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Read This Before You Book a Vacation Rental

By Kerry Lyons
June 25, 2018
A cozy cottage, or 2, or 3...
Courtesy jtaibleson/myBudgetTravel
Yes, you can save tons by booking a vacation rental instead of a hotel, but you've got to know the right questions to ask. Here, 11 "know before you go" tips.

A summer vacation rental gives you the chance to live large. If you’re traveling in a group or with a family, it’ll save money over hotel rooms, deliver the amenities of home (kitchen, laundry room, backyard), and give your brood a little elbow room. If you're browsing last-minute summer vacation rental deals, it may be tempting to grab the first great-looking property you find. But there are some important steps you should take, questions you should ask, and details you should button up before hitting "book." Whether you're headed to the beach, a cool small town, or the big city, the essential steps every renter must take to ensure a safe and comfortable stay.

1. ASSESS THE STAIR SITUATION

If you're traveling with in-laws or infants, be sure to ask how many stairs are inside (and outside) the house. Taking a tumble isn't a great way to start—or abruptly end—your dream trip, so be sure to get all the details: Are there steps to the bedroom? Bathroom? Back deck? Are these areas well lit? If not, pack a night-light to ensure that sleepwalkers both small and tall don't go bump in the night.

2. PLAN AHEAD IF YOU HAVE A BABY ONBOARD

Is the house equipped with a crib, high chair, baby gate (see stairs, above!), and other baby essentials? Many times they are, and if you can avoid hauling a portable nursery, you'll free up space for souvenirs on the way home. As an alternative, ask the owners to refer you to a local rental service, or check out Traveling Baby or Baby's Away before you go.

3. GET THE LAY OF THE LAND (LITERALLY)

Expecting a flat lawn for football, Frisbee, or general frolicking? How big is the property? How close is the next house? Is the lawn level or sloping? Is there a stash of sports stuff available for your use? Is your dream rental a brisk walk away from the beach/lake/town/restaurants/parks/museums/etc.? If so, find out just how far that walk is. One person's "gentle stroll" is another's walk from hell, so be sure get clarity on proximity to local attractions.

4. FIGURE OUT THE BATHROOM AND SHOWER SITUATION

Is an outdoor shower essential? Do you need a tub to bathe the tots? Would a glass door on that tub be a hassle? Are you used to a massaging showerhead, and nothing else will do? The devil's in the details here, so if what you're looking for is an oversized Jacuzzi but what they have is an old-fashioned soaking tub, it may be best to leave the bath salts at home.

5. LINENS: TO BRING OR NOT TO BRING

Many rentals, but not all, include sheets and bath towels but not beach towels. Some include beach towels but not the others. If you ask me, vacation means a break from washing sheets and towels and making beds. If you feel the same way, be sure to ask so that sweet dreams await when you arrive...rather than chores like making your bed and lugging a pile of dirty linens home. There's no quicker way to lose that vacation vibe!

6. ASK IF GEAR IS INCLUDED

There's an excellent chance that a full supply of summer entertainment awaits in the basement or garage; many rentals come with the use of a beach umbrella, chairs, coolers, bicycles, and more. Also ask about books, blocks, and board games; discovering someone else's favorites can be a great part of the rental experience. In case you or your kids are hooked on Wi-Fi (who isn't these days?), be sure to ask if the house has it and what the code is.

7. LEARN THE GARBAGE PICKUP SCHEDULE

This may not be at the top of your dreamy summer to-do list, but you've got to know: Who's responsible for your garbage? What gets tossed versus recycled? Where should you put it? When is the weekly collection? Do you take it to the curb, or do they take it to the dump? Or, heaven forbid, are you expected to take it with you?! Smelly trash will certainly put a dent in your summer fun, so sort this out in advance, and you won't spend your downtime sorting cans and bottles.

8. MAKE SURE YOUR PETS (OR YOUR PET ALLERGIES) WILL BE ACCOMMODATED

Whether you can't stand to leave Fido behind or the mere thought of him makes you itchy, it behooves you to ask about pets. If you plan to bring your pooch (or other animal friend), ask where you can walk him, where to dispose of his "droppings," and if the local beaches, parks, restaurants, etc., are open to having him tag along. If allergies are your issue, ask if the owner has a pet or has allowed other renters to bring theirs. If the answer is yes, you may want to keep looking.

9. INVESTIGATE WHETHER YOUR HOUSE WILL BE AN OVEN OR AN ICEBOX

Some like it hot... and some don't. Depending on where you're headed, ask if the house has air conditioning and/or window fans. If a cabin in the mountains is more your thing, ask if there is a fireplace; if so, are you allowed to use it? And is firewood supplied? Are campfires allowed? Is there a grill? That's a flame you just may want regardless of the temperature...and be sure to ask if it's gas or charcoal so you can plan accordingly.

10. READ THE FINE PRINT

Before you get swept away by the majestic photos on the rental listing, look into the nitty-gritty: How much is the security deposit, and how quickly will it be returned if there is no damage? If there is damage, how will those fees be handled? Is there a minimum? Is there a cleaning fee? Asking these questions up front will eliminate any disappointment or surprises when you vacation is over.

11. EXTRA TIP FOR COFFEE DRINKERS

If you like to start your day the caffeinated way, be sure to ask if the kitchen has a Keurig or classic drip brewer. That way you'll know whether to pack the K-Cups or the beans, and you'll be able to enjoy a warm cup of your preferred morning brew as you take in your vacation view.

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OMG! My Hotel Has Bedbugs!!

When it comes to vacation buzzkill, the word bedbug is near the top of the list. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. is seeing a serious increase in bedbugs—and it's not just in homes but also in restaurants, hospitals, schools, and, yuck, hotels and cruise ship cabins. HOW TO STAY SAFE Our BFFs over at the American Academy of Dermatology have shared some good advice for keeping yourself and your family safe from bedbugs while you're on vacation. Seemal R. Desai, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in private practice in Plano, TX, notes that bedbugs usually do not require serious medical attention, but acknowledges that they cause anxiety.  TELLTALE SIGNS OF BEDBUG INFESTATION Dr. Desai shares the following tips for finding the little pests. When checking in to a new hotel, conduct this quick search for these telltale signs of bedbug infestation before opening and unpacking your bags or letting kids sit on the furniture or beds: A sweet, musty odor. Bedbugs produce chemicals that some people (but not all) can smell. Specks of blood on bedding, mattresses, and furniture. For a variety of reasons, of course, specks of blood are never a good sign in a hotel or cruise cabin. But especially along seams of bedding and upholstered furniture, they could mean bedbugs have bitten previous guests. Exoskeletons. Bedbugs shed an outer shell and leave it on mattresses and under couch cushions. Tiny, blackish specks. Two words: bedbug poop. Eggs. Tiny white, oval eggs in cracks and crevices. WHAT TO DO If you find signs of bedbug infestation at your hotel, don't panic. The good news is that bedbugs can't jump from beds onto your clothes or into your suitcases. Notify the hotel manager immediately, and based on the hotel's response (which could range from abject apology to irritating denial), consider accepting a new bedbug-free room or switching hotels (our hotel-booking page is good for such last-minute emergencies).

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BT on the Weather Channel: Hurricane Season Travel Tips

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The TSA's Instagram Account Will Make Your Day (Really!)

With more than 771.5 million people passing through security checkpoints at our nation’s airports in 2017 and a summer travel season expected to be the busiest ever, the Transportation Security Administration more than has its hands full. After a record number of firearms were discovered in carry-on bags around the country last year, the TSA rolled out more stringent screening procedures in April, but that hasn’t stopped the clueless and the crafty alike from attempting to bring some truly inappropriate things on board. From swords and throwing stars to guns and grenades, the most jaw-dropping discoveries are documented on the administration’s Webby Award-winning Instagram account, an often hilarious (see: Darth Vader interacting with an explosives detection dog, posted for Star Wars Day on May the 4th, or a microwave full of weed, posted on 4/20), always enlightening feed run by TSA social media lead Bob Burns. “We're not in the entertainment business, but I'm allowed to be funny because that's what gets people to come back,” Burns says. “If you look at our posts, you'll notice the first half of it may be tongue-in-cheek, and then the second half is more straightforward policy and procedure.” Fans of the page have become accustomed to seeing weapons of all sorts in their timelines, from swords concealed in canes to stuffed animals smuggling knives to brass knuckles, live (and replica) grenades, and, of course, guns, guns, guns. Attempting to bring restricted items on your flight can result in hefty fines and even jail time, but those deterrents don't seem to have done much to stem the tide. Burns, who started as a security screener at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 2002, has pretty much seen it all, but even his mind boggles at some of the items people have tried to sneak through. “I always tell myself I'm not going to be shocked by anything else, but sometimes you see things and you just don’t understand. For example, I'm looking at a picture right now of an umbrella that someone took the time to take a tube, put a pocket knife in it, and zip-tie it to the inside of an umbrella to try to sneak their knife through, when they could have just put it in a check bag or mailed it to themselves or whatever they had to do if they wanted to have it at their destination. The question that always goes through my mind is when I see these things is, ‘Why?’” The majority of the time, though, Burns is willing to give travelers the benefit of the doubt. “In a lot of cases, people aren't really thinking. Maybe this is the first time they’ve flown in 15 to 20 years, and they're not in tune with airport security,” he says. “They don’t have ill intent. Clearly if they knew it was going to hold them up or slow them down, they wouldn't pack it. I think in most cases, people just aren't aware of the procedures, which is one of the reasons we like to share a lot of this stuff.” We got the man behind the account to give us a quick rundown of some of his favorite posts; read on for his picks. 1. Unwieldy Weapons (@TSA/Instagram) Burns is particularly pleased with this post, once described by a friend as his opus. "I jam-packed three references in, including The Lord of The Rings, Led Zeppelin, and Monty Python. Humor and references aside, the post fit my formula of entertaining our followers, while also letting them know how to properly travel with swords." 2. Bears in the Air (@TSA/Instagram) Bear attack in mid-air? Your guess is as good as ours. "This one is a favorite of mine because of the hypothetical silliness of making a bear a passenger," Burns says. "And it’s always great when you can throw in a Yogi Bear reference." 3. Better Off Dead (@TSA/Instagram) A prop for a film in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise, this grizzled geezer is one of the strangest things Burns has seen come through security. "Apparently the guy had worked it out with the airline so he was able to take it on the plane. He pushed this rotting corpse up the the checkpoint in a wheelchair, and it was just the right size to fit through our X-ray machine, so we screened it and cleared it and off he went," Burns says. "The ridiculousness of seeing this movie-prop corpse being sent through the X-ray machine gets me every time."  4. Bullets and Bravado (@TSA/Instagram) "Anything that resembles an explosive or projectile—any type of military ordinance—is strictly prohibited in carry-on or checked bags, for the reason that we don't know if they're real or not when we first spot them," Burns says. While bullets are allowed in checked baggage, you can't bring them in the cabin in any way, shape, or form. "I’m sure this is part of a costume or some kind of art project, but I’m not sure why it would be packed in a carry-on bag," he says.  5. Seeing Stars (@TSA/Instagram) Throwing stars, like other weapons, can only be transported in the cargo hold—even specially designed ones. "It’s a lightning-bolt shuriken! I had fun with this one by making up a story that the writing was the international symbol of loneliness, assuming the owner is too nerdy to have a girlfriend," Burns laughs. "It’s all in fun."  6. Medical Marvels (@TSA/Instagram) This ode to the Skywalker patriarch went up on May the 4th, and it's one that makes Burns justifiably proud. "I was able to use Star Wars Day as a vehicle to provide very important messaging 'masked' behind a silly post about Darth Vader’s helmet,” he says.   7. Penguins on Parade  (@TSA/Instagram) No, your eyes aren't playing tricks on you—that really is a pair of tiny aquatic birds waddling through security. "In San Antonio, because of SeaWorld, they travel with their penguins, Pete and Penny, from time to time," Burns says, "and they're trained to walk through the metal detectors." Why is this post a favorite, you may ask? Um, "because penguins," he says. (The "obviously" is implied.) 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Why You Should Drink Tomato Juice When You Fly

The Twitter backlash against United Airlines earlier this month quickly escalated to fever pitch, and it had nothing to do with aggressive passengers or legroom or malfunctioning seatback screens. After the airline announced a plan to scrap tomato juice from its drink repertoire, it nearly caused mutiny—people threatened to ban the carrier, some posted humorous memes, and some contemplated why they were obsessed with the salty red beverage when they fly. If you’re among the significant proportion of passengers who find themselves overcome with a hankering for a disposable cup filled with room-temperature crimson canned tomato juice, you understand the outrage at the thought of it suffering the same fate as SkyMall, which went to the great shopping catalog graveyard in the sky in 2015. The digital uprising caused a quick reversal, and United tweeted “You say tomato. We say, we hear you. Tomato juice is here to stay. #letscallthewholethingoff” on May 10.  TOMATO JUICE: BETTER THAN BEER? But the viral hullabaloo wasn’t just a game by a few bored trolls. Science is involved. Tomato juice, while rarely ordered at sea level, is an appealing choice at 30,000 feet because of the effect that altitude has on our tastebuds. Perhaps the most solid research came from a 2010 study by the Fraunhofer Society, a German research institute that was hired by Lufthansa when the German airline realized they were going through 53,000 gallons of tomato juice in a year. Compare that to 59,000 gallons of beer. The thought of tomato juice giving beer that kind of competition seems ludicrous, so it’s easy to understand why executives were confounded. FLYING AFFECTS YOUR SENSE OF TASTE Fraunhofer's experiments involved replicating cabin conditions, including the 10 to 15 percent humidity level that’s standard on airplanes. Those levels dry out your nose and mouth, diminishing your sense of taste. Add to that the low pressure, which decreases oxygen levels in your blood, thus dulling odor and taste receptors, and the appeal of a strongly flavored beverage like tomato juice starts to make more sense. "We learned that tomato juice being on ground level is rather... I'm not saying moldy, but it tastes earthy, it tastes not overly fresh," Lufthansa catering executive Ernst Derenthal told NBC New York when the findings were released. "However, as soon as you have it at 30,000 feet, tomato juice shows, let's say, its better side. It shows more acidity, it has some mineralic taste with it, and it's very refreshing." There’s actually another factor: sound. A 2015 study by Cornell University points out that we hear 85 decibels while soaring through the sky in a metal tube at 575 miles per hour. According to a release, Robin Dando, assistant professor of food science at the university, said the study confirmed that taste is compromised when exposed to extremely high noise levels, but only specific tastes. Sweet receptors are deadened, but sense of umami, the Japanese term for that elusive balance of sweet and salty flavor, is enhanced. Tomato juice is strong in umami.  EVERYBODY'S DOING IT But wait—there’s more! There’s one more factor at play here: the power of suggestion. Picture it: you’re out to dinner with friends and you’re debating on what entree to order. Your friend tells the waiter he’ll have the sea bass. Suddenly, your decision is made. So next time you’re flying and the guy next to you orders tomato juice and the flight attendant cracks open a can and you start to salivate, go on and ask for one too. And if you want to add vodka to transform that sad little can of tomato juice into an iconic mile-high Bloody Mary, we won't tell. 

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