Smiling woman in a blue windbreaker stands in a garden in front of cabin with a low, round wooden door. Logo in the upper left reads Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook.

Low-Cost Vacation Rental? Take a Closer Look

A vacation rental might be a fun option for your summer vacation plans, but that great online deal might be hiding some big fees and surprise terms. We turned to our friends at Consumers’ Checkbook for tips on avoiding unexpected costs when you book.

Vacation rental booking companies can be fantastic resources for travelers who'd rather stay in a home than a hotel. But Consumers' Checkbook's researchers found that many of these websites often lure travelers in with low prices that don't reflect the true costs of their stays.

Starting Your Search

Look for a rental on sites such as Airbnb, Vrbo and FlipKey, and the sites will show you per-night prices for properties according to your search criteria. But Checkbook's researchers found these prices often don't include service fees, cleaning fees, owner fees and other poorly disclosed charges that can tack on hundreds of dollars to the bill.

We checked 600 listings on Vrbo for three-night-weekend stays for a family of four at 20 typical properties in 30 worldwide destinations. For each of the 600 listings, we discovered at least one hidden fee. Often there was more than one surcharge. On average, these fees inflated prices by more than 25%, and the average per-night price displayed by Vrbo ballooned by an average of $77, or $231 per three-night stay, once we added in all extra mandatory charges. At many properties, our penalty for not paying attention to all-in costs was hefty: At one-fourth of the listings, hidden fees added more than $300 to the total cost of our stays.

These vacation rental sites don't provide clear warnings that they and their affiliated owners can (and almost always do) levy large fees on top of the posted rates. That means you might get hit by astonishingly high extra costs. For example:

  • The $399-per-night rate for a two-bedroom spot near Times Square in New York caught our eye. But many travelers might not notice the final price included charges of $150 for "additional guests," $100 for "property fees," a $150 "cleaning fee," and a $152 "service fee" — adding up to an extra $552.
  • A three-bedroom, two-bath townhouse near Disney World in Orlando seemed like a deal for $209-per-night — until we clicked a few times to uncover $260 in "owner's fees" and Vrbo $96 service fee, which together increased the cost of our stay by more than 50%.
  • The grand prize for surprise fees went to the owners of a charming two-bedroom, two-bath apartment located a few blocks from Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Its $501/night price tag was spendy enough, but we were stunned after clicking to book to see a $46 cleaning fee, a $215 service fee, and $1,001 for additional guests. (Why advertise that a home sleeps four and then charge so much extra to accommodate that many?) Oh, and you'll also have to pony up a $1,112 damage deposit.

In its search results for vacation rentals, Booking.com displays sortable all-in costs, inclusive of all fees and taxes. While Airbnb and Vrbo prominently display base nightly rates that don't reflect additional fees they or the rental owners impose, their search results show all-in prices underneath base nightly rates and allow users to filter search results based on total costs. (For Vrbo, this feature wasn't added until 2021.)

But when searching for properties on FlipKey, which is owned by TripAdvisor, that website shows consumers only per-night rates that don't reflect add-on fees that often add significant costs to their stays. Want to know how much you'll really pay for your vacation rental? With FlipKey, you can't filter or sort by total cost and can only learn the true cost of your stay by clicking on each listing in your search results.

Here's our general advice for avoiding trouble when booking vacation rentals.

Six Tips for Choosing a Low-Cost Vacation Rental

Look Closely at the Listing

That initial price you see may not be telling you the whole story. Be sure to click into each listing to see all the fees before you make a decision.

Also, scrutinize available images to be sure you're getting what you are paying for. Do they show the neighborhood, street, building exterior and interiors? (Too few photos can be a red flag.) In a listing for a two-bedroom, do you see two real bedrooms, or is the landlord counting a family room with a sleeper sofa as a second bedroom?

If a feature is important to you (balcony, coffee maker) look for it in the images; you don't want to dream of — and pay for — lounging on a riverside perch only to discover the apartment faces a wall.

Check the map. Is the rental as close to what you want to see or do as advertised? Are there nearby restaurants? Is there a busy nightclub located on the street below? Is it convenient for public transportation? Is there free parking?

Review the Reviews

Vacation rental sites let customers rate stays and hosts on a one- to five-star system. In general, a lot of positive reviews may indicate you aren't leasing a dump. But read the reviews carefully and be skeptical: It's fairly easy for landlords to fake-rent their own properties and post glowing reviews. Be aware that both Airbnb and Vrbo let renters and listers review each other. This two-way marketplace might prevent guests from submitting negative ratings for fear of getting dinged by the host.

If you have multiple choices, seek out properties with numerous mostly positive customer reviews. But know that newly listed properties can cost less as landlords try to build positive feedback. When reading reviews, look for specific problems (a less-than-comfy bed, noise, etc.). And don't be shy: Sites let you submit questions directly to landlords.

Get a Good Deal for Real

Renting a vacation home often — but not always — costs less than a hotel. Groups usually save a lot by renting a large home rather than multiple hotel rooms. Many landlords, particularly on Airbnb, offer discounts for longer stays.

Click on listings to compare total costs, including any hidden fees. If, after booking, an owner asks you to pay more than advertised, tell the vacation rental website you want to cancel and receive a full refund.

Check the Cancellation Policy

Booking sites let their hosts offer different kinds of cancellation policies. Airbnbers, for example, can have flexible policies (cancel up until a day prior to arrival for a full refund), moderate (cancel with full refund up until five days prior to arrival), or strict (cancel up until one week prior to arrival, but get only a 50% refund). If you're booking far ahead, look for flexible or moderate refund policies.

Avoid Scams

All sites require third-party payment (pay the website, not the rental owner). Avoid scams by refusing to give anyone funds outside of that structure.

Make sure the booking site offers protections against fraud and uninhabitable rooms — the booking sites have very similar policies. If a home you booked looks nothing like its picture, or if a host tries to cancel at the last minute and offers a different property instead, ask for an immediate remedy.

If there's a problem the booking site won't make right, contact your credit card company to dispute credit card charges.

Guard Your Deposit

Many hosts charge "property damage" deposits. We found some staggeringly high ones: Of the 600 listings we checked, the average deposit was $167; several were $400 or more.

Avoid properties that require large deposits. If you pay one, ask at checkout for acknowledgement that there's no damage or take pictures before you leave. If you get charged for damages you didn't cause, ask the booking company for help, or contact your credit card company and insist on a refund.

 

About Consumers' Checkbook

Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook and Checkbook.org are a nonprofit organization with a mission to educate and help consumers. Checkbook also evaluates local service providers — home improvement contractors, doctors, dentists, veterinarians, stores and more. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the companies it evaluates. BECU members can try Consumers' Checkbook for 30 days for free and can get 50% off their annual subscription.