By Lindsay Tigar and Tanya Ghahremani
Updated July 30, 2020
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Every traveler has their own style when they go away on vacation. For instance: While some fall asleep long before the plane reaches cruising altitude, others are antsy throughout a red-eye. Or, while some travelers prefer the predictability of their favorite hotel chain, others are forever on the hunt for one-of-a-kind stays off the beaten track on vacation rental sites.

The benefit of renting a home through a vacation rental site when you travel are the domestic perks, which often include a full kitchen, washer/dryer, and other amenities that you don’t always get in a hotel. They’re designed to make you feel more at home in the city you’re visiting, even though you don’t live there.

The concept of having a true home away from home has soared in popularity since Airbnb made its debut more than a decade ago. But even before technology made home rentals accessible to the masses, many jet-setters invested in timeshares, home swaps, and vacation rentals via agencies. 

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For families who view space as a luxury, and those who want to save a pretty penny by cooking most meals in their kitchen, home exchanges and rental sites are often the best option for getaways. Even for couples or large groups (say, for a bachelorette party), homes cut down on overall cost and provide a more private experience for celebrations. 

And in response to the global coronavirus pandemic, vacation rental companies like Airbnb and Sonder are taking extra measures to make sure properties are thoroughly cleaned between stays and implementing features like contactless check-in and concierge service to ensure guests stay safe during their travels.

If you’re interested in a vacation rental for your next trip but not sure where to start, this guide of the best companies offering properties around the world will help you navigate.

Sonder

If you’re looking for travel lodging that isn’t a home someone is renting out, but also isn’t quite a hotel, look no further than Sonder. The vacation rental company offers a unique approach to hospitality for the millennial age: Stylish lofts, apartments, and rooms in major cities all around the world with meticulously decorated aesthetics, completely digital contactless check-in and concierge systems, and unlimited stays. 

The next-gen hospitality company offers lodging in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Dubai, Rome, and London — amongst others — as well as a variety of room sizes and even full apartments. Want an entire two-bedroom flat in London for two months, complete with a full kitchen, couch, television, and washer and dryer? You got it. Or are you just looking for a studio-sized room in Boston that offers a small kitchenette and a place to rest your head after a long day? They’ve got that too. Booking a room with Sonder will also assure you can access round-the-clock support from the company’s concierge team, who will be there to help you out with whatever you need during your stay — whether that stay is a week long or a month long.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Sonder has taken steps to ensure safe stays in its properties. With its Travel Well initiative, Sonder has dedicated itself to heightening cleaning guidelines between guest stays, as well as following Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization guidelines to ensure that all safety measures are taken to keep both guests and staff safe. Guest support and check-in have also been transitioned to virtual, so you don’t even have to come into contact with anyone when you arrive for your stay.

To book: sonder.com

Airbnb

It’s hard to believe Airbnb has been around for more than 10 years. Since its founding in 2008, it’s grown immensely, with 6 million listings in 100,000 cities and 191 countries and regions. This means you can pretty much guarantee you’ll find an apartment, home, room, or even a boat for a short-term rental no matter where your wanderlust takes you. In recent years, it’s expanded to also offer Airbnb Experiences, which give travelers the opportunity to do destinations as a local would. Curated by experts within communities, you can expect everything from a cooking class to a street art walking tour and beyond.

Regardless of which Airbnb avenue you take, when searching for a place to stay, make sure to set the parameters for what you need from your lodging. The site’s easy-to-navigate platform allows you to choose a private room within a home or an entire place to yourself, as well as a plethora of amenities like air conditioning, car seats or strollers in house, WiFi, washers/dryers, and even pools or hot tubs. Most recently, the company has expanded to offer Airbnb Plus, which highlights homes and hosts that have been vetted and are rated highly for quality of service, design, and, of course, comfort. 

Airbnb has also taken extra measures to protect guests and hosts during the coronavirus pandemic: Listings now detail if hosts are taking extra cleaning measures recommended by the CDC between guest stays, and Airbnb is offering more flexibility for travelers whose plans may have been canceled by sudden travel restrictions.

To book: airbnb.com

Love Home Swap

As an Airbnb alternative, Love Home Swap is often considered the pick for coordinating home exchange. Unlike other popular vacation rental sites, the concept is more trading places, less renting. It was founded by a United Kingdom-based mother of two who enjoyed this type of arrangement for her family and wanted to create a safe marketplace of beautiful homes. On the platform, you can find more than 80,000 homes in 160 countries, all ranging in price, style, and amenities. Generally speaking, Love Home Swap gets major kudos from customers for the high-end appeal of the properties. You can find multi-bedroom apartments in many cosmopolitan cities, châteaus, villas, and all sorts of gems that will make your Instagram that much more impressive.

You don't always have to put your own home or apartment up for grabs during the same time period to book, though. Love Home Swap offers the option to swap at different times or to swap points instead of homes. This means you could technically book on the site without someone staying at your home, but you'll instead give them points (which can be converted to cash) for the stay. The best case scenario, of course, is to have your home listed, which will definitely cut down on the cost.

To book: lovehomeswap.com

VRBO (Home Away)

This Expedia-owned company recently joined forces with HomeAway to move forward as VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner). As the name suggests, it's a platform that gives homeowners the power to set up listings for their property or properties. What sets VRBO apart is that the company only offers vacation rentals, so you won’t be tiptoeing around anyone’s prized coffee mugs or wondering what’s behind a locked closet door, because you’re not staying in anyone’s actual home — you’re staying in homes owned by people for the sole purpose of renting them out as vacation homes.

The biggest fans of VRBO are families with kids since most of their listings are expansive and located in popular destinations throughout six continents. Nearly all listings will have a kitchen and kid-friendly offerings, but it’s important to read the fine print and also check the reviews before booking. The owners of the vacation rentals themselves are responsible for upkeep, so to avoid being disappointed, exercise your research skills to find a trustworthy spot.

To book: vrbo.com

FlipKey

Another Airbnb alternative, FlipKey is a marketplace that’s making its way up to compete with other vacation rental sites. It’s a subsidiary of TripAdvisor that taps into the home exchange market. With more than 300,000 properties in 179 countries, you’ll find plenty of options for every type of vacay. Like VRBO, all of the homes are private vacation rentals, so you won’t have to worry about a temporary roommate interrupting your afternoon nap. Similar to TripAdvisor’s site, you are able to sort through a variety of features and amenities when you’re looking for the right place to book. Whether you want a condo, apartment or a villa, one with a pool or a hot tub, or one that’s walking distance to bars and restaurants, you can easily sort through hundreds of listings.

Using the wealth of information TripAdvisor has collected from travelers' reviews, you will also be given city guides, food blogs, and other helpful know-how that could make planning your trip easier.

To book: flipkey.com

Paris Perfect

This Europe-only rental site may be news to your ears, but it’s been around since the late 1990s. It was founded by three sisters and offers luxury vacation rental properties throughout London, Italy, Provence, and of course, Paris. If you’re staying in the City of Lights, nearly all of the listings offer views of the Eiffel Tower and are located in the tourist-friendly and accessible neighborhoods of the 6th and 7th arrondissement. To ensure an upscale — and often romantic — experience, a team member from Paris Perfect personally vets all apartments or homes.

Last year, the brand also launched Paris Perfect Shared, a real estate venture that allows guests to own a pied-a-terre in Paris at a much more affordable price. This means you can actually make an income from a rental — and travel at the same time.

To book: parisperfect.com