Choosing the best site for your next vacation rental: Airbnb, Vrbo or Booking.com
My husband and I are voracious travelers, and over the years we sought to collect destinations. We both have more than 100 countries on our done-that lists.
As we've gotten older, we haven’t slowed down so much as discovered the joys of lingering in one place by renting an apartment, condo or house in an area that we want to explore.
We have homestayed in Italy, France (including Paris) and the U.S. Our goal is typically to immerse ourselves in a quaint town or exciting city and get into the rhythm of local life. Since we weren’t just renting for a night or two, we took extra care in finding a good spot — and a good deal.
Here's some insight into the pleasures and rewards that a home rental facilitates, a few pointers on what I look for in a longer-term rental, and the differences among Booking.com, Airbnb and VRBO.
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Living like a local
Our favorite trip was 15 nights in the beach town of Minori, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. The town of less than 3,000 is popular with beachgoers in summer. In late February, when we visited, we were an attraction to locals — the only Americans in town. We delighted in temperatures in the 60s and walks among vineyards and lemon groves.
We booked an apartment in a stone building next to a church, unaware that we were staying in a historic former abbey with deep stone stairs — lots of them, it turns out, to get to our modern second-floor apartment, which was really on the third floor (in Europe, the first floor is ground level). That was our only oops in booking a place sight unseen — but the oops turned out to be a positive workout of 75 steps each time we returned "home."
We loved the ocean views from our sunny living room, and the fact we could hear parents cheering their kids on from a nearby stadium. I especially enjoyed the short walk to the shops we would visit twice a day, like everyone else in town, to collect ingredients — sausages from the butcher, artichokes from the greengrocer, noodles from the pasta-maker, squid from the fishmonger — for lunch and dinner. I even learned how to make a tiny refrigerator and stove work for cooking our meals!
And we learned a new phrase, uttered with smiles by the locals as we became a novelty walking down the street: Sono americani (they’re Americans).
Related: What's new in Italy right now
Hotel-style rating system
For our Minori rental (and later an apartment in Cinque Terre), we used Booking.com, which, in addition to hotels, also lists rental homes and apartments. My husband was tasked with finding a place (I got to opine on his shortlist of choices) and prefers the hotel-like rating system for rental properties on the site (there are also guest ratings).
'Ask a question'
There’s an “Ask a question” button which we used to communicate with the owner of the apartment we had targeted. This communication turned out to be a big bonus. Right before we arrived, the owner (a woman who lives out of town but owns several apartments in Minori) asked if we would mind switching to a larger place with a better view in the same building, since someone else requested “our” apartment. Sure, why not, we figured. We ended up with a large living room and small balcony overlooking the sea, two bedrooms, a small kitchen and a laundry room — a delightful place.
Growing, easy-to-search inventory
Booking.com, according to its website, lists more than 850,000 apartments, more than 450,000 villas, nearly 35,000 cabins and nearly 148,000 cottages. Search filters include price, type of accommodation and such key elements as “laptop-friendly workspace” and a dozen other categories of room amenities, and eight categories in terms of accessibility. There’s also a new "Travel Sustainable" search option.
Genius credits and flexible booking policies
My husband loved the fact that we earned Booking.com credits for our stay — which (with our bookings) put him in the Genius category in terms of discounts on select future hotel bookings. He also chose Booking.com because of the easy cancellation policies (again, more like hotel policies). Also, hosts pay the booking fees.
Related: 6 ways to book vacation home rentals
We are Airbnb veterans, especially when it comes to long-term stays in the U.S. The choices astound — the huge network includes more than 4 million hosts in 220 countries and regions around the world.
When I think of Airbnb it’s mostly when I am looking for a good deal on a room in someone’s home — or, my favorite, a tiny home out back — for a quick-term rental, though we have also rented small houses for a week or more at a time. According to the company’s first-quarter earnings report, long-term stays of 28 days or more are the company’s fastest-growing segment, doubling in size since the first quarter of 2019.
A new feature makes it easy to pick unique accommodations if your goal is, for instance, staying in a treehouse or barn or on a houseboat – Airbnb claims 170,000 unique properties. For seniors looking to park themselves somewhere without having to cash in retirement savings, a more useful new feature is "Flexible" search, which lets you put in a price and see what’s available over periods of time.
Superhosts and other user-friendly filters
Ratings on Airbnb are by guests. I tend to look for accommodations with “Superhosts” who just really seem to have their act together and are highly rated. You can also search for Airbnb Plus properties, which are verified for quality and design, or Airbnb Luxe homes, focused on luxury. Other filters include price, entire place or private or shared room, amenities and accessibility features, along with host language.
Airbnb also offers hosted “experiences,” and when you book you may be barraged with these offers. Renting an apartment in Paris with a grandchild in tow, I booked a crepe-making class for us at a Parisian’s home. My granddaughter was more intrigued by the swing in his living room than the cooking lesson.
Related: A guide to the best credit cards for Airbnb stays
Vrbo, now owned by Expedia, always seemed to me a fancier, more selective booking option — the place you would go if you were looking for, and could afford, an entire villa. As if to make that point, in May the company published its first Vacation Homes of the Year list, recognizing 10 in the best-in-class category, including a designer home in Palm Springs that’s to die for.
Reviews from renters and homeowners
Vrbo offers easy booking for apartments, condos, beach houses, villas and other categories of homes around the world — 2 million-plus whole homes in 190 countries, in total. Users make comments about the places they book, and homeowners respond — so you get two sides to each story, which in my book is a big plus for the site.
Granular selection criteria
You can get very specific in terms of what sort of home you are looking for, even what sort of view you want, and the site has lots of choices in popular tourist destinations. Filters let you drill down to specifics such as location and accessibility. If you are traveling with grandkids, for example, use the “families” button.
You can also specify that you only want to see properties with virtual tours — good for your peace of mind especially if you are renting for two weeks or more. You also can contact the host before booking.
Keep in mind
Here are a few things to consider when booking a home rental:
Add-on fees and cancellation policies
You may see the same properties on all three sites. When deciding which site to use in booking, make sure to compare add-on booking and cleaning fees, as well as cancellation policies (which vary by both booking company and specific property), and how much of your total cost you are expected to pay upfront.
If you cook, ask the homeowner questions about the equipment in the kitchen. I’ve learned from experience to pack a good knife and a meat thermometer in my checked luggage.
If the apartment owner lives in the same building, like our landlord in Paris, take them up on their offer of advice on local attractions — such as the location of the best croissant shop. It's also a good idea, if possible, to establish contact with your host pre-trip — you may, for instance, be able to arrange a flexible arrival hour after your overnight flight to Europe.
Don't always expect your arrival to be a seamless experience. Be prepared to deal with a third-party caretaker, for instance. During one of our vacation rental stays in Italy, we picked up our key from a man at a bar. Make certain you know who to call if you have any issues during your stay.
Read, reread, and read again reviews from past guests, not only for their opinions but also for their tips about the accommodations and the destination that you might not have considered.
When it comes to choosing a vacation rental, Airbnb, Vrbo and Booking.com offer plenty of diverse options, for all budgets. But each site has certain features and tools that are more important to me based on the type of trip I am planning and who I am traveling with.
For longer, budget-minded stays I tend to go for Booking.com. For short (less than a week) stays I opt for Airbnb. And if I ever fulfill my dream of renting a villa with the kids and grandkids, I will likely be booking with Vrbo.