En español | Many travelers these days are stepping off the beaten path when it comes to overnighting on vacation or business, be it alone or with their families. Rentals offered by new online companies can mean lower costs, more space and more privacy, with millions of listings spread throughout 190 countries. Here's how the two biggest competitors — Airbnb and HomeAway — work. 

AARP MEMBER DISCOUNTS
Discounts on Car & Truck Rentals

Exclusive savings up to 25%, free upgrades, GPS discounts and more from Avis and Budget

SEE MORE

Subscribe to the AARP Travel Newsletter and get inspired for your next trip

Start by visiting their websites. You'll be guided through a process in order to refine your search by location, travel dates and number of guests. A variety of other search filters include price and size options, property types (including castles, farmhouses and yachts) and amenities.

Airbnb rentals are usually listed by homeowners, and you can choose among three different options. If you opt for an "entire place," you will not be sharing the rental with the homeowner or anyone else outside of your own party. A "private room" is defined as a bedroom all to yourself with shared spaces elsewhere in the rental. A "shared room" means you'll share your bedroom and the rest of the rental with another person or persons.

The majority of rentals on the HomeAway site are vacation homes with no permanent occupants. The options here generally appeal to a more mature clientele who are traveling with families or groups. Prices tend to be a bit higher than Airbnb listings.

Here are a few tips to help you make the best use of either service.

Make good use of search filters on the site.

Sometimes a mind-boggling number of available rentals pop up after you enter your initial information. Narrow down your choices by using additional filters so that you can evaluate the finer details of each possibility.

Always read reviews.

Only confirmed guests can leave reviews on Airbnb and HomeAway sites. Before booking your vacation, be sure to read them. The best rentals usually have many reviews from satisfied guests, but a good rule of thumb is to stay only at rentals that have three or more positive reviews. Reviews are also a great way to learn if there's a difference between the website description and the actual experience. Is the beach really "steps away," or is it a slog that requires a compass and a map?

Keep an open mind.

Remember this isn't a hotel, so don't expect a formal check-in desk, fancy toiletries or daily cleaning (but fresh towels and linens should be provided). If you are sharing a home, don't expect the host to wait on you, but most hosts are more than happy to chat and offer advice to help you get to know the area.

Look for discounts.

If you are staying for a week or longer, check to see if there is a discounted rate for extended stays. If the answer is not obvious on the website, don't be afraid to ask via email before your stay.

Payment.

Airbnb keeps it simple and secure and allows guests to pay only through its payment system upon booking (usually by credit card or through PayPal). Some HomeAway listings offer payment with credit cards or e-checks, but others require you to pay the owner directly. In those cases, avoid sending cash or using an instant money transfer — those will void any guarantees from HomeAway.  

Know the rules and read your contract.

Airbnb hosts can choose to have their guests sign a contract or not. HomeAway rental property owners provide their own contracts to guests. Keep this in mind: The more rules there are, the more likely you are to have a positive experience. Hosts who make upfront statements about cleanliness and other issues tend to run a tighter ship than those who are a little more lax about the rules. Also, be sure to read about security on each website.

See also: How to be a good houseguest

Cancellation policies.

Policies vary, so be aware if you aren't completely sure about your travel plans. Airbnb has three standard cancellation policies: flexible, moderate and strict. The cancellation policy for HomeAway depends on your rental agreement with the property owner, but you can also purchase cancellation protection.

Plan your perfect vacation with AARP's Trip Finder Tool