Must-Ask Questions

By Brad Tuttle
October 5, 2008

1. What's included in the bill? Linens? Wi-Fi?

2. What additional charges should I expect?

3. What exactly do you mean by "within walking distance," "pool access," or "kitchenette"?

4. Is the entire rental mine, or are renters on other parts of the property?

5. Has the house been childproofed? If yes, how?

6. When can I expect my deposit back?

7. What are the sleeping arrangements?

8. Is the price per unit or per guest? (Europeans may charge per guest.)

9. What appliances are in the kitchen? How many sets of dishes are there?

10. Where is the nearest park/playground/mall/hospital/drugstore?

11. Are pets allowed? (Even if you're pet-free, the place might smell like one.)

12. Is there A/C?

13. Can you send me more photos of the property?

14. How do I get the keys?

15. Who do I call when or if there's a problem?

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Rent by Number

1 Choose a destination Consult guidebooks and visitors bureaus, ask friends for their input and recommendations, and do all the research possible to figure out where you'd like to rent. There are hundreds of thousands of vacation rentals available around the globe, so be as specific as you can to winnow down the choices. 2 Weigh your options Start by skimming the rental listings on a few websites for the location you've chosen (see Sites to Search on page 49). Note the sort of properties available, what you get for the money, and the typical rental policies, such as minimum-stay requirements. Compare your results with the nightly lodging rates charged by local hotels, real-estate agents, or management companies, which are often posted on the same sites. And then be honest with yourself: Are you really OK without maids, room service, an on-site restaurant, or hotel amenities? Decide which type of accommodations makes the most sense for you. 3 Rank your priorities Most sites let you sort listings according to the number of bedrooms, the price, and other variables, which can be a huge time-saver in finding what you're looking for. Don't be too rigid in defining your search, though—you may be willing to have one less bedroom if the location is exactly where you want. Leave yourself some wiggle room. 4 Contact the rentals on your short list First, ask if your desired dates are free. Even if they appear to be available on an online calendar, the site might not be up-to-date. Be sure to ask for the exact address of the rental as well as the layout of the property, more photos, and any other details you're curious about. Some owners have separate sites where they have more information about the lodging than what appears on the rental site. E-mailing is the best method for the first contact; give the owner 24 hours to answer. If it takes much longer than that, he or she could be just as slow to respond if there's a problem. 5 Do your own research Compare the listing with what you find when you plug the address into the satellite view on Google Maps or Google Earth. Scope the area for nearby attractions both bad (factory complex) and good (local park). The property might be three blocks from the beach as stated, but there could be a four-lane highway in between. Do a regular Google search with the rental's address or the owner's phone number in quotes. The results will reveal whether the property is listed at more than one website—an indication that the owner is serious about renting—or only listed on a single site. Reputable owners often run multiple listings for their properties. Your Google search might also bring up complaints, which you'll want to review carefully. 6 Call your top choice(s) Be candid and up-front about your expectations and your concerns: Tell the owner that you have kids, that you want to walk to the market every day, or that your husband is a light sleeper and needs a quiet neighborhood. Ask specific questions like "Where do you think the baby should sleep?" The answer you get, such as "Not in the front of the house, because traffic might wake her up," may well be revealing. You could handle these queries via e-mail, but it's easier to get a sense of a person over the phone. Be wary if he or she is evasive, impatient, or curt. Also, be cautious when someone seems to be telling you exactly what he or she thinks you want to hear. Conscientious owners want to find good matches for their properties and won't be so eager to rent to just anyone. 7 Check references A lot of websites have pages for renters to post comments on, but the bulk of properties have no reviews at all. The few reviews that are there tend to be positive, which is unsurprising considering that owners can generally edit or delete comments at will. Vacation-home owners are also in control of supplying references, so it's difficult to get an unbiased opinion, but ask anyway. And then call those references rather than using e-mail, because people tend to open up more in phone conversations than online. 8 Try negotiating If the listing says the owner only rents on a monthly or biweekly basis, ask if he or she can make an exception. Most owners are willing to deal at least a little bit, especially if your dates are coming up soon. (Then again, some owners raise their prices at the last minute.) Either way, it's fair to ask for at least 10 percent off if you're arriving within two weeks. Think back to the browsing stage: Did most rentals offer a seventh night free or waive the cleaning fee for guests staying more than five days? Ask for the same. 9 Know your different payment options If you're not comfortable with the owner's suggested payment procedure, request an alternative method. Credit cards are easiest and offer renters some level of protection, and more and more vacation- home owners in North America accept plastic via PayPal (an online payment service that keeps your credit card and banking details hidden from the recipient). For overseas rentals, you're more likely to be asked for a bank-to-bank transfer (see the sidebar at left). If you don't want the extra hassle or costs, and the owner is game, try to hold the dates with a credit card or a partial deposit via check, and then pay the rest in cash on arrival. Most owners are happiest with cash, anyway. Never—ever—pay with Western Union or a money order. They're virtually untraceable, so in the rare case of a scam, your money could be gone for good. 10 Read the contract Make sure everything is clearly spelled out before putting any money down. Start with the basics. Check dates and dollar amounts. Home owners will often draw up all their rental contracts themselves, and mistakes can happen. Also double-check that you're renting the correct property. After searching through hundreds of listings, it's easy to get mixed up. Finally, keep a copy of the contract for your records. 11 Buy insurance Most vacation-rental cancellation policies are very strict, which is understandable considering they don't have a walk-up business as hotels do. The later you cancel, the stiffer the penalties. Buying travel insurance is an especially good idea in these situations because you have to pay the full amount up-front; if something happens and you can't travel, you could lose most or all of your money. Compare travel insurance policies at or 12 Prepare for your arrival Make sure you know the procedure for getting the keys. Some owners mail them out; others have a code to unlock a key box on the door. You should also ask the owner for tips on restaurants, babysitting services, farmers markets, grocery delivery, shopping, hiking, or whatever sorts of activities you're interested in. Many vacation-home owners have advice typed up and waiting for you at the rental house, so ask them to e-mail you a copy of it in advance. Don't forget to print out the directions, the owner's phone number and e-mail address, and the number to call if there's a problem with the property—the owner should have someone available 24/7 in case of emergency. E-mail yourself the same information so you can still get a hold of it even if you misplace the hard copy en route. 13 Go in with realistic expectations No matter how much scouting you do beforehand, there's always some sort of surprise when you open the door. Rentals are not hotels, and no property is perfect. Your best bet is to embrace the quirks: Toasters break. Wallpaper can be ugly. Beds may be too firm or too soft. Give the owner the benefit of the doubt, and don't let minor problems ruin your vacation. 14 Peruse the log Check out the guest log and read through the comments from former visitors. They'll clue you in on what people loved (or hated) about the place, and they can also offer good suggestions on what to do while you're in the area. 15 Got a problem? Call immediately Contacting the owner as soon as possible is the best—and often the only—way to resolve an issue. Be cordial, but be firm. The problem doesn't have to be major to merit mentioning; let someone know about the crack in the bathroom window or the stains on the living room rug. At the very least, you want the owner to know you weren't responsible for them. It's also OK to call if you can't find beach chairs or the promised lobster pot. If you need an item that's not in the house, ask if you can be reimbursed if you buy one and leave it there. Most owners want guests to have enjoyable stays, if only for recommendations and return visits. 16 Leave the place in good shape Follow the instructions in the contract and those detailed at the house. That might mean taking out the garbage or sweeping sand off the deck. (Not doing so will likely inconvenience the next renters more than the owner.) Share your insights with a review in the log and on rental websites. Then do the same for the owners: Send an e-mail thanking them and giving them feedback. 17 Get your deposit Call if your deposit is not returned by the agreed-upon time, and if the deposit is less than you expected, get an explanation immediately. (The discrepancy could be due to a cleaning fee or a tax you overlooked.) If there's a dispute or the owner doesn't return your calls, contact the listing site. Its reputation is at stake, and it may be willing to mediate. Small-claims court is a last resort.

Vancouver Goes for the Green

In this case, it's what's on the inside that counts. Unlike most pieces of modern architecture, the Richmond Oval is built to be admired from the inside out. A glass façade on the structure's north side gives clear, expansive views of the North Shore Mountains. The venue's three other sides are wrapped in a polycarbonate glaze in varying shades of blue. The design aims to maximize natural light for the 8,000-seat speed-skating track. The structure—located across the Fraser River from Vancouver's main airport—is also notable for its innovative wooden roof. Made from trees killed by the recent pine-beetle infestation in British Columbia, the roof showcases a practical use for the once-discarded material. PHOTO Get a look at some Eco Chill action. And no, "eco chill" is not what environmentalists do to relax. An ice rink needs to transfer heat energy out of water to make it freeze. Normally that energy is wasted. But the UBC Thunderbird Arena—an addition to the University of British Columbia's ocean-side campus—has installed Eco Chill, an energy-recycling system that collects and reuses the energy needed to maintain the ice. The largest of the complex's three ice arenas will hold more than 7,000 people and be a battleground for men's and women's ice hockey during the Games. The exterior is modern but won't win any style accolades. PHOTO Even stadiums can be "recycled." Vancouver's push for sustainability in its new Olympic venues would be pointless if it built them for 16 days' worth of events and then never used them again. The city is making sure that each structure can serve the community long after the Olympic torch has been extinguished. For instance, the Vancouver Olympic/Paralympic Centre, near Queen Elizabeth Park, includes a 100,000-square-foot curling venue that will be converted into a multipurpose community recreation center after 2010. Next door, there's a 60,000-square-foot aquatic center. Not only will the two venues be connected by an indoor concourse, but they'll also share energy. Waste heat from the curling rink's refrigeration plant will be captured and reused to heat parts of the venue next door. PHOTO Think of them as the most energy-efficient residences since, um, ancient Greece. It's only in recent decades that Olympic housing has become truly wasteful. Vancouver's Olympic Village aspires to regain old-fashioned energy efficiency without sacrificing modern comforts. The Village will house 2,800 athletes and officials in mid- and low-rise residences that will line False Creek, the short waterway that divides downtown from the rest of the city. Space heating in the residences will be provided in a clever way: Rather than force air through vents, the Village will pump water through thin tubes in the ceiling, radiating heat in the winter and cooling the rooms in the summer. The community will heat its water by capturing excess heat from the municipal wastewater treatment system. In another ecofriendly move, rainwater will be collected and circulated through the properties, nurturing roof gardens and other agricultural plots. PHOTO And you thought roller coasters were thrilling! Check out The Whistler Sliding Centre, a combined bobsled, luge, and skeleton sliding track, already generating buzz for its crazy speed and challenging course. On Whistler's Blackcomb Mountain, the track boasts the highest vertical drop of any international sliding track: 152 meters, or roughly 500 feet. Good views from the spectators' areas are promised. (There's even a waterfall at the start area.) Developers carved the 1,458-meter-long course out of the existing landscape to preserve as many of the original trees as possible. The resulting shade means less energy is needed to chill the track. And speaking of keeping cool, the track's refrigeration plant uses energy-efficient ammonia rather than ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons. PHOTO Imagine 400,000 different plants indigenous to British Columbia. Now picture those plants on a six-acre plot on top of the refurbished Vancouver Convention Centre—also home to the international broadcast and media center for the 2010 Olympics. And if the media seem especially long-winded in covering the Games, it may be because they're overdosing on that extra oxygen being produced on the "green roof"—the largest in Canada. The next innovation on tap for this waterfront venue is a new water filtration system, which will treat wastewater and reuse it to irrigate the roof. The system will also desalt ocean water for use in toilets. PHOTO

America, the Cheap

Because of the tanking dollar, everything from food to iPods to designer clothes is downright cheap right now for Europeans traveling to New York. And they are descending on the city en masse—you can hear more French, Italian, German, and Spanish in the clothing stores on Fifth Avenue these days than English! But even if their euros and pounds go further than usual, most Europeans still love to find a bargain. Here are some tips from 12 visitors in the city this month: Sara Yanez, San Sebastián, SpainFor anyone who craves Spanish food, Yanez says to check out El Faro, a 70-year-old Spanish restaurant in Greenwich Village that has murals of flamenco dancers on the walls and serves everything from tapas to the house-specialty paella (212/929-8210,, tapas from $6). "The prices are good for New York, and the food is amazing," she says. "It was recommended to me by friends from home." PHOTO Josefin Dahl and Marcus Viktorsson, Malmö, SwedenDahl suggests visitors hit up Forever 21 for great deals on women's clothing (212/941-5949, "It's a good fit for our body types," she says of fellow Swedish women. She also says the Marc by Marc Jacobs store in the West Village sells the designer's wares at rock-bottom prices (212/924-0026,, accessories, sunglasses, and flip-flops $5-$10; T-shirts $30). Viktorsson was looking for baseball caps and Converse shoes, which he says you can find for cheap all over the city. "I've bought several pairs of Converse to take back with me," he says. PHOTO Anna Martinsson and Gitte Nørgaard Grytli, Malmö, SwedenThe two said they were headed to Chinatown to buy knockoff designer purses from the stalls on Canal Street. Their friends back home also asked them to pick up iPods at the Apple Store in SoHo (212/226-3126,, as well as digital cameras, because the exchange rate makes the prices far better here. "The Apple Store is great," Grytli says. "But really any store that sells electronics is going to be a deal." PHOTO Fritscher Leo, AustriaResearch restaurants before coming to New York, she advises. "Some places are not as cheap as you'd think, so it's better to look up places before you arrive and know where the inexpensive restaurants are located," Leo says. She learned that the hard way after eating bad food at expensive places—none of which she wanted to mention. New York magazine publishes an annual "Cheap Eats" issue—a great source for affordable restaurants ( Or read Budget Travel's feature on the best places to eat, shop, and play in Brooklyn. PHOTO Caren Downie, London, EnglandDownie, who was in town for New York Fashion Week, loves shopping in SoHo boutiques—some of which can be affordable, if you look for items on the sale racks. Alternatively, seek out sample sales where designer clothes are drastically marked down; a comprehensive list is published at "But I don't just come for the deals," she says. "New York is a great place to get fashion ideas and to see the latest trends." PHOTO Robert Bready, London, EnglandThe value of the British pound in the U.S. helps when Bready shops at his favorite clothing store, Freeman's Sporting Club in the Lower East Side (212/673-3209, Dress shirts start at $148, but with the exchange rate, that comes out to 80 pounds. "They've got a really nice, affordable selection," he says. PHOTO Generoso Capaccio and Elizabeth Musumeci, Milan, ItalyThe ultimate way to save in New York: Buy a pass to the city's Gray Line tourist bus (212/247-6956,, $44 for two days). Capaccio and Musumeci say they've been using the bus like a taxi to get around the city. They also recommend picking up a tourist discount card at the information counter at Macy's in Herald Square, which is good for deals on everything in the store (212/695-4400, "We bought Champs and Tommy Hilfiger shirts—the prices are right to buy and buy," says Capaccio. PHOTO Gregor Praher and Nina Steinecker, Vienna, AustriaSteinecker says they've relied on the Dorling Kindersley (DK) guidebook for New York to help them find deals (available at for $25). "We love this book. It's been great for our travels," she says. Her favorite spot in the city is the Peanut Butter & Co. Sandwich Shop in Greenwich Village, which sells inventive sandwiches made with peanut butter (212/677-3995, Another tip: "Don't book a hotel room with breakfast included to save money. It's not worth it. Go to a Starbucks instead," she says. PHOTO