The New Rules of Vacation Rentals

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 Photo Illustration by Eric Heintz

In case you haven't noticed, the sharing economy has exploded. Rental sites alone — including Airbnb, VRBO, OneFineStay, and FlipKey — now list a combined 2 million properties. The boom has fundamentally changed the way we travel. No longer do you need to spend $250 on a single room at some chain hotel. You can now snag a three-bedroom cabin in Aspen for the same price — and have it entirely to yourself. Plus, the sites have made booking rentals easier and safer than ever. Here's inside advice on how to get the best deals.

1. Look for Verified Listings
The first thing you should do is read the reviews: If a place is good or bad, you'll learn why here. If you're searching a listing on Airbnb, check to see if the host has been verified, which can give you added confidence in booking. On VRBO, use the HomeAway Payment system, which automatically insures you up to $10,000 against fraud. Whatever you do, really trust your gut. "There are millions of vacation listings," says Jon Gray, a VP at HomeAway, "so there's no reason you have to pick one that you have reservations about."

2. It Never Hurts to Haggle
Emailing with a host before booking provides an easy bellwether for how the stay might go — the quicker and more helpful the response, the better the host. This exchange also gives you the opportunity to ask about a discount, which, if you're staying multiple nights, can be attractive to a host. Just be sure to book through the site for fraud protection.

3. Use the Host as a Resource
They know the neighborhood, so they can give you an insider's advice. Ask for restaurant recommendations and options for mass transit. Some will even email a guide in advance.

4.Always Search Multiple Sites, but Know Each Site's Strength

Airbnb: Best for short stays, travel abroad. Many of its 800,000 listings are primary homes for the hosts renting them, which is why they're more inclined to rent a place for just a few nights — they usually just crash at a friend's place if they get a booking. More than 80 percent of listings are outside the U.S. Paris, for example, has more than 40,000.

VRBO: Best for group travel. Most of its 800,000 listings are second homes, so VRBO offers better inventory in vacation destinations like coastal communities and seasonal mountain towns. Jackson Hole alone has almost 700 listings. The downside is that you usually need to book more than two nights (the average stay is one week).

Luxury Rentals: Best for once-in-a-lifetime trips. These are HomeAway's best and priciest listings, selected via a 75-point checklist. If you want to pop the question in a Greek villa overlooking Mykonos ($867 per night), this is the place.

Home Swap: Best for home swaps. Rather than offering rentals, this site is a house-swapping service that allows you to, say, trade your New York loft for another in London. But it also does one better: You can loan your home and bank points with the site, which you can use to book another property up to two years later.

5. Travel Using the Peer-to-Peer Economy

Get Outfitted: If you need anything from a bike to skis to a backpack, GearCommons will help you get it while traveling in the U.S. Renters list their gear and prices per day.

Find a Guide: Vayable connects travelers with locals who are willing to serve as tour guides. Search by your destination and a list of activities — art, wine, photography — will appear. 

Dine Out: If you're craving an authentic dinner cooked by locals, EatWith will connect you to home cooks who throw what are essentially dinner parties for a fixed fee.