January 21, 2012

What You Need to Know About Vacation Rentals

This week I received a link to an article about vacation rentals, and it reminded me of some of the experiences I had before I became a professional travel advisor.

For our first trip to Alaska, I did most of my research using tourism brochures I ordered through the mail. We needed a place in Fairbanks for a few nights before and after a backcountry tour, someplace where we could safely leave our car. We found a B&B that was in a good location and was reasonably priced. On arrival, we learned that in Alaska, pretty much anybody could rent a room out of their house, provide a can of juice and a packaged muffin, and declare themselves a “Bed and Breakfast.” Our host was also a man who was, well, an interesting character. I will just leave it at that.

The day before we were to depart on our tour, we were informed that he was able to book the room for more money from someone else, so we were asked not to return. We weren’t too keen about returning either, or leaving our car there, but now we had less than 24 hours to find alternate accommodations & parking before leaving for a 2 week trip! Soon we found ourselves at a payphone on the corner, calling the tourist information hotline for help. Fortunately we found a very lovely inn, which was every bit the B&B we had imagined, and were able to continue on our vacation with peace of mind.

(Now to be fair, I have to mention that in Seward our B&B was the spare room in the basement of a home owned by an elderly couple. But in this case they were truly lovely people, and in the morning, we were ushered us to a table in a waterfront room where we were served a delicious homemade breakfast.)

Our Alaska experience also came to mind when we were driving through Provence this past spring. I was amazed at all the B&B signs along roads which led to accommodations which looked quite questionable. I wondered how many unsuspecting tourists, pleased at getting a “great deal” for a bed & breakfast in France, showed up only to find that their “quaint” or “charming” rental was not quite what they had pictured.

Another memorable incident was when we booked a condo in Lake Tahoe for Christmas through an ad in the paper. I spoke to the owner on the phone, who was very friendly and answered all my questions. I had a good feeling, so I mailed off a check. We planned to drive up late at night a few days before Christmas, and then family was flying in from around the country on Christmas Eve.

We arrived at the condo well after 10 pm, and looked for the key where the owner said she hid it. Nothing. We spent a frantic half hour searching with a flashlight, then the realization began to hit that we could be victims of a scam. How easy it would be for someone to advertise a non-existent rental, take your money, and then just disappear! It was bad enough worrying about where we were going to sleep for the night, but we also had to figure out what to do with 10 other people arriving on Christmas Eve!

I was finally able to reach the owner by phone, and fortunately she had a relative with a spare key who lived about a half hour away. It turns out that the condo had been put up for sale, and the key was being kept in the management office. We were supposed to go there to pick it up but that message had never been delivered.

My point is not to scare anyone away from renting a bed & breakfast, villa, or private home. My point is to use caution and due diligence. The safest way to book is through a local realtor or management company, who has personally inspected all the properties and can recommend one that is the best fit. (This is especially important when traveling with very young children, when you need to ask very specific questions about safety hazards such stairwells, decks, unfenced yards, etc.) Or contact a professional travel advisor who works with multiple agencies, and can also tap into their network of contacts who can recommend hidden gems they’ve discovered through their own travels.

For help with planning the family vacation of your dreams, contact me at suzette@family-treks.com.

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