The homes you see on poconomountainvacation.com and most other owner-managed websites are listed on at least one of the “Big 3” vacation rental sites as well. While AirBnB has always charged both the traveler and owner booking fees, Homeaway/VRBO and TripAdvisor/Flipkey jumped on the bandwagon more recently. In addition, Homeaway/VRBO also charges the owner an annual subscription fee that can range from a few hundred to $1,000 or more. To add insult to injury, these sites further deduct another 3% in credit card payment fees from the owner’s proceeds.
Even more disturbing is the fact that all three of the big listing sites now block both homeowner and traveller contact information to force travelers to book through their platforms.
Nevertheless, most of our bookings continue to come through these sites, since they have the resources to monopolize page 1 of Google. That’s why the majority of travelers don’t know they have a choice to skip the fees, and how little they get for the additional 4%-15% charged for the questionable “advantages” of booking through a third party. In the opinion of many owners and travelers comparing notes via Facebook groups like “Just Say No to VRBO, they’re getting precious little. But it’s taking time for the word to spread, since owners are threatened with having their listings shut down if they so much as hint that travelers can book with them directly for free.
“Paste the listing title or some descriptive text from the listing into your browser. You may be able to locate the same listing with a less expensive booking fee or none at all.”
So if it’s difficult to hunt down independent vacation rental websites by searching Google, and owners can’t tell you where to find them, how can you get around the fees? And how can you assess whether the fees are worth paying? Here are a few tips:
Look Before You Book
Before paying up to 15% in service fees to a travel website:
Before you book a vacation rental property through a third-party travel site, first determine whether the fees charged are justified by the “protections” offered:
- Contact customer service and ask exactly what their fees cover, how they can help you in the event of a problem, and where this information is posted on their website. Ask what you really stand to gain from things like Homeaway/VRBO’s “Book With Confidence Guarantee,” TripAdvisor/Flipkey’s “Peace of Mind Guarantee,” or AirBnb’s Guest Refund Policy over and above the protections offered with payment by credit card. While travel booking sites might try to scare you into paying their host or service fees with tales of unscrupulous property owners, chances are they won’t be able to help you beyond searching for another available property on their site if you do in fact run into a problem. (Certainly you can do that yourself and save the cost of the fee!) Furthermore, it’s not difficult to find reports from the few travelers who have encountered such problems that the travel sites did little or nothing to help resolve the situation or reimburse them. The fact of the matter is that anyone reported to have scammed a traveler will have their listing shut down in a New York minute.
- Check the company’s Facebook page and Twitter accounts as well as the Better Business Bureau for complaints and negative reviews. (Homeaway/VRBO is rated C+ by the BBB with 40 negative out of 41 total customer reviews, and TripAdvisor/Flipkey has a 95% negative customer review score. Neither company is BBB accredited.)
Before booking directly with owners:
If you decide to opt for direct booking once you’ve vetted the big guys:
- Check for traveler reviews on the major websites. If there are a decent number of good reviews for a listing (say 10+), and the listing has been posted for at least a few months and had confirmed bookings (this information is usually included on the site), chances are it’s a safe bet. If the owner were in the habit of doing things like unjustifiably canceling reservations or wrongfully withholding security deposits, the listing would have been pulled or you would see this mentioned in reviews. (It’s important to note that the big listing sites will not remove negative reviews at the request of the owner/manager unless they violate the company’s guidelines.)
- Google it. Copy the listing title, the owner or company name, or some descriptive text from the listing into your browser. More and more owners are building their own listing websites that charge $0 booking fees. Also check some of the new fee-free listing sites that aim to replace the former Homeaway/VRBO model, such as: vacationhomerentals.com (a Tripadvisor site that may add a fee at some point) and new sites such as homeescape.com and vacationstayz.com. Regional sites are springing up as well. Try searching by area or attraction — for example, “poconos vacation rental homes” or “vacation rental homes near Disneyworld.” A Google image search may also guide you to direct booking sites, as many owners use the same photos on all their sites where they list.
- Find them on Facebook: More and more owners are setting up Facebook business pages (find us here), where you can see availability and/or book right from the page, or you can click through to their website to book. Some are also on Twitter (we’re here), Instagram and Pinterest.
- Install StaySavr. This browser extension/app magically reveals most owner contact information on all Expedia sites, including homeaway.com, vrbo.com, ownersdirect.co.uk and fewo-direkt. It also works on hotel booking sites like booking.com, expedia.com, priceline.com, orbitz.com and hotels.com. Simply install the staysavr extension in your browser and make sure to disable incognito/private browsing mode. (Does not work on iOS devices, including iPhone and iPad).
- Contact the owner where possible to book direct and without any web listing booking fees. Note that websites that charge a booking or “service” fee monitor the communications through their email platforms and penalize owners who work with travelers to help them avoid the fee, including deactivating their listings.
- Instead of a listing site fee that may not protect broadly against fraud, ask the owner for identity/property ownership confirmation
- Consider purchasing trip insurance from a third-party; the coverage will likely be broader — and may cost considerably less — than that “covered” by a listing site fee.
- Explore alternative payment methods. The owner may be able to provide adequate information so you can use checks, bank transfers, or other methods with confidence and save an additional 3%.
Even if you decide to pay the booking fees for a maiden voyage, once you have had a great experience at a vacation rental there is no justification for the added cost (if there was in the first place). Be sure to keep the owner/manager’s direct email address or phone number handy to save up to 15% on your next adventure!