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5 Tips for Booking a Dream Vacation Home

Holly Johnson

So you've asked for a week off work and socked away plenty of cash in your vacation fund. But what's next? Now it's time to plan and strategize to ensure maximum relaxation and value. But first, you need to decide where to take your trip. For example, does your family enjoy the beach? The mountains? A theme park? When it comes to vacation and travel, there is truly no one-size-fits-all option.

Once you put that decision behind you, it's time to commit to a lodging option that will accommodate your group. And that's where things get tricky. Hotels and motels work, but you might have to live without a place to prepare your food or a common area where your family can congregate. Of course, camping might be a low-cost option. On the other hand, not everyone counts camping as a "real vacation," and you may need to purchase additional gear to make it work.

Fortunately, the Internet has created easy access to an entirely different lodging solution that is available nearly anywhere in the world. I'm talking about renting a vacation home, apartment or condo, directly from the owner through websites such as VRBO.com, HomeAway.com, FlipKey.com and Airbnb.com. These sites, and others, provide a platform where property owners and potential renters can meet to negotiate an agreement that truly benefits all parties involved.

If you're used to dealing with large resorts and hotels, it can be intimidating to speak directly with the owner of a property or their property manager. The following tips can help:

-- Pricing might be negotiable. Property owners might have a set price listed online, but it doesn't mean it's set in stone. In fact, a discount might be on the table if you're brave enough to ask for one. When negotiating the rate, simply ask for their "best offer" and see what kind of response you get. The worst that can happen is they say no or blow you off, right?

-- Off-peak rates may apply. Just like when you're traveling to a large resort or hotel, property owners want to maintain a high level of occupancy. That usually means they'll offer lower rates or offer other benefits to lure in potential renters during off-peak times. When in doubt, just ask!

-- Ask the property owner for tips. When you're traveling to a new destination, it helps to get some advice from the experts. For example, where are the best restaurants located? Which roads do you take to get to the store? You might even wonder whether or not you need to rent a car or whether any kid-friendly attractions are nearby. The good news is, the owner of your condo or vacation home may be willing to give you insider information you can't get anywhere else. Again, all you have to do is ask.

-- Use credit to avoid scams. Scammers have infiltrated nearly every industry where a transfer of money takes place, and the realm of vacation rentals is no exception. Some of the most common scams include people posing as property owners and asking renters to overnight funds or pay for their rental via Western Union or money order. Others might gather your information with the goal of selling it or using it to steal your identity. To avoid this type of situation, research any property owner or property management firm online before giving any of your sensitive information. Since most credit cards offer consumer protections, always use a credit card to secure your rental, and avoid paying with cash, wire transfer or money order.

-- Sometimes you get what you pay for. Often, certain properties are marketed at bargain basement prices. While you might be tempted to jump all over it, it's wise to do some research ahead of time. Properties that cost less to rent than others might be priced that way because they're in bad shape, have construction issues or are in a terrible location. To avoid a decision you'll regret, read every review of the unit you plan to rent. You never know what you'll hear from others who have already rented before you, and you might get the inside scoop on why the rent is so low.

Renting a vacation home, condo or apartment can provide a great deal of value for families who need a little more space than hotel rooms typically offer. They also provide a meaningful way for property owners to earn some side income without having to share their profits with a management company or a corporation. But that doesn't mean renting directly from the owner is without challenges. So arm yourself with information before you start looking, and refuse to accept anything but an exceptional offer on the vacation rental of your dreams. Chances are, you'll be glad you did.

Holly Johnson is the founder of personal finance website, Club Thrifty, which provides tips for frugal living, budgeting, and more. Holly also writes about frugality and travel at Get Rich Slowly, Frugal Travel Guy, and her other website, Travel Blue Book.

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