Vacation rental mistakes every family makes (but you shouldn’t)

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By Christopher Elliott

From booking the cheapest place to ignoring the fine print in the property description, I’ve made so many vacation rental mistakes that I could write a book about them. For now, an article will have to do.

It would be one thing if it were just me, alone, suffering insect infestations, mercurial owners, or missing amenities. But I drag my three kids, ages 12, 14, and 16, with me. So let me start with an apology: I’m sorry, kids. Some of the places we’ve stayed in — well, they were beyond awful.

And avoidable, too. If I’d studied the entire property description, heeded the obvious red flags or researched the neighborhood more carefully, we wouldn’t have these vacation rental horror stories.

Most vacation rental surveys like this one go into great depth about the phenomenal growth of the vacation rental industry — it will be bigger than hotels by next year — but never bother to mention guest satisfaction. You don’t have to go far to find out how satisfied, or unsatisfied, travelers are. Just read the one-star reviews. They make you cry until you laugh.

At least mine do.

One of the funniest experiences happened in Sedona, Ariz. The property charged us a $500 cleaning fee after a two-month stay, to which I reluctantly agreed. Then a manager phoned me to inform me there would be an extra charge for removing pet hair.

We don’t have a pet. (Related: Help! I owe $1,048 in back rent on my Allure lease, but I always pay on time.)

Turns out the owner had a fluffy blanket on the sofa that cast off a lot of lint that looked like pet hair. When I cleaned the house pre-departure, I didn’t notice it. The manager quickly dropped her request. (Related: Can I get my Airbnb cleaning fees refunded for this dirty rental?)

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Aren and Iden in another vacation rental last year.
Aren and Iden in another vacation rental last year.

Vacation rental mistake 1: Failing to read the property description

Always, always read the full description of a property.

Owners like to hide things in the fine print. Like the rental in Hawaii advertised online for only $2,000 a month. When I phoned the owner, she said it was a “long-term” rate that didn’t include taxes and cleaning fees. She strongly suggested I complete the reservation on an online booking platform for my “convenience,” but that meant paying almost $1,000 extra. I should have said no right then and there.

It gets worse. The owner said I had to call the vacation rental site to make the booking — no online reservations allowed. So the only information I had about the property came from the original listing showing the $2,000 price. It did not say that there would be a $300 surcharge to use the tiny wall air-conditioning unit. It also did not mention the absence of a dishwasher. I only discovered those when I checked in. As it turns out, those warnings were present on the second listing, which I bypassed because I called to make my reservation. Duh!

My advice? When you get that many warning signs, you need to walk away, no matter how good the deal looks.

This ended up being one of the worst rentals I had ever experienced. The sofa had a faint but unmistakable onion-like scent of body odor. Insects swarmed over our food in the kitchen. They infested the drawers and crawled on the cutlery. During the day, temperatures in the home soared into the 90s, because I refused to pay extra for the AC. We ran the fans almost nonstop in an effort to stay cool. The owner harassed me with regular text messages and then called to yell because my electric bill was too high. Not exactly a shining example of island hospitality. (Related: Our vacation rental in St. Lucia is closed — are we out of luck?)

But I blame myself. If I’d seen the second property description, I would never have considered that rental. If I’d listened to my inner voice when the price rose, I would have hung up the phone. I should really follow my own advice.

Here is a big vacation rental mistake.
Aren Elliott in front of one of our vacation rentals. This one did not go so well.

Vacation rental mistake 2: Ignoring the warnings

There have been lots of other warnings. Our second-worst rental of 2018 happened in Colorado Springs, Colo. The property checked out on Airbnb and the owner seemed friendly and professional. But when we checked in, we discovered that a key amenity — the wireless internet — did not work as advertised.

And that’s when our host said something so unprofessional that I knew I was in the wrong place.

“You know,” she told me. “Thanks to you and your family, I’m homeless. You’ve rented my house. Now I have to go stay with a friend.”

How do you even respond to that? Do you invite the owner to sleep on the sofa or to take over one of the kids’ bedrooms? I remained silent.

Then she instructed me to feed her cat. I like cats, and I liked this cat. But feeding the cat was not part of the deal, and seemed a little amateurish.

Would it surprise you to find out that she then gave me a bad review on Airbnb? Hosts can review their customers. Looking back, I think she anticipated that I would give her a bad review. I didn’t; I save my best material for my columns.

Later, I talked with Airbnb about her review. It turns out that she actually gave me a neutral written review but in its internal system, she awarded my family one star, which was enough to trigger Airbnb’s internal warning system that tagged us as possible problem guests.

I responded by deleting my Airbnb account and promising to never rent from it again. But looking back, that was the wrong reaction. Airbnb did nothing wrong, except maybe having a double-blind review system that favors the owner. No, this host was not playing with a full deck. Can you even screen for something like that? I don’t think so.

One more vacation rental mistake
Aren at a laundromat in Salt Lake City.

Vacation rental mistake 3: Not conducting neighborhood research

In Salt Lake City last year, I rented an Airbnb without a washing machine. Said it right there in the property description. Or, to be more accurate, it didn’t say that it had a washing machine. You have to read between the lines.

I wish I’d researched the neighborhood a little better. Visiting the laundromat was an adventure, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a positive, “let’s-go-to-Disneyland” way. We did our laundry in a part of Salt Lake City that isn’t known for its family values.

Had I taken a look at a site like Crime Reports or My Local Crime, I might not have rented that Airbnb home.

Don’t get me wrong. Salt Lake City is one of my favorite places. But maybe not the area we stayed in — or in which we did our laundry. It’s OK, we survived. A lot of homeless people tried to talk to us, but no one ever threatened us.

So what did I learn from these vacation rental mistakes? Book your rental like an actuary. Read the property description all the way through. Conduct your own research on the neighborhood. Don’t rely on the host’s flowery property description for an objective assessment. And when you encounter an owner who doesn’t seem to be all there — run!

*Don’t forget to check out my ultimate guide to vacation rentals here.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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