When family vacation rentals get weird

Yours truly, with bear and panties and cat mug.

Yours truly, with bear and panties and elf and cat mug.

For years, I’ve been an outspoken advocate of vacation rentals for family travel. When you work with a reputable (and hands-on) agency and you get a good place, there’s nothing better. But when you work with a hands-off agency or you book directly with an owner and you get an iffy place, the experience can color your entire vacation. And not in the best of ways.

We have been reminded of this truism this week during our time in Lake Tahoe. While here, we have rented a house (with another family) through Airbnb. And while we had a fabulous time overall, the house was…well…in a word…ODD.

Examples of the weirdness:

  • When we arrived, we found a pair of purple satin women’s underwear just sitting in the washing machine.
  • There were clumps of dog hair on two of the three beds (this one might have been our fault; even though neither vacationing family owns a dog, we opted for a pet-friendly house because we thought it’d be better for the kids).
  • The refrigerator was FULL of food, and the note on the counter made clear that we were not allowed to use any of it except condiments. (The freezer also was full; some of the items there included frozen bananas—with the peels—and frozen cold cuts.)
  • In looking for television remotes, we found a kleptomaniac’s stash of fancy salt-and-pepper shakers and a file folder with the owner’s birth certificate and Social Security card. (Honestly, it’s a good thing we are not hackers or identity thieves.)
  • The owner had a fascination with bears; there were three life-sized stuffed bears on the main floor, and more than 60 bear images throughout the house.

I chronicled some of the most eccentric details on my Instagram account over the course of our trip. To check them out, click here.

Again, to be clear, I don’t blame Airbnb for the shortcomings of the place we got. That said, considering the success Powerwoman and I have had with vendors such as Rural Retreats and One Fine Stay—brands that keep much tighter control over quality—I think we’ll pay more for a hands-on agency next time around.

What have your experiences been? When you opt for vacation rentals, where do you book and why?

How to Find Amazing Family-Friendly Vacation Rentals

Our backyard at Riverain, in England's Lake District.

Our backyard at Riverain, in England’s Lake District.

We’re near the end of an epic week in England’s Lake District. A big part of what has made this visit unforgettable: Where we’re staying.

On paper, we’ve rented a 3-bedroom “cottage” in the tiny town of Blencowe, about five miles outside of Penrith, on the northern edge of Lake District National Park. In reality, however, we are staying in part of a restored and renovated circa-1700 carriage house, one of the structures that flanks a castle-like manor house that dates back to the 1500s itself.

Our rental has heated floors, an incredible wood-burning fireplace and those tiny windows that you find in pretty much all castles and stone buildings from hundreds of years ago. On the grounds: A rushing stream, hundreds of sheep and acres upon acres of rolling hills.

Did I mention the place is costing us less than $225 per night?

In celebration of our find, Powerwoman and I put our heads together last night and came up with a list of tips for how to find killer family-friendly vacation rentals. Here are the highlights.

Tip 1: Book with Experts
In today’s age, many family travelers book on AirBnB and call it a night. If you’re lucky, the place is nice. The problem, of course, is that you might not be so lucky. Instead of winging it, we almost always opt for a vacation rental service. These services require property owners to keep places to a high standard of quality. They also are more than willing to help out if something goes wrong. For this trip—and for other trips to rural England—we used Rural Retreats, which is based in the Cotswolds. When we went to Ireland earlier this year, we went with Elegant Ireland. OneFineStay is another service about which I’ve heard great things.

Tip 2: Confirm there’ll be kid-friendly stuff
Some rental entities prattle on about how their properties are “kid-friendly.” What this means, however, can vary widely depending on where you go. We always like to call or email in advance and make sure the place we’re going has access to a) a crib b) stair gates and c) a high chair. If the place doesn’t offer this stuff—or if they can’t guarantee they’ll get it for us—we look elsewhere.

Tip 3: Follow the hampers
It’s standard operating procedure among the best vacation rental services to provide visitors with food hampers to supplement grocery items they’ll buy for the duration of their stay. The worst of these baskets amount to nothing more than snacks. The best of them provide the ingredients for multiple meals. In our experiences, baskets from Rural Retreats have supplied us with ingredients for the first dinner in the house, as well as a number of days of snacking. The best basket we’ve ever had: The one from Elegant Ireland, which contained freshly-baked bread, and all of the ingredients for multiple Irish breakfasts.

Tip 4: Go off-peak
Busy times at most vacation rentals are like busy times at hotels—if you’re able to find availability, the price points likely are astronomical. Instead, try building your vacation around off-peak times. Over the years (especially in Hawaii), we have saved big bucks scheduling trips around only one weekend instead of two. Another strategy we’ve used: Traveling from Tuesday or Wednesday to the following Tuesday or Wednesday (this was how we rolled this time around). Time of year is huge, too: Check websites for peak seasons, then book around them. Finally, be open to sacrificing location; a few miles away from the tourist hotspots could save you hundreds—if not thousands—down the road.

What are your secrets for finding great family-friendly vacation rentals?

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