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  • Due to the pandemic, private vacation rentals are proving especially popular with those seeking a safer, more socially distanced summer vacation.
  • As a result, inventory on Airbnb might feel quite limited, especially when booking last minute. 
  • Many other vacation rental services are available, but if you’re not used to booking vacation homes, there are important points to consider before booking.
  • We compiled 6 things you should know before booking a vacation rental, plus top places to search if Airbnb is booked up or too expensive.
  • Read more: Everything to know about vacation rentals, COVID-19 safety, and the best places in the US

The way we travel has been upended in the wake of the novel coronavirus. With an eye towards safety and social distancing, private vacation rentals are being increasingly booked over amenity-rich resorts.

It’s a strategy supported by experts, too. After breaking down the risks of both hotels and vacation rentals such as Airbnb or Vrbo, doctors and cleaning specialists agree you’re less likely to risk infection in a private home than in a shared space such as a large hotel. This is because the virus is mainly transmitted via respiratory droplets from person-to-person interactions.

Though no matter the type of lodging, the main factors to consider are the degree to which you’ll encounter other people and whether the region is experiencing high rates of infection. Without a vaccine, there is no guarantee of safety, so follow CDC and WHO guidelines and wear a mask, wash your hands, and practice social distancing. You’ll also want to weigh your own risks and whether you’re traveling to or from a hotspot, before deciding if travel is right for you.

If you’re comfortable with those parameters, it’s not too late to book a socially distant summer or fall getaway — if you can find one.

Airbnb reported that from May to June 2020 — yes, at the height of the pandemic — there were more nights booked for listings in the US than during the same period in 2019. With quarantine fatigue at a high, this summer has become surprisingly competitive to find an Airbnb, especially if you want to be beachfront or enjoy pool access. I tried to find one for a long weekend in Cape Cod, booked three weeks in advance, but was met with limited results that did not meet my search criteria, or far exceeded my budget once cleaning and service fees factored in.  

And while Airbnb might be top of mind for vacation rentals, it’s hardly the only offering. There are many other vacation rental services, but if you’re not used to booking vacation homes, there are important points to understand before booking. I’ve compiled the following tips and recommendations based on my extensive experience as not only a travel editor but an avid traveler. 

Keep reading for 6 tips to find the best vacation rental, plus top places to search for vacation homes and socially distant lodging online.

Car packed for vacation

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6 things you should know before booking a vacation rental during COVID

  1. Establish where you want to go and be flexible with dates.

    To weed out destinations, determine how far you’re willing to travel, especially if you are driving. Factor in needing to stop for gas, food, and bathroom breaks, which all may increase exposure during a pandemic.

    Then, decide how flexible your dates are. Pandemic or not, weekends in summer and early fall are always more expensive than midweek or off-season stays. If it’s peak season, and your schedule allows it, make it an entirely midweek trip. You might save hundreds by skipping the weekend completely and will encounter fewer crowds, too.

  2. Identify the amenities or criteria most important in a stay first. Then, commit to a certain type of lodging.

    Before you limit yourself to a specific platform, establish the type of stay you desire. If you seek a standalone home with a private entrance, kitchen, and contactless check-in, you might be surprised to learn that many small hotels offer cottage-style residences where you won’t brush shoulders with other guests. Plus, hotels won’t charge arbitrary cleaning or service fees — though it’s always possible there will be a resort fee.

    If you know you want to stay in an actual home, narrow it down further and ask yourself: Is an apartment or mother-in-law unit acceptable or do you prefer a single-family house? Do you want to something exceedingly private or do you like chatting with your host?

    You may also be surprised to find that many listings adjoin the owner’s home. I once stayed in a cottage in my host’s backyard that was pleasant enough until the owner spent most of our visit working in his adjacent shed, while his kids played in front of our patio, which made it feel far from private. 

  3. Search and compare vacation rental platforms to find the best deal.

    Once you know where you want to stay and when, input that data into multiple sites. The search process doesn’t have to feel overwhelming; our list below includes some of the most popular platforms, which we’ve detailed.

    And, as you’ll see, the same home can sometimes be listed across websites with different prices and policies. A quick search can save money and also provide peace of mind about the home you ultimately book.

  4. Confirm cleaning and cancellation policies, especially when booking far in advance.

    When traveling in a pandemic, it’s crucial to consider policies put in place by hosts and management companies related to cleaning and sanitization. Enhanced cleaning programs are often promoted but not required. Company-wide statements promise safety and cleanliness, but it is ultimately the host’s choice to comply and to what degree. Similarly, some hosts go the extra mile but may not include it in their description, and small hotels might not promote new policies online.

    It’s a good idea to reach out to the host, property manager, or owner to verify their policies and ask questions related to cleaning products, contactless services, social distancing, and how those procedures are enforced.

    And don’t forget to read the fine print. Cancellation policies are typically strict for vacation rentals, pandemic or not. Know that COVID is a rapidly evolving situation and a place with low infection rates now could be a hotspot later. No matter what happens, the policy will likely stand. 

  5. Double-check for amenities, house rules, what’s included — and what’s not.

    If you’re not used to staying in a vacation rental, you may be surprised to see some hosts specify that guests must bring their own linens, pillows, towels, or cookware. Or, they might leave you with a laundry list of chores to tackle before check out. My family once spent the last day of an otherwise relaxing vacation stripping all beds, cleaning the kitchen, and taking out bags of trash.

    Finally, if you’re booking a home to take advantage of nearby attractions, verify what the host provides. For example, does the beach house come with beach chairs, towels, parking passes, and other gear you’ll want? Knowing these details will leave you with more time to enjoy where you’re staying.

  6. Once you arrive, follow our expert-led advice on how to lessen COVID risks.

    We interviewed several doctors, cleaning experts, and travel industry pros to identify how to travel safely and steps you can take to mitigate risks.

    This includes taking preventative measures such as running utensils and dishware through the dishwasher, laundering or bringing your own linens, and running a disinfecting wipe over all flat surfaces, phones, TV remotes, door handles, faucets, and toilet handles. If there hasn’t been a significant period of time before the last guest or cleaning, open all the windows and air out the space for a few hours.

These are the best vacation rental sites to search when Airbnb is booked up.

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