© Hero Images Inc. / Alamy
January 19, 2015

Most of the large booking sites don’t vet all their inventory, so it’s up to you to approach each listing with a critical eye. Below, T+L’s tips for searching intelligently.

Cast a wide net

Start with an aggregator like Tripping.com, which searches more than 2 million listings on partner sites that include FlipKey, HomeAway, and 9Flats. Once you find a rental, see if it’s run by an owner or a management company. The latter can usually respond more quickly and reliably than an owner, who may not have a handyman on call. Note that some properties appear on multiple sites— and rates can vary greatly between them. For example, we found listings for the same house in Palm Springs, California, that ranged from $2,088 (VRBO) to $3,470 (Airbnb) for a week in June.

Know how listings are organized

It’s important to understand how sites display search results. FlipKey, for example, rewards hosts for good behavior (fast response rates, new photos, up-todate calendars) by giving them greater visibility. HomeAway offers tiered membership: the more an owner pays, the higher his listing ranks. (Not always a bad thing: paying more could be a sign of a pro.) Cut through the fat by using the HomeAway Sort, which prioritizes a combination of membership tier and host behavior. On Airbnb, look for listings with a “verified photos” caption (which means the site photographed the property) or a Superhost badge, achieved after hitting various milestones like completing at least 10 stays and receiving 80 percent five-star reviews.

Read reviews

Seeing what past guests have to say can provide invaluable insight into what you are (and are not) getting. When possible, book on sites that authenticate reviews—allowing only people who have actually stayed at the property to write in. Both Airbnb and HomeAway do this. And know the signs of fraud: if there is an unrealistic number of overly gushing reviews, beware.

Be an active participant

When using Airbnb and other rent-by-owner sites, it helps to share a little about yourself (where you’re from, what type of traveler you are) on your profile or in the request to book. Remember: hosts are appraising you as much as you are them. (On Airbnb, instant booking is available only to renters with robust profiles and solid reviews from hosts.) If you have lingering questions for the owner or manager, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone.

What to look for in a listing

Photos: Quantity and quality matter—the more professional looking the pictures, the more serious the host.

Reviews: The best ones reconfirm details and amenities you’ve read about in the listing.

Updated calendars: To avoid inquiring about a property that’s not actually available, always look to see when the host has last refreshed the calendar.

Response time: Hosts typically have 24 hours to respond to a booking request. (Factor this into your planning timeline.) Many sites actually display each host’s average response time—so you can get a sense of when (or if) to expect an answer.

Brooke Porter Katz is the Travel & Food Editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter at @brookeporter1.

Also on Travel + Leisure:
How to Avoid a Vacation Rental Nightmare
A Vacation Rental for Every Type of Traveler
The New Micro Hoteliers

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