Courtesy Kristin Schell
A view from the Schell family's vacation rental in Dana Point, Calif., which they found on vrbo.com.
It was on a trip abroad to Israel with their 18-month-old son that Yen Ha and her husband realized they might need a new approach to travel.
After arriving at the hotel in Jerusalem and putting her baby to sleep for the night, the New York City architect and her spouse were wide awake but without options in their small, unlit room. “At eight o’clock, we sat there in the dark with our iPhones,” she said.
That’s why on a trip to Berlin last year, Ha booked a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen and a common area through the website Airbnb. Ha is hardly alone in making the switch from traditional hotels to private residences, as budget-minded travelers are increasingly seeking to improve convenience on the road and cultivate more authentic travel experiences.
Airbnb reported 10,000 family bookings in January of this year, up from 2,000 in January 2011. Emily Joffrion, an Airbnb spokesperson, attributes the growth to the fact that vacation rentals offer amenities not available in hotels, such as barbecue areas and places where kids can play.
HomeAway, which owns VRBO and other vacation rental sites, said it has seen a 30 percent increase in traffic from 2010 to 2011, with approximately two-thirds of its travelers reporting that they travel as a family or group. HomeAway offers listing services for homeowners; bookings are not transacted directly on the site.
Travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research Group said he expects this trend to continue, with the estimated 12 percent of U.S. leisure travelers who rented a vacation home, condo or villa in 2011 growing to a still-modest 14 percent in 2013. “A portion of that will come at the expense of hotels, motels, and B&Bs,” Harteveldt told msnbc.com.
Kristin Schell of Austin, Texas, said cramped hotel accommodations essentially forced her to find alternative lodging since the average hotel room maxes out at four guests, a number her family of six surpassed two children ago. “It just became cost-prohibitive to rent two hotel rooms,” Schell said. She said she has used HomeAway to rent vacation homes five times in the past five years.
HomeAway North America vice president Jon Gray said the average vacation rental in the company’s portfolio of 640,000 properties worldwide has 2-3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms and costs $1,750 per week. Three hotel rooms at the average price of $98.07 in 2010, the most recent year for which the American Hotel & Lodging Association has data, would cost $2,059 for seven nights, and that does not include fees for WiFi, laundry facilities and other amenities typical of many vacation rentals.
In addition to being larger and more budget-friendly than hotels as well as offering common areas that can be used when little ones head to bed, the ability to cook is an enormous draw for family travelers. Schell said she only had to order an expensive hotel breakfast once to realize it would be better to save on food by having access to her own kitchen while on vacation.
“We have had those breakfasts where we look at each other and go, 'I can't believe I paid that much for an egg,' ” she said, adding that she prefers to splurge instead on attractions and experiences.
For some, staying in a cozy home with books, quirky furniture and other familiar trappings can make a vacation rental a destination in itself. Ha said she likes that vacation rentals are often in offbeat neighborhoods instead of in “tourist commercial areas.”
One thing sites such as Airbnb can’t yet offer travelers is the promise of consistency that can come with staying in a more established global chain. Anonymous property owners can falsely advertise, doctor photos, or post fraudulent reviews of their own places, despite the best efforts of rental sites to quell these practices.
Airbnb has been criticized by travelers who discovered the photos posted by property owners on the site did not match up with reality. The service now offers free third-party photography services for property owners, verifying that the image accurately reflects the rental.
Gray suggested the best evaluation of a HomeAway property is generally found in third-party reviews, which can only be posted by people who have actually stayed in the property they're reviewing.
Still, vacationers like Ha and Schell remain undeterred. Ha said asking a lot of questions helped her weed out some questionable rentals — how fast and with how much detail owners respond can be enlightening.
As vacation rental sites roll out more security measures and start offering reassuring guarantees on trips to consumers, more deal-seeking travelers are likely to take advantage of these services. That is, if they’re even aware they exist.
“Staying in a rented apartment or even just a guest room is very new, not many people think of it,” Harteveldt said. “These companies need to raise consumer awareness that this may even be an option.”
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