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Vacation rentals can save money, but it's buyer beware

Group rates, a free night, a round of golf -- deals can be found online. But do business with reputable companies.

July 05, 2009|Terry Gardner

Here's a no-lose proposition: You get better accommodations, you get them for less and you get other discounts.

We're talking vacation rentals. Families or groups can save on the per-night cost versus a hotel, generally speaking, and by preparing and eating meals in. Rentals may offer more privacy than a hotel room and may even allow Fido, which means you'll save on the kennel bill.

And now there are other reasons to rent.

"With the current bad economy, we are seeing two types of deals: a percentage off -- anywhere from 10% to 30% -- or the rental [that] sometimes comes wrapped with a fifth night free when you book four nights," said T.J. Mahony, chief executive of Flipkey.com, a vacation rental site (owned by TripAdvisor.com).

"If an area is dependent on tourism . . . attractions begin offering discounts. Frequently, property managers have group discounts available."

Eileen Buesing, a spokesperson for HomeAway Inc., owner of several vacation rental websites including Homeaway.com and VRBO.com, says a recent HomeAway vacation rental marketplace survey revealed about two-thirds of their vacation rental property owners are trying to stir interest with deals and incentives. These include discounted rental rates and leniency on booking dates (no minimum stay).

Add to that rounds of golf, ferry fare and discounted admission to amusement parks, said Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com, a website that features travel news, deals and advice.

For rentals, Banas likes Flipkey.com, Homeaway.com and VRBO. "Flipkey is one of the few that have actual guest reviews (though not for every property yet)," she said in an e-mail. "VRBO and Homeaway are quite comprehensive and offer a lot of photos and an availability calendar. VRBO also offers some reviews in its 'guestbook' (though again, not on every property)."

Travel & Leisure magazine named Flipkey, which has more than 90,000 properties worldwide, its top vacation rental site in 2008. Flipkey has more than 85,000 guest reviews posted. (Guests must be invited by Flipkey, by e-mail, to post a review based on confirmed booking records). Flipkey's user-friendly structure lets you sort rentals by dates, number of rooms/guests and price.

More than half of Flipkey's properties are represented by property managers, who often create packages that include coupons, kids' activities and discounts. Because the extra amenities may not appear on the website, Mahony suggests e-mailing or calling the property manager or owner.

HomeAway guarantees that its properties exist -- a vacation rental concern. Flipkey does not, but both companies verify that the property managers and/or owners are who they claim to be. Both advise renters to get and sign a rental agreement before sending a deposit for a vacation rental (typically 10% to 30%). Mahony says managed properties usually accept credit cards and many take Paypal.

Mahony and Buesing recommend contacting several owners or property managers before settling on a rental. Mahony recommends keeping the contact friendly. "Don't approach it as a negotiation," Mahony said. "Just say something like: 'I read there are some special things being offered -- like free attractions or a round of golf?' Let them know you're just exploring options."

travel@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A few homes

away from home

Here are some of the properties for rent:

In Tuscany, Italy: A seven-bedroom, five-bath villa with pool for less than $300 a night. Info: www.flipkey.com/ properties/view/84414/villa+del+ cielo+with+caminetto/

In Napa: A three-bedroom, 2 1/2 -bath bungalow (main house and private garden studio) within walking distance of old town Napa begins at $295 a night. Info: www.flipkey.com/ properties/view/119638/napa+ vacation+bungalow/

In Orlando, Fla.: Five-bedroom, four-bath home and swimming pool begins at $195 a night and is three miles from Walt Disney World Resort. Info: www.homeaway.com/vacation-

rental/p128088

In Paris: A studio vacation rental in the 7th arrondissement (Eiffel Tower) starting at $100 a night. Info: www .homeaway.com/vacation-rental /p246303

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