Vacation Rentals and HomeAway

This is a big weekend for vacation rentals. HomeAway.com is running an ad in the Super Bowl! This will introduce vacation rentals to millions of North Americans and put vacation rentals in the travel accommodation mainstream. My website SlowEurope.com gives you the tools you need to find and book vacation rentals in Europe, but I am not running a Super Bowl ad. Instead I am writing this blog post to give my view of vacation rentals.

What Are Vacation Rentals?

Vacation rentals are called many things – villas, vacation homes, holiday cottages, self catering, short term rentals – but all these terms refer to the same thing, a fully furnished and equipped apartment or house that is rented out by the day or week. Vacation rentals are an alternative to staying in hotels or B&Bs when traveling.

Vacation rentals have been a popular type of vacation accommodation in Europe for decades but they were usually booked by Europeans. Most Americans traveled on tour buses and stayed in hotels. In the last decade Americans have discovered this alternative accommodation and have changed the way they travel in Europe.

Italian Villa in an Olive Grove
Italian Villa in an Olive Grove

In the last ten years vacation rentals have become popular in North America, thanks to the HomeAway websites. Years ago you could rent a cottage at the shore or a condo in Hawaii, but when traveling anywhere else you stayed in a hotel, usually one from a national chain. Now vacation homes of all shapes and sizes are available for rent in most parts of the US and Canada.

Read everything you need to know about vacation rentals in the Slow Europe Vacation Rentals Guide.

It All Comes Down To a Vacation Rental, an Owner and a Traveler

Vacation rentals are big business, but they are also literally a cottage industry. A cottage is for rent, a traveler rents it. It all comes down to a vacation rental, an owner and a traveler.

  • Some owners have their property represented by a vacation rental agency. The agency takes the bookings and payments. They may look after the property for the owner. The vacation rental agency does not own the property.
  • Other owners decide to purchase a listing on a rent-by-owner website like HomeAway and take the bookings and payments themselves.

No matter if you book with an agency or directly with the owner, you are booking an individually owned property and many times when you arrive it is the owner who greets you (or who has put the key under the flowerpot and left the House Book for you).

So, you have two choices when booking: vacation rental agency or directly with the owner.

This week I am writing about rent-by-owner websites. Next week I will write about vacation rental agencies. Both have their pros and cons.

Vacation Rentals in the Analog Ages

Before we all moved onto the Internet (pre-1995) it was difficult to find and book vacation rentals. I wrote to tourist offices and asked for lists of places for rent (these were the analog version of rent-by-owner websites), then phoned the European owners in the middle of the night (which was during their working hours). Or I contacted US or UK vacation rental agencies and got them to mail me their glossy catalogs. Sometimes we just showed up at the local tourist office to see what was available nearby.

On one trip we met a couple from Holland who drove around the Tuscan countryside looking for vacancy signs. They ended up in the apartment beside ours on an estate outside of Siena. We had paid about 50% more and booked from a glossy catalog six months earlier.

When traveling in North America we stayed in those wonderful countryside motel-type places with a row of cabins – little cottages with a kitchen – the old style version of vacation rentals. They were cheap and you did not book ahead.

Paris Apartment With a View
Paris Apartment With a View

The Rise in Popularity of Rent-By-Owner Websites

When vacation rentals moved from print to websites, VRBO arrived – a website with lists of vacation rentals that you booked directly with the owner, via email or phone. They were the first on the Internet (started in 1995) and they were the biggest. VRBO was known for its ugly website with lists of thousands of worldwide vacation rentals. Now their website is pretty and they are owned by HomeAway.

VRBO changed everything in the vacation rental world. If we found the agencies were too expensive or did not want to spend any time helping us choose, we could go online and spend hours looking at the VRBO listings, then email or phone the owners directly. VRBO forced the agencies to become more competitive and service oriented (most of them).

HomeAway was founded in 2005 by Brian Sharples and Carl Shepherd in Austin Texas. They started small, but like many things Texan, became big. They immediately bought VRBO and the other leading rent-by-owner websites: CyberRentals.com, GreatRentals.com, TripHomes.com, A1Vacations.com, Holiday-Rentals.co.uk (the leading site in the United Kingdom) and FeWo-direkt.de (the leading site in Germany). In 2007 they added Abritel.fr (the leading site in France), VacationRentals.com and OwnerDirect.co.uk (the second leading site United Kingdom).

Do you see a pattern here? World domination of the rent-by-owner market!

HomeAway does not hide their site ownership. All their sites clearly show that they are part of the HomeAway group.

HomeAway is the Industry Leader

“With nearly 430,000 paid vacation rental home listings across 120 countries, ranging from condos to castles, HomeAway makes it easier than ever to find and compare the vacation rental homes. ” from the HomeAway.com website

HomeAway is not a vacation rental agency, they do not go out and select the perfect vacation rental properties in tourist destinations. HomeAway does not own the properties that they rent. HomeAway is a company that runs several websites where vacation rentals owners pay to be listed. HomeAway does not take the photos and write the property description, they do not take the bookings and the payment. The owner does this. If someone owns a vacation rental and pays the yearly fee, they are on HomeAway.

HomeAway is the place where owners of vacation rentals and travelers meet. HomeAway runs top quality websites with good cataloging and searching features. If I want to find a one-bedroom vacation rental in Italy near Lucca, I can find a list of them in a few clicks. I look at photos, read descriptions, check prices and availability, make my shortlist, contact the owners and then make my choice. The world of vacation rentals is at my fingertips.

It is Not All About Grand Villas for a Large Group

The popular travel press sometimes makes it seem like vacation rentals are for groups of ten affluent friends. This is not true. Vacation rentals come in all sizes, from a cute cottage for two to a magnificent villa for twenty. You might be in a cottage on a farm, or in a house in a village or an apartment in a city – many types of vacation rental accommodations are available.

Steve and I have been staying in vacation rentals in Europe for over 20 years. They are our primary form of travel accommodation. Usually it is just the two of us, but sometimes we have a friend join us and once we went with a large group and stayed in a villa.

English Cottage in a Cotswold Village
English Cottage in a Cotswold Village

Vacation rentals are an affordable accommodation choice. Prices per person per night are usually lower than equivalent hotels. You get more space and you can do some of your own cooking. This makes for a very enjoyable and “slow” travel experience.

Expect Different Booking Procedures

The main difference between vacation rentals and hotels are the booking and paying procedures. Because you are renting an apartment or house and not a room in a hotel you are expected to put down a sizable deposit (25% or more) which is not refundable if you cancel. Many also require full payment to be made 30 – 60 days before arrival. In Europe many owners do not take credit cards and you must wire-transfer your payment. Procedures vary by owner so be sure to review the booking procedures.

It makes sense to purchase travel insurance in case you have to cancel for illness in the family. (As a side note, we never buy travel insurance and in all our years of travel only had to cancel once.)

Beyond HomeAway

I always check the HomeAway sites first but there are other good competitors. These rent-by-owner websites are not part of the HomeAway group:

Farm stays are popular in Europe and there are many sites that put you in contact with the owners:

  • Agriturismo.it – Farms in Italy, with B&B or vacation rentals
  • Gites-de-France.com – Farms and other vacation rentals in France
  • FarmStay.co.uk – Farms in the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland) with B&B or vacation rentals

Give Vacation Rentals a Chance!

When it comes to vacation rentals in Europe, I am a broken record. Traveling to Europe? Stay in a vacation rental. Traveling to Europe? Stay in a vacation rental … On your next trip to Europe, or anywhere, try a vacation rental. If you hate it, send me an angry email. If you love it, send me a happy email and write a review for Slow Europe so that others can benefit from your experience.

And now, back to the Super Bowl – Who Dat!! 🙂

Resources

Remember to use my Slow Europe website to find vacation rentals in Europe. I list my favorite resources by country and region – local agencies, farms, rent-by-owner websites and more – to make your searching easier. We also collect your reviews.

Published by

Pauline Kenny

Pauline Kenny and Steve Cohen are US expats living in Dorset. We moved to the UK in 2010. Read about our move. If you would like to talk about travel, please join us on the Slow Europe Travel Forums.

17 thoughts on “Vacation Rentals and HomeAway”

  1. On Jan 16th, Sylvia Guarino said ( http://www.sloweurope.com/blog/2010/vacation-rental-talk/homeaway-super-bowl/ )”I am a fussy owner. I am a fussy renter. The more I know about a rental guest and the more I know about a rental owner, the more confident I am in the transaction.”

    I agree with both statements Sylvia, and it works best for both sides therefore to deal direct and not via an agency. Excellent post Pauline, and I look forward to your promised article about rental agencies, pros and cons: I’m sure there will be some vigorous debate from both sides!

  2. Great post Pauline and I agree totally that vacation rentals are the way forward, offering so much more flexibility and interest than hotels. We’ve been converts of 10 years!

    Your comment about HA and world domination was interesting. I think it’s important that owners and renters are given good, viable alternatives. But they need to be credible alternatives creating value; not with an expectation of being bought out for millions by HA. And for me at least that’s where 2010 will be interesting – to see who can stand up and offer something different, but with lasting value. That’s certainly our ambition. But crikey it’s tough!

  3. Interesting article Pauline. HomeAway is very good for the clients because of its vast offer, but from an individual owner perspective, large portals are not the best option, because your property gets lost in the enormous offer.

    They are doing some interesting stuff in terms of marketing I think, such as the Gran Turismo project. I guess after the crisis they also so a decrease in the demand. Let’s hope their work brings back vacation rentals into the spotlight after a couple of years during which hotels and all-inclusive packages were more popular than slow and independent travel.

  4. Good article.

    I know there are a lot of people who are influenced by what you write and that you are at heart someone who wants to see the real country and not a tour-guided corporate offering, so I hope I am permitted to add a bit more.

    I feel there is a missing paragraph entitled ” Beyond ‘ Beyond HomeAway’ ”

    Trying to get people go beyond the department store / supermarket shopping ethos and go REALLY direct, direct to the owners actual website, is still quite a challenge – there are still a lot ‘scams’ and ‘corporate fleecings’ out there.

    If someone, having found an area that might interest them to visit, does a targeted web search, they will find that there are a lot of people, like myself, who refuse to hike the prices of their vacation rentals just to line the the pockets of this NEW generation of middle men.

    If you interested in a particular property, do another search. It is quite surprising how some owners have given in the pressures put upon them by these shop-front sites. I won’t do it but others, for example, will advertise the same property with a series of different names on a series of different sites and charge you hundreds of Euros more for the privilege.

    My list of gripes with these Vacation Rental databases and their prices could go on. Maybe I should make my own, if I can’t beat them. … LOL

    Bruce, Cascina Aie Holiday Cottages, Italy

  5. With all the talk about the upcoming homeaway super bowl commercial, I found it interesting that there are several low budget videos doing their own version of why it’s best to get all the information you can before you book.

    One of these was created by Second Porch President Brent Hieggelke, whose 2 (of 3 I believe) kids insisted that they make a video to promote their dad’s business.

    It’s cute and shows how youtube can help to make a presentation for your own place. If you want to take a look, you can go here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AX-gAuPUPSM

  6. That is a very good point Gloria. The HomeAway-type sites are great if you know exactly where you want to stay. For example, I use them to find rentals in the Cotswolds in England because I know exactly where I want to stay – so can search for rentals in a specific town. But if you are new to a country and know the region where you want to go, for example “Tuscany”, but do not know which area you want to stay in, the list of choices is overwhelming. I tend to give up and either search on google hoping to find owner websites or look for a local agency.

    Maybe as these HomeAway sites become more popular and get even more listings, they will outlive their usefulness – because they will be too difficult to use. Then they may rely on priority listings so people can get their listings at the top.

    For anyone looking for vacation rentals in Italy, here are the owner sites from Bruce and Gloria who posted above:

    Cascina Aie – B&B and vacation rentals in the Piedmont, Italy

    Casina di Rosa – vacation rental in Tuscany, west of Siena

    Behind the Tower – vacation rental apartment in Pisa, Tuscany

    Bruce, I will add you to Slow Europe since you have two vacation rentals.

    Gloria, I have been waiting for you to finish your renovation on the Pisa apartment before I add you to Slow Europe. My “rule” for being on Slow Europe is that the owner/company has to have 2 or more vacation rentals to be listed – this is only because I would be swamped with listings if I did individual ones (and would have to keep careful track to be sure people were still offering their place for rent). I will add your places to Slow Europe today.

  7. Jane, I forgot to add your site Your Holiday Matters to the original post but have added it now. Your Holiday Matters is a great site with vacation rentals in Europe – all the owners are checked and vetted before being put on the site. I have looked thru the rentals on that sites many times and hope to book one of them soon!

    Andy, I know your site Getaway Earth and am following you on Twitter now. I would like to add you to Slow Europe but will email you with some questions. There are new rent-by-owner sites starting, and some that HomeAway did not purchase, so there is competition – which is good.

    Another good rent-by-owner resource which I forgot to mention is my old website Slow Travel Classifieds.

  8. Great blog, Pauline, which I have only just discovered, thanks to a nudge from Jane at YourHolidayMatters.

    I agree with Bruce and others and would love to see the stranglehold of the Home-Away group broken and its inexorable march towards world domination halted. We listed with Owners Direct with our previous B&B and did OK for a couple of years. When we opened the new B&B and the old one became a rental we kept the original house on OD as a rental and for a little while it delivered. Then it was bought by HA and all of a sudden the enquiries just disappeared.
    This may be that it coincided with the economic woes of the UK, and OD is very much an English-language targeted site, but I don’t see it that being the whole story.
    I think it is more likely that the problem is as Gloria says “from an individual owner perspective, large portals are not the best option, because your property gets lost in the enormous offer”.

    With the exception of Homelidays, which is pretty big but always delivers well for French enquiries for both B&B and rental, our best site is Spain-Holiday, which gets enquries from all over Europe at a fraction of all the HA site prices : we once asked a French customer who contacted us initially by phone, how he found us and he said ‘Well, we weren’t sure where in Spain we wanted to go so I just googled “vacances en Espagne” (logically enough!).

    It is possible that travellers may become increasingly wary, through the publicity about fraudulent sites and non-existent properties, and so blogs like yours and sites like YHM which has for its raison d’être the accreditation of owners, will become increasingly important.

    There are of course things that individual owners can do to increase their bookings year-on-year, and that is to be sure that their property more than lives up to expectations in every respect. Any owner who has been in business for three years or more and never had a repeat booking or a referral from a previous customer, should ask him or herself ‘why not?’ because this would be a pretty unusual situation in my experience.

  9. Hi Jane, thanks for your comments. We have Spain-Holiday listed as a recommended resource on Slow Europe:
    http://www.sloweurope.com/reviews/202/spain-holiday/

    If possible, can you ask one of your visitors to send in a review?

    What I am trying to do on Slow Europe is guide people to good vacation rental resources by country and region. I list local agencies, farms, groups of apartments, best rent-by-owner resources, tourist offices.

  10. Thanks very much for adding Your Holiday Matters Pauline, very kind of you and we will make sure you’re extremely well cared for when you book, it goes without saying!

  11. Recognizing that vacation rental owners outside the USA are probably much less interested in the Super Bowl and the Homeaway ad launched at the SB, I am curious about any impressions.

    There is a pretty lively debate taking place on line regarding the Homeaway ad. Those who thought it was brilliant and able to drive new business to vacation rentals, and others who thought that the company totally missed the point in what makes a vacation rental special.

    Just wondering if anyone feels one way or the other on this board.

    My personal opinion is that the ad does help bring the concept of vacation rentals to light, but does little to nothing to make travelers interested in them.

  12. I thought the ad was good as a way of directing people to their website. According to the Austin Business Journal it was a success, increasing traffic to the site by 500% on Sunday. HomeAway says pricey Super Bowl ad a ‘huge success’

    But, I did not like the short movie because it was all about hotel negatives instead of vacation rental positives. Since this is the beginning of a longer ad campaign, they will probably focus on vacation rental positives in the next movie.

    At a cost to HomeAway of $3 million, we will all be paying for this. Owners with the high yearly rates to list on HomeAway and travelers like me when the owner raise their rental rates to cover the advertising.

    To be fair, some hotels are bad but many are great IMO. Same with vacation rentals. I like hotels, but only for a short stay. The best thing about vacation rentals, for me, is that they let me comfortably spend a week or two in one place.

    Sylvia, can you post some links to discussions online about the commercial? It would be fun to read them. I will check over at Lay My Hat – they are probably talking about it there!

  13. Hi Pauline. I think it is irrefutable that the ad sent traffic to the site, but the running commentary often appears to criticize the content much in the way you just did.

    As one would expect, the liveliest of the debates are among VR owners and there have been dozens of posts on the yahoo vacation rentals owners board:

    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/vacation_rentals/message/74202

    Which you will not be able to see unless you are a member of the group. I don’t participate but I read the posts and this topic brought out a lot of discussion, pro and con the ad with—it seems—a split down the middle.

    There is also a bit of a debate going on on Techcrunch.com:

    http://techcrunch.com/2010/02/08/superbowl-ads-scored-web/

    And here’s a link to a few opinions on the subject:

    http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-37614-Austin-Market-Examiner~y2010m2d8-HomeAway-ad-scores-Super-Bowl-traffic-gets-mixed-reviews?#comments

    As well as some marketing “experts” weighing in all over the web, this one from Adage.com talking generally about the ads:

    http://adage.com/superbowl10/article?article_id=141985#comments

    All of these are from yesterday, the “day after”, so I don’t know what this day has inspired in the way of comments, but if you google “Homeaway Super Bowl Ad”, I’m sure you will find more than I have here.

    Since I no longer advertise on Homeaway, from a vr owner standpoint, I don’t feel that my money was ill spent but I don’t think they accomplished what I wish could have been accomplished.

    From a marketing professional standpoint, I think they spent a whole lot of money for marginal benefits to the vr owners. Again, some of these little, home made video pieces, like the one from Second Porch, make their points quicker, clearer and incredibly inexpensively (as in free!).

  14. Thanks Sylvia – I will follow those links. (Sorry about your post getting lost – the WordPress software put it in the spam folder because of the number of links and I forgot that it does that.)

  15. I’ve also been reading the online hype and debate around the success or otherwise of the HA ad. It was quite amazing to witness the anticipation build and then the post ad debate explode.

    Looking at some of the figures being quoted, the game was watched by a staggering 100m+ people in the US. That’s double the State of the Union address and four times that of American Idol. Following that ad, some reports suggest that visits to the HA site were up more than 500% on the day after the ad. So, no doubt about it, an ad in that slot reached a lot of people and drove traffic to the site. Not to mention the amount of discussion and resulting awareness I’m seeing in all areas of the web.

    I’m no marketing expert but personally I think they made a bold and calculated move which signals a strong desire to accelerate rapidly beyond 450,000 listings. We don’t know what ROI criteria they have, nor what they are spending all in on this campaign, but let’s try and take a stab at the numbers…

    The slot on prime time cost around $2.5m according to a lot of sources. Someone help me out, is that just air time? Surely the real cost would be substantially more if you factor in production and licensing costs? Anyone’s guess but let’s go with $5m all in. How many listings do they need, assuming a certain return rate for their capital, to make the investment a success? I would say anywhere between 7,000 and 8,000 listings, assuming an average base listing fee of $300 and assuming those new owners put faith in HA for 3 consecutive years. That’s just a 2% increase in listings. For us at Getaway Earth 7,000 incremental listings would be enormous, but for HA it’s a small number and I would have thought very achievable.

    It will certainly be part of a wider campaign and therefore the success will depend on whether the overall campaign delivers the required return. This we may never know because it’s always so hard to assess a return on marketing $. But, if they continue to achieve the increased levels of visitors, then I think they have a good chance of success in the short to medium term.

    In the end though, if they have long term success on their mind, it boils down to one question: Will they deliver enough renter traffic to keep owners listing? I personally hope that people see the worth in trying alternative sites; naturally I hope ours is one of them!

  16. Good article and I follow with interest on your facebook page too.

    I have not seen the HA ads as don’t watch Superbowl but we advertised with HomeAway them for two seasons as it appeared to be the ‘thing to do’ and they do operate in all the main european market languages we attract so was a good route to take while our website was finding its feet 🙂

    We have just decided not re-sign..as ‘rural holiday cottages’ as opposed to ‘villas with pools’ were lost in the thousands to choose from.

    We are into year 2 of renting our cottages direct to people looking for vacation rentals or ‘self catering holiday cottages’ in england speak or ‘gite’ in French speak 😀

    Here I think lies another article in the making…often when people are making their list of needs for searching for their vacation rental, it is worth giving some thought to the terminology best used for the search as between different countries the descriptions vary hugely…without hotel style class ratings some descriptions can be misleading or ‘romantic’ at the very least! My favourite is the effusive and very subjective use of the word ‘luxury’ 😀

    We enjoy getting the kind of reservations from people who have already read the reviews kindly submitted by some of our previous guests on independent traveller sites such as Trip Advisor and then who visit our website, research the places we suggest as of interest around us – we are not in the tour guide main catchment for the ‘Loire Valley’ but are within 60 mins of it all so when people book with us via this route they expectations are met more closely…

    As a business this route works well for us, as a renter of holiday rentals ourselves it is certainly the way I go about booking…the information is now so much more available, in a book direct market the onus on research is on the renter, the onus on the property owner is to offer clear replies to emails, clear descriptions on websites, a warm welcome and good service delivery on arrival. Where possible the pleasant suprise that all is even better than hoped for 🙂

Comments are closed.