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AARP Smart Guide to Vacation Lodging

Our advice can help you decide the best way to book your stay

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Lodging can make or break a vacation. A top-notch hotel or rental property will leave you refreshed and primed to explore your chosen getaway — but lackluster accommodations could turn that dream trip into a nightmare.

That’s where our AARP Smart Guide to Vacation Lodging comes into play. This jam-packed resource covers the ins and outs of savvy vacation accommodations, including how to decipher trustworthy reviews, choose safe hotels, snag the best deals and find a cozy home away from home — even if just for one night. Ready to hit the road? Here’s everything to know before you book your next trip.


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1. When to choose a hotel vs. vacation rental

Deciding between a hotel and vacation rental depends on the goal of your trip. “If you want to walk and see things, you should get a hotel in the heart of the area,” says Carolyn Sandgren Kempf, travel adviser and president of Elite Travel Inc. Hotels offer perks like concierges to coordinate excursions and a bellhop to store luggage while you sightsee before or after checkout. That said, you can still find vacation-rental apartments along a city’s main drag, and they’re ideal when you’re traveling with multiple parties, such as extended family.

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Before you book a rental — particularly in a big city — read up on the legalities. In some cities (such as New York), short-term vacation rentals are technically illegal (unless you’re solely renting a private room within the host’s home). In that case, you’re better off in a hotel to avoid last-minute cancellations or rental-home closures. For trips to get away from it all, be it a mountain or beach vacation, a rental property may be your best bet for privacy, remoteness and nature access.


2. Find pet-friendly accommodations

It’s tough to leave your four-legged friends at home — and increasingly, you don’t have to. These days, pets-welcome accommodations abound. You can filter your vacation rental or search for pet-friendly properties on sites like Airbnb, Vacasa and VRBO. Make sure to study the fine print, such as pet fees and restrictions on size, breed, species and number of pets. Additionally, a growing number of hotels, both independent and chains, now offer Fido- or Fifi-friendly accommodations. You can filter via hotel booking sites such as, and Read up on the pet stipulations for hotels before booking as well. When in doubt, it’s best to call for specifics.


3. How to decode reviews

With countless reviews and review sites, it’s difficult to know who to believe. For that, our experts have some guidance: Don’t believe just one rogue review. Instead, “look for trends,” says Sandgren Kempf. “If [separate reviewers] say something six different times, you can feel pretty confident you’re going to experience that as well.” Additionally, Connor Griffiths, CEO of Lifty Life Vacation Rentals, suggests keeping your eyes open for a few red flags specific to property rentals. “If the most recent reviews are from a year or more ago, it may indicate that the property has not been well maintained or that the owner is not actively managing it,” he says, also noting that “overly positive or negative [reviews] may be fake or biased.” A few more tips to check if that review is safe: Look up the reviewer to see what other reviews they’ve written, see what the middle reviews are saying and see whether the business or owner has responded to the worst reviews. If it’s genuine and pragmatic, that’s a good sign.


4. Book directly to save money

The travel industry is full of booking sites for vacation lodging, but sometimes, the best way to save money is to avoid third-party sites and book directly with the hotel or the vacation rental owner, says Griffiths. When you book through vacation rental sites like Airbnb or VRBO, you’re typically charged roughly 15 percent in service fees that you wouldn’t be charged if you booked directly with the property owner, he says. If the property has a specific name, you can search for that exact name plus the city name on Google; the home may have a designated website. Or, “try Googling ‘vacation rental management [City]’ in the market you want to travel to,” says Griffiths. “This will help you identify local managers you could book directly with.” The same goes for hotels. Sometimes you can snag a deal with a hotel booking site, but it’s best to look at the hotel website or call the hotel in case they offer savings for direct booking.


5. Consider lodging alternatives

Hotels and vacation rentals are popular accommodation options, but you can also get creative with where and how you sleep. Try housesitting, where you get a free stay in exchange for caring for someone’s home, plants and potentially pets; this option is available via vetted services such as Trusted Housesitters, Nomador and MindMyHouse. Camping is another great option for getting up close with nature. That said, if you prefer the comforts of a bed and plumbing, you can always get your dose of the outdoors via glamping, says Emily Pennington, travel journalist and author of the book Feral: Losing Myself and Finding My Way in America’s National Parks. “Glamping can be great for couples where one traveler isn’t so into roughing it, but the other wants to have a campfire under the stars,” she says.


6. Provide your own caffeine

There are certain items you can typically expect in hotel rooms, but for other vacation rentals, unless they include it in the description, it’s best to bring the necessities yourself. If you need coffee, some hotels provide coffee in the lobby, you may find a nearby coffee shop or bring your own to-go coffee press or bottled/canned coffee drink. The hotel room coffee maker is likely teeming with germs, and although a superficial wipedown can make it look clean, you never know what others have used it for before you.


7. Stay connected

Charging cables for phones, tablets and laptops are a must-bring item, so bring the longest ones in case your place doesn’t have as many outlets as you’re accustomed to. For entertainment, pack a small, waterproof Bluetooth speaker. 


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8. Book as early as you can

Post-pandemic tourism is booming, especially come high season (which varies based on the place you’re visiting — think summer for Europe and U.S. national parks, and winter for ski escapes like Colorado and Utah). This heightened travel interest means hotel rooms get scooped up quickly; time is now of the essence when planning trip lodging. “Booking early is very important,” says Sandgren Kempf, noting that as soon as you confirm the trip is happening, it’s time to start booking. “The early bird is going to get the prime location; waiting until the last minute means you may not get to stay where you want to stay.”


9. When possible, book a refundable stay

To protect yourself when booking early, go the refundable route. “Hotels have refundable and nonrefundable rates,” says Sandgren Kempf. With a refundable rate, you can typically cancel up to a few days before check-in. (As always, read the fine print to understand cancellation deadlines.) Paying in full before your stay may come with some cost-savings, but Sandgren Kempf says it’s important to evaluate whether the savings are worth the risk. “These rates really are nonrefundable. No matter what your situation is, they are not going to give you your money back,” she says. “It’s probably an average of about a $20 per night savings, so is it worth it to you for $60 saved for three nights to know you’re not going to get your money back?”


10. Buy insurance

If you do go the nonrefundable route, travel insurance may come in handy. In fact, Sandgren Kempf says travel advisers almost always recommend insurance — particularly in recent years, as hoteliers are less flexible than ever. You can get insurance specific to one trip. If you’re a frequent traveler, Sandgren Kempf has a lesser-known insurance tip: “For people that take more than two trips a year, try an annual [travel insurance] plan,” she says. “I’m on an annual plan and it’s less than $300 — and you can file as many claims as you want. If you do two trips a year, you will save money doing it this way.” Travel insurance companies that offer long-term travel insurance include World Nomads, Allianz and SquareMouth.


11. Get a free upgrade

It never hurts to ask for a free upgrade when you’re checking in, and Pennington has another easy way to nab better digs at no cost: Request the corner room. “A great way to snag a few extra square feet of room space — and a better view, while you’re at it — is to request a corner room,” she says. “It generally doesn’t cost a thing, and best of all? Fewer neighbors equals less ambient noise.”


12. Choose a safe hotel and room

Safety is critical when booking hotels, and for that, Sandgren Kempf has tried-and-true tips — especially for solo travelers. “Never stay in a hotel with a motel-style outer-core corridor, and I never stay on the ground floor. If I do, I want a room close to the lobby,” she says. “I like to be by the elevator so I’m not walking by myself all the way down to the end of the corridor.” She also stacks her luggage in front of the door at night, and always uses the deadbolt and double-lock system. When you first enter your room, turn on the lights and look in the closet, under the bed and in the bathroom — even check behind thick curtains. And never open the door for an unexpected visitor. If you call for room service but don’t feel comfortable opening the door to them, ask them to leave the items on the floor outside your door and retrieve them later.


13. Be mindful of germs

Even with daily cleaning, hotel rooms can harbor germs. That’s why solo-travel adviser Jen Tenzer, founder of The Soloist blog (, adopts specific habits whenever a hotel room feels less than pristine. Tenzer’s tips? Avoid bare feet on both the carpet and shower by bringing a pair of flip flops or sandals. Don’t use the outer layer of bedding, even in nice hotels, as the “bedspread likely gets washed every three months or so.” (Tenzer moves it to the bottom of the bed.) Additionally, bring sanitization products and wipe down everything — doorknobs, the bathroom faucet, TV remote, light switches and kitchenette items.


14. Know your must-haves

It’s easy to get distracted by flashy hotel amenities like a pool, yet often, many travelers who look for a hotel with a pool or Jacuzzi never end up using it, says Sandgren Kempf. “You have to know what’s important to you in your hotel experience; I have my own list,” she says. Other must-haves could include a fitness center, location convenience, an airport shuttle or a shower versus a bathtub. Make your list before beginning the hotel search to ensure fancy amenities don’t sway your judgment. If you are looking forward to a hot, powerful shower, ask which floors offer better water pressure when you book. If you’re looking to save some money on food while you’re on vacation, book accommodations that offer free breakfast. 


15. When does an all-inclusive getaway make sense?

The idea of an all-inclusive may be tempting, but when is it actually a good deal — and when is it not? Be sure to read the fine print: Does “all-inclusive” mean food or food and alcohol? “If you’re going to go onto the resort and never leave, an all-inclusive is definitely the way to go,” says Sandgren Kempf. That said, if you’re leaving daily to do off-site activities, or you’re eating in town, “you’re leaving money on the table.” That’s because all-inclusive rates typically include all meals and alcohol, and in many cases, excursions. Sandgren Kempf says an all-inclusive does provide a great and less-expensive way to sample cuisines. “You’re not paying for a per-piece a la carte item. For those curious with their palate, and conservative with their checkbook, an all-inclusive is better.” It’s also ideal to go the all-inclusive route in a place with few nearby restaurants, such as a remote island.


16. Consider day rooms for late-night flights or long layovers

Frequent hotel-bookers know the typical afternoon check-in and morning checkout times well, but what happens when your flight is in the evening — or if you arrive by sunrise yet can’t check in until 4 p.m.? Try a day room. Many hotels offer day-room rates for off-hour use, particularly those near airports or busy train stations. While you could stow your luggage with a bellhop, a day room lets you relax and clean up before or after a flight. To find a daytime stay, look to day-room-specific booking sites like, and


17. Look for hotel packages and membership discounts

Many travelers don’t realize the potential lodging cost-saving options at their disposal. Sandgren Kempf reminds clients to take advantage of AAA, military and AARP discounts — the latter of which include everything from hotels to rental cars price cuts. Additionally, look into the special packages the hotel offers. “The hotel might have a romance package, and even though you’re not going on a romantic trip, it could give you cool [add-ons] for $10 per night, so ask what packages are available,” she says.


18. Join hotel loyalty programs — and be loyal

One of the easiest ways to save money — and eventually earn free stays or upgrades — is to be loyal with one overarching hotel brand. “Join whatever loyalty program the hotel offers,” says Sandgren Kempf. “I’m surprised how many people don’t do that.” One common perk of the typically free loyalty membership is complimentary Wi-FI (which can cost non-loyalty guests upwards of $15 per day, Sandgren Kempf says). Similar to airline points, hotel perks can add up with repeat stays, especially with large hotel brands like Marriott (the Westin, Marriott Hotels, Sheraton, etc); Hilton (Waldorf Astoria, Curio Collection by Hilton, Hilton Garden Inn, etc.); and InterContinental/ IHG (Regent, Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, etc).


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19. Read the fine print

Don’t sign a vacation-rental contract without reading the fine print, which outlines valuable information that could add costs or stress to your stay, be it cancellation policies or strict house rules. “Many vacation rentals offer free cancellation policies, but the time frame may be far out, such as 60 days prior to arrival,” says Cari Stoltz, director of marketing and communications for vacation rental booking site “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. A reputable host wants travelers to feel comfortable with the policy.” Additionally, many rental properties have check-in and checkout rules for guests that, if not followed, could incur fees. Know what’s expected of you, such as stripping the bed, taking out the trash or running the dishwasher before departure. These will be shared with you before or during your stay.


20. Be wary of massive deals

It’s easy to be tempted by major savings, but when it comes to vacation rentals, Stoltz says it’s best to be cautious — particularly as the rental property market grows at an unprecedented rate. “The [growth] is fantastic for travelers; it provides more options than ever, including access to destinations previously dominated by hotels,” Stoltz says. “However, this growth also means some bad actors may not deliver on promises made in their listings.” Be wary of price cuts, such as discounts for first bookings in new properties. “If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” she says.


21. Book early, if possible

Like hotels, earlier is better when it comes to booking a vacation rental, especially if you’re aiming for a specific property or a busy time of year. “If you have your heart set on a particular property, especially during a popular holiday weekend, booking at least a year in advance or even earlier is recommended,” says Stoltz. “However, if you’re more flexible with your travel plans, you may have more options available and can book closer to your desired dates.” If you’re planning a last-minute trip, and you don’t have your heart set on a specific spot, you can also look for last-minute deals from hosts trying to fill their open dates.


22. Consider a longer stay

If time and budget allows, stretch your trip beyond one week. A longer-term vacation rental gives you more time in your destination, and the perk of cost-savings. “Many vacation rentals offer lower rates for longer stays. You may be able to negotiate a discounted rate for a longer rental period, especially if you are renting directly from the owner,” says Griffiths. “Longer rentals can also offer more flexibility with check-in and checkout times.” Plus, you’ll have the chance to really see the destination like a local.


23. Book a midweek trip

Another money-saving trick for vacation rentals? “Book midweek instead of on weekends,” says Griffiths. “Many vacation rentals offer lower rates during the week when demand is lower.” It’s also wise to analyze the lodging cost breakdown by day when you’re booking, notes Sandgren Kempf. “Being flexible and switching your dates by one day earlier or later can make a difference,” she says, using Las Vegas as an example. “The cheapest days to go to Vegas are Sunday through Wednesday; the weekend is higher.”


24. See the total price while searching

Service and cleaning fees can add up for vacation-rental bookers. Often, property booking sites such as Airbnb default to show the nightly price for a property — a price that doesn’t include those cumbersome fees. In late 2022, Airbnb added a “display the total price” feature so you can see the entire cost of a property when searching (note, this does not include taxes). Turn it on via the “display total price” banner on the top of the Airbnb homepage, or you can view it next to the listed price per day. VRBO listings automatically include the nightly cost with the total trip cost (including fees but not taxes) beneath it. On booking sites like FlipKey and Vacasa, you’ll still have to click through each property to see the total cost.


25. Look for views and a vibe

From decor aesthetic to nearby activities, the vacation rental you choose will largely dictate the kind of trip you have. Case in point? If you choose a house with a dazzling view — be it a mountain vista or waterfront panorama — you’re in for hours of deck lounging and golden-hour gazing. In fact, the home becomes a vacation in and of itself. Beyond a house with a great view, Griffiths says many properties offer perks like virtual concierges to help travelers plan their trips. Others provide customized guest experiences like cooking classes, private tours or outdoor adventures, such as kayaking. Check with your host about available experiences, and don’t forget to check out the guestbook when you arrive for local recommendations.


26. Bring starter supplies

Many hosts leave a few days’ worth of supplies like toilet paper and paper towels to begin your trip, says Stoltz. If you’re staying longer, be ready to restock your own supplies at the local grocery store — or pack extra with you if you’re driving. Also, remember that a vacation rental is not like a hotel when it comes to supply stocking and cleaning. “Very few vacation rentals offer daily maid service, and they may or may not provide linens,” says Stoltz. “While the line between hotel and vacation rental can be a bit blurry, if a traveler is looking for a hotel experience there are things that are bound to be disappointing.”


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27. Snap photos upon arrival

Before you settle in and unpack, grab your smartphone and snap photos of every room of the house and its exterior to avoid any post-checkout accusations of damage, such as carpet stains or a broken door handle. Time-stamped evidence like a smartphone photo or video will help you show the state of the house when you arrived. It will also ensure you leave the place exactly as you found it — especially important if you adjust furniture positions during your visit.


28. When something goes wrong, take immediate action

If you’re not satisfied with your accommodations or a part of the property is dangerous or broken, immediately reach out via email, text or phone call to the owner or manager to see if they can fix it quickly, or in cases where the space is unlivable, provide alternative housing options. If they’re unreachable or unhelpful, reach out to the third party if applicable, like VRBO, HomeAway or Airbnb to escalate the issues. The sooner you act, the better. Look up the fine print — are there any written guarantees that cover your issue? If so, refer to them. Take photos, videos and log the timeline.



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