Earlier this year I innocently won a door prize at a conference, a gift card to HomeAway.com. HomeAway is the world’s leading online marketplace of vacation rentals, with sites representing more than 625,000 paid vacation rental home listings throughout more than 145 countries. They offer short term home rentals as an alternative to hotels when traveling, an option which has seen rapid popularity growth in recent years. I’d long been intrigued by the concept but I admit, I was a little scared to try them out for myself. If anything went wrong, it would doom the trip. Thank goodness for the door prize, otherwise I would have missed out on a wonderful travel experience.
NOTE: I won this prize, it was not part of a media trip and HomeAway said that I was under no condition to write about my experience, but I decided to anyway. I want to share with everyone what it’s really like to book and use a short term holiday rental to help people as they consider this option. As always, everything here is honest and real without any filters.
The first challenge was figuring out how to use the free HomeAway cash. We decided to build a trip around the lodging and quickly decided to spend a week in Brussels exploring nearby winter markets and festivals the week before Christmas.
Ok, the city was decided and our lodging budget set for us. With our scope sufficiently narrowed, I used the HomeAway app on my iPad to find the perfect apartment. I was really pleased with how easy it was to winnow down the listings based on location and price. Each listing also had basic information (size of space, amenities, etc.), tons of photos and reviews when available. I’m always wary of trusting online photos of lodgings, but we finally found a space and decided to move forward with the booking.
It’s challenging finding a well-located condo in a city which is completely unfamiliar, but we used the HomeAway maps and trusted when the owner wrote that the city center was only a ten minute walk away. According to the description, the apartment was 60 square meters, next door to the comic strip museum and boasted a very clean, modern decor. The best part though, it was only $800 for 7 nights. Yes, in the heart of Brussels, located in the heart of Europe, we could stay in a well located, well designed, clean, safe condo for about $128 per night. As a comparison, the Radisson Blu was just a block away and its rates start at almost $200 per night for the most basic room. Keep in mind we didn’t just have a room, we had an apartment with kitchen, dining area, living room, huge bath, etc.
We booked online by contacting the owner, after a few emails everything was set, a deposit sent and we were confirmed.
Finally the weeks and months ticked by and the time had come for our European Christmas market trip. Our flight was scheduled to arrive at 8:00 AM local time, which meant the earliest we would be in downtown Brussels was 10:00 AM, immigration and customs permitting. I contacted the owner beforehand and he said that he’d wait at the apartment for us starting at 8:00 AM, in case we were early. I tried to dissuade him, but he was adamant and I had the first taste of the warm hospitality that we’d enjoy during our condo experience.
True to his word, Albert was waiting for us when we rung the buzzer at the apartment complex. It was as well located as advertised and the apartments were modern, terraced condos rather than a depressing brick leviathan. All signs pointed to a great stay.
We entered the smallish apartment and were blown away; it was stunning. Expertly decorated with new furnishings and every attention to detail that I could imagine. The kitchen was fully supplied with dishes and utensils, even a coffee maker, and featured a full size fridge, dishwasher and washing machine. The dining and living areas maximized their space efficiently and were extremely comfortable. Even the bathroom surprised us with its super sized (by Europe standards) shower. The cherry on top though was the free (and strong) internet available to us for the duration of our stay.
We were busy and truthfully didn’t spend that much time in the apartment, but whenever we returned it felt like we were coming home and not just returning to a small hotel room. It was pleasant to stretch out and do our own thing in the evenings, rather than fall over one another as we sometimes do in hotels. My one complaint, and that’s because I’m tall, was the double bed. We’re used to a King size bed at home and the bed in the apartment was just too small for us. But truthfully, that is my only complaint. City center was indeed a short walk away, as was the central train station. I felt like we hit the travel lottery with our choice in digs.
Analysis – Would I do it again?
Ok, so at this point you’re thinking “Wow, he loved it! Of course he’d do it again.” That’s mostly true, but as with anything there are some cons to this method of travel.
Cheaper than a hotel
More space than a hotel
More amenities than a hotel
Ability to feel like you’re living in a real apartment/house rather than a hotel
No cleaning service. No one to clean the bathroom, make the beds, change the linens, etc.
No hotel amenities such as concierge service, room service or gym. (I imagine some rentals have gyms as an amenity, but ours didn’t)
The concierge mention may seem silly, but I don’t think most of us realize just how much we rely upon them. There was no one to give us directions, train advice, dinner recommendations or any of the ‘small’ questions many of us ask routinely when staying at a hotel. We made several mistakes that a good concierge would have helped us avoid.
Ultimately, the rental experience gave us more space and freedom all at a reduced cost. Yes, I missed having a cleaning service, but everything else more than made up for it. So the answer to the all important question, would I do it again? Yes, I would, although not in every circumstance or in every location. I also recognize that not every listing will be as great as ours was and that mistakes do happen. Due to the nature of the service, there are bound to be some bad actors. For our trip in Western Europe though it was perfect and I can’t wait for my next short term vacation rental experience.
Have you used HomeAway or other short term vacation rental service before? What did you think?