How to travel with kids when you’ve outgrown a hotel room

Travel with kids - vacation home rentalThough three kids doesn’t seem like such a big family anymore, whenever we travel I’m reminded that our party of five was never meant to be the norm for hotel rooms. We’ve had to squish cots into a standard room, spring for two adjoining rooms, or even go-for-broke with two-room suites in order to travel a few times a year. 

But then a few years ago, I ventured into the world of renting homes from private owners, and we are officially hooked.

Interested? I have some tips on how you can get a place big enough for your brood, often for waaaaaay less than a standard hotel room, for your next family vacation. –Christina

To find a rental property that works for our family, I have used two major websites, VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) and HomeAway, which are both under the same ownership. They are well-organized by country, state and then region, though I do a little research of my own to figure out exactly where we want to stay in any given area. In other words, don’t start looking for a place in “San Diego” without knowing the difference between, say, Sunset Cliffs versus the Gaslamp Quarter

Narrowing your options

If you are planning a trip to a major family destination area– like Orlando–make sure to read reviews, look at maps, and see if travel websites or magazines have anything to say about the neighborhoods.  Then you can choose among condos, apartments, single-family homes, yurts (heh), you name it, depending on what size you need.

Our last trip to DisneyWorld became an extended-family reunion when we were able to secure a clean and spacious five-bedroom, single-family home in the Windsor Hills gated community, for just a little more than a “moderate” hotel room at a Disney resort. With a game room, our own inground pool, a full kitchen, a playground next door and all the space of a house, we were really able to relax after a full-day at the parks. We did need to rent a car, though, so keep that cost in mind when comparing options.

You can even check to see if there is a playground, community pool or family-friendly restaurants nearby.

Find an owner you like

Ocean VillageNo matter how much you fall in love with a single property, request quotes from a few different owners. I’m a pretty chatty person, and I like to find an owner who is excited to talk to me about their property and is quick to answer my (many) questions. 

Our recent trip to Florida for a family wedding became the most relaxing vacation I’ve taken with kids when we found the nicest, most amicable owner who was quick to get back to me whenever I had a question, and made our trip to an unfamiliar area very comfortable. 
I also like to read reviews of the properties to see what others have to say about the owners. Realize that only positive reviews will end up on their rental page, though, so take it with a grain of salt.

Also be sure to check a few references, asking previous renters about the cleanliness of the unit, if everything was in working order, if the owner was responsive during their visit, and about the location itself.

Think about the kids!

Some home owners have kids of their own and will leave their property stocked with games, toys, movies, strollers, high chairs, baby gates, and cribs for your use as well. But, it’s also important to always ask about outlet covers, pool alarms, balcony fences, fire alarms–anything you care about in your own home.

A good owner will answer you respectfully and directly, and should even warn you if your family isn’t a good match for their unit. 

My advice? Don’t stay anywhere you think your kids will destroy. There are some lovely properties out there—some much, much nicer than my own home, but my kids are, well, kids. I don’t want to spend my entire vacation yelling, “Don’t touch that!” 

Remember the adults!

What do you care about in a vacation property? Is it in-unit wifi? Cable television or no tv at all? Balconies facing the water? A gas grill? Your own parking spot? Nearby restaurants? Total privacy with no neighbors in sight?
Don’t be afraid of asking a lot of questions. And do a little digging: I made the mistake of reading “free wifi” and assuming it meant “in the condo” when we rented a unit in New Hampshire. The free wifi was actually in the club house down the street, and while it wasn’t the end of the world, it was more of an inconvenience than I was expecting.

Two words: travel insurance

I always have a slight twinge of “jeez, I hope this owner didn’t steer me wrong, or have their home foreclosed upon, or double book…” Travel insurance gives me some piece of mind, and with the money I’m saving over the cost of even a typical hotel room, it is easy to justify.

Enlist help if you need it

Since it does take time to find a rental on your own, if you need some help there are many good rental companies out there, like All Star Vacation Homes in Orlando. Please note that rental company prices will likely be higher than a direct-from-owner cost, though they may include paper products or concierge services as added-value (though some owners do this as well).

And though I’ve never done this, I have friends who have swapped home with other families in Europe—no money is exchanged, just a direct one:one swap. I am fascinated by this option and would love to hear from anyone who has done this before. Maybe this will be our next vacation?

Have you ever rented a private property through a site like VRBO or HomeAway? Done a house swap with a family you do not know? We’d love to hear your experiences, advice, tips or upcoming plans in the comments.

{second photo: Ocean Village}


Senior Associate Editor Christina Refford loves homeschooling, running, cool kids’ music, and coffee. Not in that order.


  • Reply July 18, 2011


    We LOVE VRBO. In fact, I’m booking a place to stay in Orlando today. Used them many times, it’s always been a good experience.

  • Reply July 18, 2011


    I’ve used several times with great outcomes, and I agree that lots of communication before booking is the key. I’ve also booked (but not yet done the traveling) with, which charges a fee but you can do all the booking online. I like the idea that my payment is held in escrow until we arrive and confirm that everything is OK.

  • Reply July 18, 2011


    I used both VRBO, AirBNB and Homeaway to search for properties to rent for my family of 4 on a recent trip to the Bay Area. Many local property management companies use those sites, so you get a great cross section of owners and companies. I might add that extra fees – especially the cleaning fees – in particular can add quite a bit extra to your rental (especially if it’s just for a few days) so consider the full price and read the fine print. In some cases, it ends up being cheaper to rent a 2 bedroom suite from a suite hotel (example: Hyatt Summerfield Suites) than it would be to rent a place that had the amenities I was looking for. This particular hotel we stayed at had all the amenities of a hotel plus a full kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms.

  • Reply July 18, 2011


    I also love VRBO. I actually live in a development in Moab where many of the homes around us are rented out through VRBO. I love that, because it becomes mostly family-oriented people who come to stay (read: friendly, non-extreme-partying, good quality people), which is always nice because they are more respectful of my family and the place where I actually live. Many of the home owners on VRBO are also willing to negotiate on last-minute rentals as well, so you may be able to get in for even cheaper!

  • Reply July 18, 2011

    Sara Smith

    We have used vrbo with great success within the US and had great luck with airbnb this summer in Europe. Renting a house/apartment is definitely the best way to go when traveling with kids!!

  • Reply July 18, 2011


    We used vrbo last summer and just tried in Berlin this summer, both were fantastic. It makes such a difference to be able to have breakfast in the house before leaving for the day with kids. We are definitely going to try more traveling this way.

  • Reply July 18, 2011


    We found a condo on HomeAway in the Newport, RI area for our week-long beach vacation next month. Hoping it is as nice and as centrally located as the pictures indicate… a little apprehensive given no reviews at all on the site but two friends who grew up in the area say we’re right between the two town beaches so how can we go wrong?

  • Reply July 18, 2011


    We have had great success on VRBO – much roomier and nicer places then we’d get for equivalent money at a hotel. We have also done a number of home exchanges, which I think is even better – free! There are many folks not on VRBO that are willing to exchange homes. When using VRBO or Home exchange sites in areas we don’t know well, we’ll often get help from friends that know the area, and can advise on the home’s neighborhood.

  • Reply July 18, 2011


    great tips- I am bookmarking this post. Someday my three under the age of two will be fun to take on vacation! (right?)

  • Reply July 18, 2011


    Thank you so much for sharing this!!! I could just cry! LOL

  • Reply July 19, 2011

    De Anna Nordland

    We love VRBO. I actually live in a development in Tempe where many of the homes around us are rented out through VRBO. I love that, because it becomes mostly family-oriented people who come to stay (read: friendly, non-extreme-partying, good quality people), which is always nice because they are more respectful of my family and the place where I actually live. Many of the home owners on VRBO are also willing to negotiate on last-minute rentals as well, so you may be able to get in for even cheaper!

  • Reply July 19, 2011

    Sydney Fortnon

    Wow…I never really thought about traveling this way. Thanks so much for sharing. When we are in the US, we tend to stay for about a month, so hotel costs definitely add up and we do get a little tired of cramped hotel rooms. This looks like a great option for us…even if it’s only so we get a kitchen. :)

  • Reply July 20, 2011


    My grandmother did a house swap with a family in Scotland over 15 years ago, and my family had the pleasure of acting as tour guides to the Scottish family. My parents and the family became quite good friends, and then my family ended up visiting their family in Scotland a few years later! They are still great friends to this day! The several times they house swapped with European families all were VERY pleasant experiences, and completely worth it!! You are much more likely to treat someone’s home well when you know that they are in your home too.

  • Reply June 21, 2014


    Thank you for this post! We list our beach home on VRBO and Home Away. It has been a pleasure helping famlies from across the globe enjoy a Florida beach vacation. We work with families to ensure a magical stay. When we wish to visit other cities, we always search for other properties for home exchanges. Like Gretchen mentioned in her comments, we built friendships over the years based on these experiences. Good luck with your travel plans!

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