How Do the Big Vacation Rental Sites Differ?

Italian cottage

Recently I’ve arranged several vacation rentals for my upcoming trip to Europe. I’ve used AirBnB, HomeAway and Trip Advisor. I’ve found that they are significantly different in a number of ways.

HomeAway (and its subsidiaries including V.R.B.O) is the older of these firms. It only rents entire apartments or houses, unlike AirBnB which offers shared space. People who book on that site are more mature and are often looking for upscale properties. Its inventory consists of about one million listings. AirBnB is the newer firm but it has grown exponentially and currently has about 1.2 million listings. AirBnB offers an entire place, a private room in someone’s home, or a shared room. Its target audience tends to be younger. TripAdvisor (and its subsidiary FlipKey) and have begun offering vacation rental properties as an adjunct to their hotel booking businesses. There are a number of other similar companies.

Here are the differences I’ve found in these companies business models:

Costs & Payments: Generally, AirBnB rentals are less expensive than those on HomeAway. This may be a result of the great increase in potential hosts that have been attracted by AirBnB’s success. AirBnB requires payment in full at the time of booking which can be unattractive for someone like me who is arranging several places over a period of months. I don’t want to pay my July rent in November. In addition, all the costs associated with the booking are paid by the tenant and take the form of a 6 to 12% fee added to the rental cost. Cleaning fees, security deposits etc. may also be added and charged in advance. AirBnB collects and retains the rent and fees until 24 hours after the start of the rental period providing some degree of protection to its travelers.

HomeAway/VRBO and TripAdvisor/FlipKey do not require full payment at the time of booking. They are essentially advertising companies acting as intermediaries, bringing together property owners and renters. Landlords working with them often require only an initial deposit with the balance of the rent due at a later date or upon arrival at the property. HomeAway offers its advertisers an option of paying an annual fee or 10% of the rental amount and that cost is included in the cost of rent. With both HomeAway and TripAdvisor rents are paid directly to the landlord.

Cancellation: AirBnB offers its property listers a choice of cancellation options which are in turn provided to bookers. They are Flexible (full refund up to one day prior to arrival, except fees); Moderate (full refund 5 days prior to arrival, except fees); and Strict (50% refund up until 1 week prior to arrival, except fees). The renter pays for none of these. It’s important to note the type of cancellation offered before choosing a rental.

HomeAway, on the other hand, says this in response to the question of cancellation: “Typically, it depends on the cancellation policy or rental agreement that you signed with the vacation rental owner or manager whether you can get a refund for your cancelled booking on not. Please contact the home owner or manager directly to discuss the concern.” In addition, the company offers to sell renter three types of coverage:

  • Before Your Trip: Cancellation Protection (Underwritten by Generali U.S. Branch) – Protects your non-refundable trip costs if you need to cancel your trip due to a covered reason. (This is pretty standard travel insurance.)
  • On Arrival to Your Rental: Carefree Rental Guarantee (Provided by HomeAway) – Guarantees your payment if the vacation rental is not as advertised or you are unable to gain access.
  • During Your Stay: Damage Protection (Underwritten by Generali U.S. Branch) – Protects against expenses incurred if you or your traveling companions accidentally damage the vacation rental.

TripAdvisor/FlipKey has detailed information about its “peace of mind protection plan” online – click here to read about it.

(While it’s nice to know that some of my rentals can be cancelled if necessary, as a retired travel agent I’m protecting my expenditures and obtaining foreign health care coverage by purchasing a one-year travel insurance policy.)

 Contracts: all these companies appear to leave the issue of rental contracts to the discretion of the property owner. AirBnB does offer to provide standard contract creation assistance to its owner-clients for a price.

 Assistance: AirBnB has a 24-hour a day customer assistance line at 1-415-800-5959.

After a lengthy search on the HomeAway site I found this U.S. telephone number for customer assistance 512-782-0805. TripAdvisor can be contacted on this U.S. toll-free number: 866-322-5942 but only during business hours in the eastern time zone. (Here’s an interesting website I found while searching for these numbers: Not only does it provide those phone numbers that are missing on websites these days but it also tells you how to navigate the automated answering systems and average wait times. I’m going to remember this one!)

The photo at the top of this post is of the cottage we enjoyed in Catania Italy some years ago.

P.S. Here’s some bad news: earlier this month (November 2015) Expedia announced it’s acquiring HomeAway.



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