How to find the best vacation accommodation online for your travel plans

How to find your perfect holiday rental like this cosy Cotswold cottage | Untold Morsels

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Have you tried booking short stay apartments or villas  or do you prefer to book hotels for your vacation accommodation?

These days there has never been more choice and that can be overwhelming and leave you full of questions. How do you know which properties will suit your travel plans and itinerary? Will you be able to access the services you need? Can you trust the provider? Which booking site should you use?

Given that accommodation is usually one of the biggest travel expenses of your trip, it’s wise to choose carefully.

In this guide we tell you the reasons and situations that we choose vacation rentals over hotels, our preferred booking sites and how to use them plus, most importantly, how to find the best rentals for your trip. 

Our favorite rental sites –  Booking.comVRBO and AirBnB

Reasons to rent an apartment or villa on your travels

best vacation rental sites
Sun sets over the rainforest at our Bali eco lodge accommodation booked on AirBnB

These days we often book short term rentals or vacation apartments and villas for our travel accommodation. We feel using apartments and villas gives us more flexibility, space and value compared to hotels.

We alway book entire properties so privacy is not an issue and we get the benefit of larger space, including living and dining areas, and useful amenities.

Rentals best for family and group travel

best vacation rental websites

When you’re traveling as family or in a larger group of adults, rentals make a lot of sense. 

With two small kids in tow, an extra bedroom can mean the difference between a relaxing trip or one spent with early bedtimes huddled under the bedcovers with your iPad until the little monkeys fall asleep. We also appreciate a kitchen and laundry facilities.

Teenagers enjoy their own space to unwind and you won’t necessarily get that in a hotel or it will drive your costs up. Plus, in this scenario, parents would probably enjoy a break from their teens too.

Traveling as a group of adult friends? A rental works well if you want to enjoy each others company and share accommodation costs.

Click here to get our printable accommodation booking checklist in your inbox

Vacation rentals for longer stays

When you’re staying at a destination for an extended period it’s great to have the space and amenities that you get in a rental.

We like having a lounge and living area to relax in as well as a kitchen to prepare breakfasts, snacks and small meals. A washing machine always comes in handy so you can refresh your clothes and not carry too much stuff. 

Unique accommodation

best holiday rental chateau in france

Lastly, an added bonus is that often these stays have provided a unique insight into our destination that would be impossible in a hotel. In the past we have chosen unique places to stay like an ecolodge in Bali and a chateau in France as part of our trip experiences. We once stayed on a houseboat in Amsterdam. So much fun! 

You can find these accommodations on rental booking sites easily and it adds an extra level of excitement to your vacation. Did you know that you can even book entire islands on AirBnB?

Situations when we choose hotels

Having said that, hotels do have their charm and we do stay in them regularly too. Here are the reasons why we would choose a hotel over a rental property.

If we are only staying one or two nights at a destination or are in transit we find a hotel offers much more convenience than a vacation rental. At hotels you have a place to leave luggage if you arrive early, there is often room service and your check in is more flexible with services to assist with your onward journey.

Bright, clean and modern luxury rooms at the Boutique Hotel Bordeaux

Hotels can be romantic! If you’re headed for a couples getaway then a hotel gives you the opportunity to completely relax and enjoy time with your partner. Room service on the balcony in a fluffy robe anyone? Or a quick nightcap in the hotel bar. There’s nothing quite like having your room made up after a day sightseeing or exploring either. 

10 tips for choosing the best vacation rentals

Over the past 5 years, we have stayed in over 30 vacation rental apartments across Europe and Asia and have learned some tricks and tips on how to secure the best short-term rental stays.

Here is our advice on securing the best vacation rentals for your trip whether you are traveling as a family, with a partner or with your family or as a solo traveler.

1 | Research your destination

Do some initial research about your destination. Find out which neighbourhoods suit the type of trip you are taking and determine your budget.

As a general rule, we find that accommodation just outside city or town centres give the most value for money. Make sure there is easy access to transport links and airports.

Check the average prices for accommodation during the time you wish to travel so you can easily recognise value when you review your options. You’ll also learn when something looks too good to be true. As with most things in life, if you are offered a very cheap price there are usually compromises to be made.

best vacation rental sites
View of Rome’s Campo dei Fiori market from our apartment rented on Booking.com

2 | Know your vacation rental criteria

Each person or travel group has a different view of what is great accommodation. As a rule, the constant criteria for us are location, safety, value and special touches. 

  • neighborhood – do you want to be in a quiet area or one that buzzes with bars and restaurants?
  • price – check for all inclusions and additional costs
  • number of bedrooms and bathrooms you need
  • entire apartment/villa or shared or private rooms within a host’s home
  • flexibility of check in and check out
  • access to free and fast wifi
  • what forms of transport are close by
  • will you need access to free or paid parking spaces nearby
  • does the property have air conditioning and heating

Depending on how you travel – as a family, couple, solo or with friends – you may also want to consider these other factors:

Traveling as a family

  • are children welcome at the property?
  • does the host provide cots for small children or will you need to bring your own
  • is there elevator access if the accommodation is in a multi storey property
  • are there any potentially dangerous features such as unfenced swimming pools, balconies etc
  • is there a laundry at the property

Traveling solo or when safety is a key priority

  • do shared accommodation rooms have locks on doors?
  • you may prefer to stay with female only, couple or family hosts
  • double check the neighborhood and look for clues in reviews
best vacation rental
Treehouse in Queensland Australia available on Booking.com

3 | Book your accommodation as early as possible

The best holiday rental apartments and houses are snapped up quickly. Do your research and book the place you like as soon as you possibly can to avoid disappointment.

Booking at least 3 months before your trip means you have access to the best accommodation available however if you are travelling at peak times we find booking 6 to 9 months in advance yields the best results.

Click here to get our printable accommodation booking checklist in your inbox 

4 | Avoid traveling at peak times

If you can manage it, avoid traveling in Europe in August. The laws of supply and demand are in full force at that time of year with most people taking their annual summer vacation in line with school breaks. This is certainly true in Italy and France where citizens of both countries head to the country and seaside leaving towns all but deserted. 

Prices skyrocket in August at the major seaside towns and resorts.  The best rooms and properties can be snapped up to a year in advance. 

It is also useful to do a quick check of public holidays in your destination country. This handy site lists public holidays around the world by country.

Want to try AirBnB? Click here for free credit on your first stay

5 | Make a short list of properties

Choose 5 potential properties based on the criteria you outlined above. Use the search capability available on the booking site to its full potential to quickly eliminate places that are not suitable.

You can easily narrow your search on most sites to include neighbourhood, price and number of bedrooms and bathrooms. But did you know depending on the site you use you can filter your search for features such as:

  • suitability for families 
  • 24-hour check in
  • proximity to main tourist areas
  • pets allowed

A full list of available filtering options can be found:

  • in the amenities section on AirBnB
  • on the left-hand side of your browser window on Booking.com
  • at the top of the screen under the destination on VRBO

Once you have your shortlist you can compare the properties and choose which one suits you best.

6 | Read the reviews

vacation rental review

I mean really read the reviewsat least 5-10 recent reviews per property. You will quickly discover whether a host is offering standard accommodation and amenities or goes above and beyond to deliver a wonderful stay. 

We do not stay at properties with fewer than 15 recent (within a year) reviews.

Take note if there is a time gap in the positive reviews or if the tone of the review is neutral. Many people don’t like to publish very negative reviews on accommodation sites afraid they will be rejected for future stays.

If you can, filter by traveler type. What appeals to a 20 year old backpacker is not likely to appeal to a family group with children. Booking.com allows you to filter reviews by: families, couples, groups of friends, and solo travelers.

AirBnB has a special superhost badge for “experienced hosts who provide a shining example for other hosts, and extraordinary experiences for their guests”. The criteria for achieving this badge is very strict and includes these conditions:

  • Hosted at least 10 trips
  • Maintained a 90% response rate or higher
  • Received a 5-star review at least 80% of the time 
  • Completed confirmed reservations without cancelling

So you know that this host is likely to provide an excellent service.

Warning – reviews on TripAdvisor are not as reliable as they may seem. The company has not always ensured that the person submitting the review has experienced the property. This has left their review system open to manipulation.

7 | Look at the photos

The more photos the better. That way you can better understand the layout of a property to see if it will work for your travel plans. I also appreciate a floor plan for that reason.

For example, a property may have two bedrooms, but one may be up a steep flight of stairs which is not ideal for those traveling with small children or people with mobility issues.

Look for clear and bright photos that showcase all rooms of the apartment, cottage or villa listed. I’m always wary of listings that focus on the surrounding area rather than the property itself.

how to find the best vacation rentals

8 | Understand the service charges and taxes

When you book a rental property there are usually additional service charges added to the room rate. These can quickly add up so you’ll need to understand the full price you are paying, not simply the base room rate. 

What to look for:

  • cleaning fees
  • local taxes and surcharges
  • security deposit (most common on VRBO)
  • service fees – amount charged by providers to manage your booking

Click here to get our printable accommodation booking checklist in your inbox 

9 | Check the fine print

Each site has its own set of rules, payment terms and cancelation policies. Make sure you read and understand them carefully as they do differ from site to site.

Most Booking.com properties allow free cancelation very close to departure and payment just before or at checkin. Many people, ourselves included, love this feature. 

AirBnB properties are much more likely to have strict cancelation policies where you will only receive a partial refund. Many AirBnB properties take payment for your stay as soon as your booking request has been accepted. The funds are then held by AirBnB and distributed to your host after you have checked in.

VRBO has 5 cancelation policy types varying from ‘No refund’ to ‘relaxed – Bookings cancelled at least 14 days before the start of stay will receive 100% refund’ 

Paying for your stay

We have been caught out a couple of times when renting apartments that required cash on check in or check out. The problem has been resolved quickly but it is best to avoid embarrassment. Some things to note

  • Some Booking.com rentals require cash payments directly to the host who does not accept credit cards
  • Check if additional charges for cleaning, hotel tax or sundries are required to be paid to the host or are included in your rental agreement

10 | Communicate with your host

Great hosts will respond to queries promptly and in detail. You will quickly discover which hosts are professionals and take pride in their accommodation. This is something to look for in reviews too. 

The best hosts anticipate your needs and offer relevant advice about their property and neighbourhood as you proceed with the booking process.

Most of the major booking sites also have 24×7 customer support and concierge services. We use this frequently on Booking.com to make changes to reservations and ask questions.

Favorite accommodation booking sites

There are many online booking sites these days but here are the ones we use regularly because they are easy to use and offer a broad variety of properties. 

Booking.com

booking.com logo

Our favorite site for booking accommodation is Booking.com. We feel it has the best listing of apartments, b&bs, hotels and other specialty accommodation available. This is useful if you want to compare accommodation options for your trip. Using website filters to find your perfect stay is quick and easy.

Many of the properties on Booking.con may be booked with free cancellation which is useful when you are in the initial planning stages. We also like the online customer service.

Click here to search for accommodation on Booking.com

Tripadvisor and Holiday Lettings

holiday lettings by tripadvisor

Industry giant TripAdvisor is another site you can compare hotels and rental properties. you can also book short term rental properties online using TripAdvisor’s booking engine Holiday Lettings which is integrated into the main TripAdvisor site.

Note – When you book hotels you are given several options of hotel booking sites to choose from while lettings are sold direct using PayPal

AirBnB

We have been using AirBnB since 2014 and have stayed in some fantastic places around the world from cities in Europe and Japan to the countryside in Bali. AirBnB boasts over 4 million listings. That is more than the top 5 hotel chains combined, so you’re getting a huge inventory of properties to choose from.

Site search capabilities are easy to use to find and compare properties. Over our many stays we have found the AirBnB hosts to be friendly and offering a personalised touch.

If you haven’t tried AirBnB please feel free to use our link for AirBnB credit when making your first booking. You can receive up to $US 30 or equivalent in local currency.

Click here to search for accommodation on AirBnB

VRBO and HomeAway

vrbo logo

home away logo

VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) offers properties for exclusive rental. That is, there are no shared rooms on the site. We find it useful when booking accommodation for longer stays, particularly in popular resort areas. 

Their parent company HomeAway has listings for more than 2 million homes in more than 190 countries. 

Click here to search for accommodation on VRBO

Finding the perfect vacation rental for your travels

HouseboatinAmsterdam quirkyaccommodationoptions

There is a wealth of choice of accommodation for travelers these days beyond hotels and traditional bed and breakfast options. Putting in a bit of time to research and refine your search will reap big rewards.

Using this approach we have stayed in a chateau in France, a houseboat in Amsterdam and at an eco-lodge in Bali. All for very reasonable prices.

Our hosts have been friendly and helpful and have often provided those little touches that make all the difference on our vacation. Bottles of wine, luxury bathroom amenities, cookies and toys for our children and insider tips on the local neighbourhood are some of the added extras we have enjoyed.

These were all amazing experiences that we would have struggled to find at a hotel.


I’d love to hear about your vacation rental stays. Do you use sites like AirBnB and Booking.com to book accommodation or do you prefer staying in hotels? What has your experience using AirBnB, Booking.com, VRBO or other holiday rental sites been so far?


Click here to get our printable accommodation booking checklist in your inbox 

European accommodation guides by Untold Morsels

For a full list of travel resources we recommend check our travel and trip planning resources page


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16 thoughts on “How to find the best vacation accommodation online for your travel plans

  1. Phoebe | Lou Messugo says:

    Lots of excellent tips here Katy, speaking from both the traveller’s and host’s point of view, especially for single travellers staying in someone’s house We always use either Booking dot com or Airbnb (as a starting point, more on that below) and I quickly totted up that we’ve stayed in 25 in the last 3 years (plus 4 house swaps). A couple of things I’d add would be having found a place you like on Airbnb to try and find it directly if there are any hints in the listing/photos as that way you’ll save a decent amount of money on commission fees (and the host will earn more) so it’s a win win situation. Serious owners will nearly always have their own website and prefer dealing direct. Also if there’s a gap in reviews it isn’t usually anything sinister… hosts don’t have the ability to edit/choose which reviews to publish on either of the sites we’re talking about so it’s not that they’re trying to hide something, it’s just that they didn’t get any reviews from that particular site at that period! I’ve been booked solid in my gite since March but not everyone has written a review, (repeat visitors certainly don’t review each time) and yet I can promise you that everyone has loved their time here (only need to look at the visitor’s book which about 99% of people write in to see that). I think reading the reviews it’s more important to see how the host deals with any criticism if there is any rather than gaps in the time frame.

    • Katy says:

      Thanks so much for your excellent insight Phoebe. It’s an excellent point about the gap in reviews which I had not considered. I imagine it must be difficult for hosts to manage all the different sites and their requirements as well as taking the hit on commissions. I’d be interested to know what the booking aggregators are doing to help owners like yourself given the market is becoming more competitive. Can’t wait to stay in your gorgeous gite someday soon!

  2. Ahila says:

    I wish I had read your post before I made my first AirBnB booking earlier this morning, Katy. Would have been great to have that 25 GBP discount 🙂 Enjoyed reading your post. I am using booking.com and airbnb for the first time, for my upcoming visit to UK later this year, and I found booking.com easy to navigate and love the feature of ‘free cancellation’ because it means that I can choose a few places and then make decisions, once I have decided on my travel route.

    • Katy says:

      Oh no! That’s such bad luck Ahila. Let me know when you are coming to the UK. I’d love to catch up for a coffee if you have time. Free cancellation is a great feature but I hope people don’t abuse it. I have heard of people booking 3-4 places for the same time and cancelling at the last minute which must hurt small operators. See you soon I hope ?

  3. Mandy says:

    I swear by Booking.com and use them for all of my hotels in Europe. Sometimes we’ll use AirBnb for a UK getaway or girl’s trip but I’ve come to really trust Booking.com. Great guide!

  4. fifi + hop says:

    Finally catching up on my reading..have been wanting to read this article since your IG post. Great tips, and so comprehensive. For me, the most important thing has always been to read the reviews – key!!! I will be saving this for our next trip;).

    • Katy says:

      Thank you Ashley. I think these newer options to find accommodation are fantastic and have really enabled our family travel adventures. I love hotels too but the logistics and costs of two hotel rooms can be a bit restrictive when traveling as a family.

  5. Stefanie Ebersbacher says:

    Thank you! Really appreciate your efforts to help us find a holiday. So many beautiful places to choose from…now just have to make a decision! Such a beautiful website full of inspiration.
    Ferienhäuser italien

  6. Tiffany Locke says:

    I like your advice to research your destination in order to find a neighborhood that matches the type of trip you want so that you can find holiday accommodations. It would probably be a good idea to create a list of requirements, such as the number of rooms and whether it has a kitchen, so you can know what you’re looking for in a place to stay. Looking online would probably be the best way to research your destination and look up the accommodation options which will allow you to compare it to your list of requirements in order to determine if you want to stay there.

  7. Jenny says:

    This is such an in depth post, so helpful. I hadn’t actually heard of most of these accommodation sites but Home Away sounds great. I would love to stay on a house boat in Amsterdam, I bet that was really cool!

    Jenny | localleo.co.uk

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