Though 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.

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

No 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.