Oftentimes the best way to get a true sense of a place is by living like a local, or at least avoiding the huge hotel/resorts that ensconce you in a sanitized, corporate version of local culture. Here are five websites that I’ve found extremely helpful in scoring great vacation rental homes and apartments:
AirBnB: This is usually my first stop when I’m looking for hotel alternatives. Their selection of properties is extensive, and you’ll find options ranging from super-cheap futons in someone’s living room to luxurious villas with incredible interior design. The photo galleries and reviews from previous guests are especially helpful.
VRBO: A well-established vacation rental marketplace, VRBO has a pretty large collection of homes to choose from, especially if you’re looking for something within the United States. Unlike AirBnB, you pay the homeowner directly, so use a dash of caution before transferring any funds (reviews from past guests are a good gauge of whether someone’s on the up-and-up).
Homeaway: This site owns VRBO, and is quite similar to its sister site. Homeaway does have a slightly more slick page layout and design.
Boutique Homes: Check this website out if you’re looking for a top-of-the-line, high design, insanely aspirational rental. Scanning through their available homes is a fun activity in itself, and though rates are justifiably pricey, there are a few bargains to be found.
Couch Surfing: On the opposite end of the price scale is Couch Surfing, a place where you can connect with fellow travelers around the world and find hosts willing to put you up for a few days, free of charge. While your accommodations might be humble, the ability to form an instant friendship with a knowledgeable local who also loves travel is invaluable. The community aspect here is crucial, as you’ll rely on other travelers’ reviews to make decisions. You should also be willing to host a few Couch Surfers in your own home–it’s all about reciprocity.
Keep in mind: The process of renting a private home or apartment is very different from making a hotel reservation. You’ll probably have to pay in advance, and cleaning fees are often added on to the total cost. Cancellation policies are more restrictive than hotels, and remember that there ain’t no maid service!
Bonus tip(s): One of my favorite spots for vacation rentals is Palm Springs, California. There’s a multitude of well-preserved mid-century modern homes available, and prices are actually reasonable. Some feature architecture by well-known figures like Albert Frey and Donald Wexler, and many have their own private pools. A few sites catering exclusively to this market include Time and Place, Vacation Palm Springs and Room Service.