, you get 10% of your miles back. So, if you were to use either version of the Arrival to pay for your Airbnb stay, you’d earn 2X miles. Then if you redeemed Arrival miles for the purchase, you’d basically be getting 2.2% cash back based on the fact that it’s a travel merchant – not a bad return on your spending.
VRBO and HomeAway
HomeAway and VRBO (which HomeAway owns) are pretty much the gold standard in vacation property rental these days with over half a million listings. HomeAway is bigger than VRBO, though both sites are very similar, down to how they function, the kinds of listings you’ll find, and their payment methods and guarantees.
The acronym VRBO stands for Vacation Rental By Owner, and it’s a clearing house where property owners rent directly to travelers and has robust community forums and comments sections to help police its users and keep everyone honest.
Both sites also have a set of guarantees up to $10,000 for situations like the home you rent being foreclosed upon, an inadvertent double-booking, the property owner wrongfully withholding your security deport and more.
I’ve personally used VRBO several times and have found it to be very easy to use, the property owners I’ve dealt with very honest and straightforward, and the stays themselves very pleasant.
Now, a lot of people discount VRBO and HomeAway as a points-earning opportunity since it tends to classified as a Real Estate and Rental merchant – so you’re out of luck on any travel category spending bonuses – and since you’re renting directly from owners, many demand either payment by Paypal or by check, and credit cards are out (although some do accept credit card payment). However, that doesn’t mean you can’t still earn points on your rental in a few different ways.
First of all, if you can pay by Paypal, you can fund the transaction with a credit card. That incurs a 2.9% fee for the sellers, which they’ll often pass on to the buyers (you), so I would only suggest doing this if your rental is within a modest budget and you’re not overpaying for the points you would earn.
To avoid the 2.9% fee, you can purchase PayPal MyCash reload cards at merchants like CVS and Rite Aid (though Rite Aid might make you use cash) using your points-earning credit card. Each card costs $3.95 and can load up to $500 – so you’re essentially paying 0.8 cents per point on a full load. Once you buy the reload, you can put the fully value of the card into your PayPal account here and then issue your payment from your PayPal account. You can load up to $500 per day and $4,000 monthly.
Another great option is if you have a Bluebird account from American Express, which is a checking account and debit card alternative. You can fund your Bluebird account by purchasing Vanilla Reloads at CVS using a points-earning credit card (each reload can be charged with up to $500 in value for $3.95 each) and then issuing a check from your Bluebird account either through the service’s Bill Pay feature or by using a Bluebird check. Just note that the Bill Pay feature can only be used up to $10,000 per month ($5,000 for unregistered payees) and with the checks, you must pre-authorize the purchase if it is over $2,000.
When it comes to home rentals, points-earning advantages aren’t just for renters, though.
Homeowners and landlords usually have to pay a subscription fee to list their properties on sites like VRBO and Homeaway and rates can vary based on the level of your subscription, the detail of your ad, whether it is a “featured listing,” etc. For example, HomeAway rates range from $349-$999 a year. While that might seem steep, a few rentals a year can completely cover that and more.
However, you can still find rebates and discounts on listings out there through sites like BigCrumbs.com, which is currently offering $25 off new listings, up to 14% cash back, and a referral cash back bonus of up to 2%. This particular offer is good just for new listings. So on that $349 listing, you’d only end up paying $268.16 if you scored the whole cash back rebate and $25 discount.
Is It Right For You?
Whether vacation property rental is right for you is a decision based on any number of factors including financial and personal considerations (not everyone wants to live in someone else’s space).
However, with great services like Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway that include guarantees for both landlords and renters, as well as access to hundreds of thousands of unique properties all over the world, it’s nice to know that there are tons of options out there if this is the route you decide to go. Even better is the fact that there are ways to maximize the points you earn and redeem on these rentals by using the right credit cards or products like Bluebird, as well as discounts available if you know where to look that can make this option even more attractive than a hotel stay in certain circumstances.
I’d be curious to hear about if any of you have other strategies for maximizing vacation rentals, and your experiences with any or all of these services, so if you want to share, please leave a comment below.
For more information on Vanilla Reloads and using them with checking/debit card alternatives, see these posts: