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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 9/23/2008 6:41:59 PM ET 2008-09-23T22:41:59

Are you a bargain hound who loves to find budget travel deals? Are you trying to mastermind a vacation that will work for your entire family – kids included?

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If either of these descriptions applies to you, then a vacation rental home might make sense for your next window of time away from work. The following tips can help you steer clear of avoidable headaches and find a good place to stay.

1. Know what to expect – and what not to expect. By staying in a vacation home instead of a hotel, you’re likely to get more space, a more laidback feeling and more privacy for individual guests and couples. A number of vacation homes will even allow you to bring your pets. On the other hand, staying in a vacation home means you likely won’t have an on-site property manager, maid service or organized activities of any kind.

2. Get the inside scoop from a local. Many people who rent out vacation homes want their guests to have a good time – and then come back again and again. They’re often happy to provide advice on places to go, attractions to avoid, restaurants to try, specific dishes to order and the best routes to take for certain excursions.

3. Save a bundle as a group. For families with children or groups of friends or relatives traveling together, vacation rentals can often result in great bargains. Many hotels boost their rates if a room has more than two occupants, while most vacation homes maintain the same nightly, weekend or weekly rate regardless of the number of guests.

4. Find what you’re looking for. There are vacation homes all over the United States, as well as in Canada, Mexico, Europe, the Caribbean and Central and South America. A quick Internet search for “vacation rentals” will lead you to numerous Web sites where you can shop around and check availability, including VRBO.com, HomeAway.com, CyberRentals.com, GreatRentals.com, VacationRentals.com, VacationHomeRentals.com, Zonder.com and Vamoose.com. When visiting vacation-rental Web sites, read any and all disclaimers carefully. Some companies clearly state that they don’t take responsibility for the bulk of the content on their sites. In other cases, customer reviews must be approved by the owners of the vacation rentals.

5. Know how to conduct business. When making reservations and paying, you’ll often have to deal directly with the homeowner. Be prepared for some – but not all – vacation rentals to have minimum-night-stay requirements. Some will want a deposit in the form of a personal check and full payment by cash or check only. Others will allow you to pay via credit card or through a PayPal account. It’s also common for property owners to require guests to sign lengthy contracts with lots of fine print. After all, they’re trying to protect their properties for the long haul. Just make sure you’re comfortable with this level of responsibility before you commit to anything.

6. Factor in cooking and laundry. The ability to cook your own meals in most vacation rental homes can save you hundreds of dollars in restaurant bills – especially if you’re traveling with a tribe. And the laundry facilities in many homes can allow you to save space when packing.

7. Down time probably won’t equal a bad time. Many vacation homes come stocked with a TV, VCR or DVD player, movies, books, board games, puzzles, playing cards and other fun activities for families with kids. So if it starts pouring outside, it won’t necessarily be the end of the world.

8. Ask the right questions. These include: What amenities and extras does the home have? Are linens, laundry detergent, dish soap, dishes, pots, pans, a coffeemaker, coffee filters, shampoo, soap, etc., included? What restaurants – and entrees – would you recommend? Which nearby grocery stores are the best? Do we have to do any cleaning or other chores before we check out? Is there anyone I can call if problems or questions arise during our stay?

9. Make sure the rental is legal. Some cities and towns have zoning laws that prohibit short-term rentals – typically less than 31 days – in residential areas. Occasionally owners ignore these laws and advertise their homes as vacation rentals – a move that can trigger great frustration and resentment in the neighborhood, especially if vacationers tend to throw loud parties and stay up late. You might be about to book an illegal rental if the owner is evasive when you ask questions about the property, tells you the neighbors aren’t friendly or instructs you to say that you are relatives or business associates if anyone asks. Depending on the situation, you could be fined for staying in a rental unit illegally or asked to appear in court to provide evidence about an illegal rental. Doesn’t sound like a fun ending to a vacation, does it?

10. Trade homes and spend little or nothing. If you’re really after the vacation rental experience and you don’t want to pay a nightly or weekly rate at all, consider swapping homes with people who live in the area where you want to vacation. Numerous networks allow you to do this, sometimes for a nominal fee. Visit HomeExchange.com, HomeLink International or Intervac Home Exchange, or check the free ads on craigslist.org. When meeting people through craigslist and other sites, be sure to interview them in enough detail over the phone or via e-mail to get a good sense that the deal being advertised is real.

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