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A Home Rental Exec Reveals His Best Hack for Finding Cheap Vacation Rentals

Sick of the high vacation rental fees on Airbnb and VRBO? A guy who founded one of the big home rental sites shares a huge tip for getting around them.

Carl Shepherd was the co-founder of the major vacation rental platform HomeAway, which is now part of the behemoth known as VRBO. But that doesn’t mean he feels any loyalty to his former company.

At a recent industry gathering (the Skift Short Term Rental Summit), Shepherd revealed from the stage that when plans his own vacations, he sidesteps the big booking platforms he helped create.

“I’ve pretty much quit using both VRBO and Airbnb personally,” he said. “I found it humbling. I don’t because I’m not going to pay that fee. I’m just going to book directly with the property manager.”

Generally, I don’t turn to CEOs for travel hacks—they’re more focused on shoring up the bottom line for their businesses than saving customers money.

But I gotta say this one caught my interest. I decided to look into just how much money one could save by avoiding VRBO and Airbnb, and then figure out how easy it is to simply contact a home’s property manager directly, as Shepherd does instead.

Short answers: You’ll save a significant amount on vacation rentals. Here’s how to do it.

How to find the right rental

Airbnb and VRBO are still the best places to locate details about the vast majority of vacation rentals on the planet.

So use them for research purposes. But when you find a rental you like, scroll down to information about the “hosts” who oversee the property.

If the host is an individual, you may be out of luck if you want to reach out to them directly. But these days, most of the listings in many destinations are now for rentals that are maintained by property managers. Simply note the name of that company, open another screen, do a search for them, and then compare listings site-to-site.

That’s easier to do on VRBO because that site tends to use the same headline data that property management companies post on their own listing sites, making it a snap to find the right listing quickly.

Compared to Airbnb, VRBO also tends to include more info about each property’s property manager, including its full name. (That isn’t always revealed on Airbnb listings).

How much will you save?

It all comes down to not having to pay Airbnb’s and VRBO’s service fees. Going to managers directly avoids the fees imposed by the third-party sites. 

Savings can vary by length of stay, area, and property management company.

VRBO charges travelers a 5% fee on each booking, which is calculated by adding the cost of the rental to the cost of the fees that the owner is charging the guest (mostly for cleaning).

Airbnb’s fees are squishier to work out and tick up if there’s a currency conversion to be done. They can also vary by how much of a fee the owner/host is paying. In trying to explain its fees, Airbnb writes, cryptically, that “most guest service fees are under 14.2% of the booking subtotal.”

I did a bunch of searches, and the good news is that I always found a savings when inquiring directly with a property management company.

But for properties that were on the lower end of the scale, price-wise, the savings were smaller. For an affordable ($120/night), two-night stay in mid-September in Hilton Head, South Carolina, for example, I could save just $31 by going with the management company rather than VRBO or Airbnb.

A two-night stay in Minneapolis was also $41 cheaper if booked directly with the property management company—again, not a huge savings, but hey, you could have dinner one night in the destination for that amount.

The bigger discounts come into play with pricier properties and longer stays.

Of longer vacations I tested, The best discount I saw was for a 9-night stay in a “chic home with a yard” in East Boulder, Colorado, where going with the property management company and not using the home rental behemoths as middle-men saved a whopping $482 over the duration of the rental. 

One other aspect I checked: Could I get better prices than what I found on the management company websites if I simply telephoned them and acted super sweet to the agent who picked up the phone?

Nope. They didn’t seem to have the authority to quote me any price other than the one that was up on their websites. So that didn’t work.

So what’s my conclusion?

If you have an extra 10 minutes to spare, take the extra step of finding the management company and checking prices on their sites. It will save you money.

Thank you, Carl Shepherd!