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After scouring rental websites, emailing with prospective landlords and finally settling on a studio apartment, I arrived in London to check out my $230-a-night digs. I collected a hidden key and lugged my suitcase to a second-floor flat in a brick row house in Islington, opened the door with a bit of trepidation and breathed a deep sigh of relief.
As a veteran of more than a dozen web vacation rentals, I’ve learned that booking one can be like looking for love on an internet dating site: What you see in an online photograph may not be what you get in real life. One upscale California rental turned out to be just feet from a busy freeway on one side and a noisy public beach on the other. A day camp opened to shouting kids at 8 a.m. under our bedroom window. No surprise — we departed early and succeeded in getting our money back for unused nights.
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But when you choose well, the vacation payoffs are huge. Staying in a welcoming home, with space for lounging and a kitchen for making your own meals, makes me feel more like a local than a tourist. And even the highest-end rentals can end up being less expensive than staying in a “nice” hotel.
For example, I rented with my extended family a $13,000-a-week, five-bedroom villa on Hawaii’s island of Kauai. It had the prettiest lagoon-like private pool I’ve ever seen — and divided 13 ways, we paid less than if we’d stayed at a similarly swank resort. It was a perfect family reunion spot.
Then there was the apartment I rented on Airbnb in Lafayette, La., that was attached to an artist’s home. For $90 a night, it included complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres and breakfast delivered to the door, and the hospitable host offered great insider advice on what to see and eat in Cajun Country.
However, to find astonishing accommodations, renters need to be smart about the red flags that may show up in the search. I once crossed a certain Mexican hideaway off my list, for instance, because the owner (who would be on-site in a guest house) was overly chummy — offering to share margaritas and daily outings with his guests.
But back to London. When I arrived at that Islington studio last fall, I was thrilled to be greeted by light pouring in through floor-to-ceiling windows. The bed was king-size and comfy, a small glass dining table sat invitingly next to a fireplace, and the kitchen was well stocked. I felt completely at home.
The art of the deal
- Get the exact address and use a map app or Google Earth to survey the neighborhood to ensure you will be where you will be comfortable and well located.
- Communicate with homeowners or rental agents by e-mail or phone. Ask about noisy neighbors, property rules, amenities (free Wi-Fi is key for me).
- Give priority to rentals that have reviews. You’ll find out pros and cons from past tenants.
- Sign a contract that seems reasonable (know that websites may charge service fees, and most landlords require refundable damage deposits).
- Only send payment to a real estate agency or through a reputable website (such as Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO, TripAdvisor Rentals). If asked to pay outside the site, beware of a scam.