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Airbnb vs. VRBO vs. HomeAway: The Differences You Need to Know

Tired of waiting in line to check in to a hotel? Frustrated by mounting resort fees for things that should really be included anyway? ("Free" parking? Come on!) If this sounds familiar, it may be time to try a vacation rental, a unique, and often less expensive and more spacious, way to spend the night. To get started, here's the skinny on the vacation rental industry leaders: AirBnB, VRBO, and HomeAway.

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Airbnb for a unique way to stay

The basics: Airbnb is a commerce site where homeowners personally list a place to stay and travelers can book it directly. What makes Airbnb unique is that you can choose to spend the night in anything from a bedroom in someone’s home to a tree house to a castle in France (no, really—the company reports that they have nearly 3,000 castles and 1,400 tree houses in their current listings.)

Who it’s for: For anyone who loves to meet the locals, being able to stay in a room of a traditional home with people who know the area, especially in far-flung destinations, is a priceless bonus. Some hosts create itineraries for guests, help with local language translations, and offer restaurant suggestions. We’ve even heard of hosts picking up guests at the airport.

There are nearly 5 million Airbnb listings worldwide across 81,000 cities in 191 countries, and the company reports that more than 300 million travelers have stayed at an Airbnb. There’s a good chance you’re at least familiar with the brand, so there’s a sense of familiarity built in if it’s your first time booking this type of stay.

Take a pass: Don’t love to interact with strangers? Then a room in someone’s home is definitely not for you. And even if you’re comfortable with meeting new people, sharing a bathroom (and the soap!) isn’t for everyone. However, you can also choose private options without anyone at home with Airbnb so you have minimal contact with hosts. These are the most popular Airbnbs in every state.

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VRBO for spacious getaways

The basics: Vacation Rental By Owner, or VRBO, is a platform for vacation home rentals. Renters deal directly with homeowners instead of going through a realtor or other middlemen. Unlike Airbnb, none of the listings on VRBO are shared spaces, so you’ll never find someone else’s food in the fridge or clothes in the closet.

Who it’s for: Due to the exclusive use and privacy of the vacation homes available, this is a perfect fit for families who want to spread out instead of squishing into a hotel room, or groups who want to all be together in a shared space. You’ll also have kitchens to cook meals, which cuts down on vacation costs, and common spaces to spend time together without having to troop down to a hotel lobby.

Take a pass: Without a realtor to answer questions, you have to trust reviews and the owner’s descriptions to get the full story on the property. And don’t expect the full range of amenities you’d find at a resort; if you need a kid’s club, you’re out of luck (although you can use filters to find a house with a pool; more on that coming up).

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HomeAway for space to stay and play

The basics: HomeAway is another platform to book vacation homes, including beach houses, cabins, and condos. They have more than 2 million listings in 190 countries worldwide that allow travelers to stay privately in anything from a beach condo in Florida to a castle in France.

Who it’s for: This is one-stop shopping at its finest. Since launching in 2005, HomeAway has acquired more than 20 companies in its effort to take the frustration out of searching multiple, often regional, websites for vacation rentals. Only private vacation homes are available, so you’ll be able to spread out and be only with the people you’re traveling with, no strangers in the room next door. The wide range of filters on the HomeAway site lets you search for everything from pools to exercise rooms to cribs.

Take a pass: If this sounds a lot like VRBO, it’s because that site is one of the many that HomeAway has acquired. In fact, they share all listings, so there’s no need to cross-check between the sites for price or details. Don’t forget these 10 things you should always bring to a vacation rental.

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Cool digs

Want to stay in a castle? A house made of Legos? How about a tree house? All three sites offer unique options to stay that will definitely make your vacation photos stand out from your neighbor’s. These are a few of our favorites.

On VRBO: a 727 that’s been turned into an airplane tree house in the jungle of Costa Rica ($260 a night).

On HomeAway: an entire private island off the coast of Belize, complete with a boat dock, a luxe house with five suites, and a very private pool ($1,770 a night).

On Airbnb: this charming tree house hideaway right in Atlanta ($275 a night).

Looking to save money? Here are the top Airbnb rentals under $100.

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Interior and exterior design of pool villa which features living area, greenery garden, pavilion and swimming poolstock_SK/Shutterstock

Tips for the wise

  • Each vacation home is unique, so use the extensive filter options (HomeAway and VRBO excel at this) to find one that fits the needs of your family or group, advise the experts at HomeAway. Fancy kitchen or barbecue grill? Big-screen TV or a pool? Bunk beds or a crib? Those are just a few of the search options available.
  • Remember, this isn’t a resort, so if you need a pool to keep your kids happy, be sure to add that to your “must haves” when you’re adding filters.
  • No matter which of the vacation rental sites you’re using, do your homework. Be sure to read the reviews, ask questions of the property owners, and scope out the area on Google Maps.
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Paying with credit card onlineKonstantin Kolosov/Shutterstock

Reservation know how

  • Check the total cost before you click; there are often cleaning fees and possible minimum stays requirements, not to mention pet fees, if applicable.
  • Always pay directly through the site—all three offer this service—and never through a secondary route. Paying through the site activates protections and gives access to customer service.
  • Know what you’re getting into. Before paying, read the vacation rental contract to understand cancellation policies, occupancy limits, pet restrictions, and damage waivers and responsibilities.

Regardless of which site you decide to use to find the getaway of your dreams, make sure you know these common mistakes everyone should avoid when booking a vacation home rental.

Melissa Klurman
Melissa is an intrepid explorer and award-winning travel journalist with more than 25 years of experience. She covers topics ranging from family travel and Disney to honeymoons and romantic beaches, and everything in between.