Note: I didn’t think it would be very nice for me to post pictures of the hilariously awful listings I found on VRBO (what if I hurt someone’s feelings?), so instead I am using pictures of the lovely cabin I ended up renting in Winter Park, Colorado, plus some of the beautiful sights in that area.
My husband and I were supposed to take a trip to Yellowstone National Park in July. I’d never been there before, and I was very excited to pack several new adventures into our week of vacation.
But then Ray tore his ACL (http://nerdseye.com/2015/10/26/adventure-13-my-40th-birthday-part-1/), and our plans for Yellowstone kind of went out the window. For one thing, he used up most of his vacation days for his surgery and recovery; also, I wanted to go horseback riding and back-country hiking, and he wasn’t going to be cleared for that by the end of July.
And if rehab wasn’t going well and his knee was still bothering him, I REALLY didn’t want to be stuck in a car with him for 9 hours on the way there and 9 hours on the way back.
So, with sadness, we postponed our Yellowstone trip to 2016 (which actually turned out OK, since I found out later that I had mono during the time we would have been gone–http://nerdseye.com/2015/12/27/mono-log/).
I’d already taken the week off work for myself, though, and I decided that I would take a little mini-vacation somewhere in the mountains of Colorado to make up for missing our road trip. I invited a friend of mine to come with me for a couple days, and she suggested finding a place to stay on VRBO instead of looking for a regular hotel.
VRBO stands for Vacation Rental By Owner, and it’s a website where people who own condos, cabins, and second houses can rent them out to people looking for a place to stay while traveling. I had never heard of it before, but my friend’s family uses it for all their getaways.
I told my friend that I would check it out, but privately I thought that I would end up booking a standard hotel room. “Rental By Owner” conjured up pictures in my head of sleeping on a cousin’s couch, only instead of a cousin it was a complete stranger.
I think part of why I imagined this was a recent experience where Ray and I booked a hotel room on Expedia, only to find that the “hotel” was the owners’ house (where they actually lived), and the room was basically a guest bedroom off the owners’ living room. The room was nice and the owners were very friendly, but for two shy introverts, the situation was awkward in the extreme.
I didn’t want to end up in that situation again.
However, to humor my friend, I went ahead and checked out the website. The website was attractive and professional-looking, with a search feature at the top where you could enter a location, dates, and number of guests. If you preferred, you could also click on a map at the bottom of the site instead that showed the whole US and locations in more than 100 other countries.
Encouraged, I started a search for “Colorado, USA” for two people, since I didn’t really have a particular destination in mind. All I knew was that I wanted to stay in someplace cute where I could go hiking (my birthday hike having been tragically cut short).
I clicked the “Search” button and was taken to a map of Colorado. The state had been divided into different regions, with the major cities in each region highlighted below the heading. This way, you could search in particular areas. You could also apply a number of different filters to your search, like price, number of bedrooms, and type of rental (house, condo, etc).
Since there were 17,000 rentals listed under the Colorado search, I applied some filters and tried again. My dad had given me some money for my birthday that I wanted to use for the mini-vacation, so I knew how much I wanted to spend; that was one filter. Some of the rentals you can find on VRBO are HUGE, sleeping 12-24 people, and, while these are very reasonable per person, it can be kind of startling when you see a house listed for $500 per night.
I also used the “type of rental” filter. With that one, you could click the kind of properties you were interested in, which was fun. I clicked “Cabin,” “Cottage,” and “House,” and then, because they sounded intriguing, I also clicked “Villa,” “Barn,” and “Recreational Vehicle.” I would have clicked “Houseboat” and “Castle,” but there weren’t any properties of that type in Colorado. Too bad. A houseboat or castle sounded fun.
After applying these filters, I was left with about 100 listings, and I started looking through them. The rentals were listed vertically down the page, with a picture on the left, a headline in the middle, and the price on the right. More information was printed on a second line: number of bedrooms, number of bathrooms, minimum stay required, and visitor rating out of 5 stars.
Well, some of this information made it easy to exclude listings right away. A number of places had minimum stays of a week or more (including some 30-day minimum stays), and I only wanted to stay 2 nights. So I could just scroll past those.
Also, some of the places had 3 or 4 bedrooms and slept 10-12, and those seemed bigger than what we really needed. So I skipped those, too.
But a number of the places looked like they would work. For any of the ones that looked interesting, I clicked on the headline to open the specific property information in a new tab.
This new window showed all sorts of information. Here, you could look at multiple pictures of the property, both inside and out; read a description of the rental and its location; see if the rental was available on the dates you were interested in; and read reviews. You could also get all of your questions answered, like “Is there internet?”, “Can I bring my dog?”, and “Is the cabin wheelchair accessible?” Additionally, there was a box on the side saying how many years the owner had been involved with VRBO, whether they were good at getting back to potential renters, and how long (on average) it took them to get back to you.
Everything was informative, easy to use, and very professionally laid out. I started to feel better about the whole enterprise.
So I opened up all the listings that looked like they might be fun and settled down to scroll through the information and reviews.
I quickly learned several things, which I will pass on to you in case you ever try VRBO:
- “Rustic” is a word to be very wary of (which was too bad, because it was a word that kept attracting me). While the properties described as rustic were indeed the log cabins in wilderness areas that I was imagining, they were also often scantily-furnished and uncomfortable-looking inside.
For instance, the attractively-priced “Rustic Cabin in Majestic Mountain Setting” turned out to be one room containing no furniture except for two bunk beds and a double bed (with mattresses that looked suspiciously like the foam pads you get at summer camp). The bathroom and showers were in a separate, communal bathhouse.
The description was a masterpiece of spin doctoring: “This cabin is an awesome alternative to tent camping;” “rather than driving all day to a campsite and fighting to get your tent up, you can arrive at your cabin and set your gear inside, lay out your sleeping bag and enjoy a campfire;” “there is no bathroom but the bathhouse is just a few yards away.”
I’ll pass, thanks.
- Do a little more research into the places that show dozens of pictures of the quaint, charming exterior and the gorgeous surrounding scenery, but only 1 or 2 pictures of the inside. Either the inside is not the rental’s best feature, or they are trying to downplay less-than-ideal features. For instance (and all of the examples I list in this post are real):
- The bedroom can only be reached by climbing a ladder.
- The cabin is one big room, and all the furniture, including all the bedroom furniture, is stuffed inside it (which might be a problem if you’re traveling with people you need breaks from).
- The bathroom is the size of a closet.
- Only one person at a time can fit in the kitchen.
- “Kitchenette” means a microwave and mini-fridge. My friend and I wanted to cook, so I scratched all the places with just a kitchenette off my list. Depending on what you’re looking for, a kitchenette might be perfect.
- Be sure to read the description of the rental carefully, especially if they don’t have many (or any) pictures of the exterior. You might find that:
- The room is in the owners’ basement.
- The rental is an apartment over the owners’ garage.
- The cabin is in the owners’ backyard.
Depending on your comfort level, these things might work just fine for you. But shy introverts, beware!
- Definitely look at all the pictures to see if the house has any features that you might not want, like:
- Bunk beds in the dining room
- 3 or 4 beds in the bedroom (which would be great if you’ve got lots of people, but odd and cramped if you only have two)
- Old CRT televisions (which wouldn’t have mattered to me for this trip, because my friend and I didn’t use the TV at all, but which would have been a dealbreaker for my husband)
- There are a washer and dryer, but they are inside the rental’s only restroom.
- The décor in the bedroom is Pepto Bismol pink.
- The bed is a mattress on the floor.
- The whole living room is taken up by a giant ping pong table.
- The “stovetop” is a portable camp stove, the shower is a slab of concrete with a curtain around it, the walls are decorated with dozens of different kinds of topless mermaids—and all of this is crammed into one 200-square-foot room (I actually considered this place—what an adventure it would have been to write about!).
I didn’t know until a few years ago that moose actually lived in Colorado. We are at the very southern end of their range. I was so excited by this sign and the idea that I might see a moose that every time we passed a meadow while hiking, I would say, “This would be a lovely place to see a moose!” My friend thought this was very funny and took to saying it for me.
- Don’t click on the RVs. If you want an RV experience, you can rent one and take a road trip. The RVs I found on VRBO were parked in the owners’ driveways. Awkward!
The 1930’s shepherd’s wagon I found in Steamboat Springs might be fun for a night, though. It would definitely be an adventure, since the bathroom and kitchen are in the main house, and of course the wagon is tiny, but the bed looked a heck of a lot more comfortable than the one in the “rustic cabin” I found.
- And, of course, when you find a place that you like in all other respects, be sure to read the reviews. The reviews caused me to scratch several places off my list, especially when multiple reviews mentioned the same problems (rental in disrepair, rental not clean, smell of gas, etc).
Also, if the owner replies to the reviews and is combative, rude, or completely ungrammatical (or all three), I would just give that property a miss.
With any of these points, what will work for you depends on who you’re traveling with, whether you’re going to cook your own meals, and your own personality. You might love some of the things I hated (and Ray, for instance, would have hated some of the things I loved). That’s why it’s really important to read all the information and reviews. The rentals on VRBO are not hotel rooms; each rental is unique, and there is A LOT of variation from one to the other.
After looking at listings for a couple hours (and discovering all the things above), I was left with about a dozen different possibilities, which I then emailed to my friend. We picked our top two, and I decided to contact our favorite one. However, this whole process happened over several days, and in the meantime our #1 pick had been rented out for the dates of our trip. So I contacted our #2 choice instead.
This rental was listed as “Adorable Log Cabin!!” (including the two exclamation points), located near the ski resort of Winter Park. It was only about an hour and a half from Denver and had a full kitchen and a comfortable-looking bedroom. The pictures of the interior made the cabin look cute, if a bit cluttered, and the reviews were all 5-star. There was plenty of hiking nearby, since the cabin was right on the border of the Arapaho National Forest, and the price was only $100 per night.
So now it was time to contact the owner. This was easy: I just had to click the “email owner” button on the left-hand side. A separate window popped up, and I entered my name, email address, phone number, and desired dates. There was also a “message to owner” section where I could let the owner know that this was my first VRBO rental and I didn’t really know what I was supposed to do next.
The owner emailed me back the next day, letting me know that the cabin was indeed available on the dates I wanted, and she’d be happy to have us stay. Did we have any dogs? How about children? How many people in our group?
I answered her questions, and she emailed me back to let me know that we were confirmed. I asked her how she wanted me to pay her (that was a gray area in the whole process, and it seemed like some owners wanted payment up front via Paypal, which was certainly reasonable). She told me that she only took cash, and I could just leave it on the table when we left. !!
I have a healthy dose of paranoia, and this payment method seemed to require a great deal of trust on the owner’s part. What happened if her renters skipped out without paying? Especially since there wasn’t any kind of check-in or check-out procedure; we just showed up on our first day to find the front door unlocked and the keys hanging in the kitchen. But she’d been renting her cabin out on VRBO since 2007, the listing said, and apparently she hadn’t had any trouble.
Which made me feel better about humanity.
The people who run VRBO must share at least some of my paranoia, since I never emailed the owner directly; the emails always arrived through VRBO, and my replies went the same way. But that was probably to make sure that VRBO got their cut of the rental, whatever it is.
I had read in some reviews of various properties that people had trouble getting hold of owners, or that owners were rude, uncaring, or slow in responding. That definitely was not our experience. The owner of the Adorable Log Cabin was prompt and friendly, and she left us several informative notes on the dining room table for when we arrived.
The cabin was exactly what we wanted. Honestly, the pictures didn’t do it justice. It was in a neighborhood, so there were other houses on either side and across the street, but there were so many trees and wildflowers that it still felt like a mountain getaway. There was a lovely front porch where we ate all of our meals, and the owner had hung birdfeeders around the edges of the porch so that we could watch the hummingbirds while we ate.
Hummingbirds, by the way, are beautiful, but also aggressive and really loud. They kept having fights over the birdfeeders and chasing each other away. A couple times, they flew right over our heads, and it sounded like we were being divebombed.
They are also very difficult to take pictures of.
Our two nights in the cabin were lovely. Every day, we went for a hike, took a nap, wrote (for me) or played violin (for my friend), and cooked some great food (the Safeway in Winter Park had an amazing selection of food, including lots of organic and natural choices—much better than the King Soopers in my neighborhood). One night, we went out for a drive and looked at the stars, although it was a full moon that night so we could only really see Orion and the Big Dipper. It was perfect.
I am definitely going to use VRBO again. The service was easy to use, and the amount of research I put into finding the cabin was only about as much as I usually put into finding the right hotel for a vacation. Most of the rentals had a lot more character and charm than a normal hotel room, and the prices were amazing—about half of what area hotels were charging.
There’s definitely an element of “let the buyer beware” in renting from VRBO, and if you want a particular place on a particular date, you probably need to plan in advance (I bet the Adorable Log Cabin is already booked up for the ski season, for instance). But if you’re willing to do the planning and research, VRBO is a fantastic option for your next vacation.