Travel hotel-free by finding unique lodging online

Airbnb bedroom

Forget hotels. They’re cramped, overpriced and have about as much character as a TGI Friday’s. Plus, it’s hard to find a hotel room in the heart of a city, unless you’re able and willing to shell out a wheelbarrow-load of cash. Instead, why not enjoy accommodations in ideal locations, which offer the comfort of home and a unique window into the local landscape? To find such a place to stay, travelers now have a wide variety of websites that offer privately owned vacation rentals in nearly every destination around the world. Here, the seven essential websites for travelers who want more than the cookie-cutter hotel experience.

Airbnb logoAirbnb.com

Launched in 2008, this San Francisco-based startup quickly established itself as the must-use site in the vacation rental realm. And it’s not hard to see why: Through Airbnb, travelers can easily book anything from a comfy futon in New York City to a cozy apartment in France to the entire country of Lichtenstein. (Of course, that one will run you $70,000 per night — but don’t worry, there are plenty of other options for nearly any budget).

Airbnb boasts properties in more than 9,000 cities around the world, so there’s bound to be an Airbnb rental near your destination. The website has a clean, easy-to-use design, and allows a variety of different search options to find exactly the right place. With the site’s new Facebook integration, users can see where friends have stayed in the past, which helps narrow down the abundant array of choices. In short, if you’re going to use only one site to book a place to stay, use Airbnb.

CouchSurfingCouchSurfing.org

For travelers on a tight budget, CouchSurfing is a god-send. Why? Because it’s 100 percent free. Yes, free. More a social network than “vacation rental site,” CouchSurfing, at its most basic level, connects people with room to spare with travelers who need a place to crash.

When setting up a CouchSurfing profile, you’ll be asked include more personal details than other sites that offer hotel alternatives, things like hobbies, beliefs, and other places you’ve traveled. All of this info allows for a wide variety of search filters, which helps CouchSurfers find the best place to stay, wherever in the world they might find themselves. CouchSurfing is great for anyone looking to get a better taste of their destinations local flavor, but may not be good for users expecting the straightforward experience offered by hotels or other sites on this list. The site’s complicated etiquette and emphasis on feedback can also make it tough to secure a room before you’ve honed your manners and built a reputation.

9Flats9Flats.com

One of many “Airbnb clones” popping up these days, the Berlin, Germany-based 9Flats has many of the same features as Airbnb, but with a more European focus. The site just launched in Spain and Germany in February, and is about to debut in the UK and France, followed by Italy. Currently, the site offers about 9,000 different properties in 40 countries, and is adding more every day. While this might pale in comparison to the variety available through other sites, 9Flats is great for anyone looking for off-the-beaten-path places to stay (many 9Flats rentals aren’t in the city center), or for property owners looking to rent their spare room or apartment without the level of competition that exists on bigger sites.

Anyone who’s used Airbnb will immediately notice the similar look, feel and functionality of 9Flats — which isn’t a bad thing, even if it isn’t particularly original. The site works well, with easy sign-up and intuitive ways to search and find the property best suited to your needs.

CraigslistCraigslist.org

No list of vacation rental sites would be complete without Craigslist. The classifieds site essentially pioneered the way for the other businesses on this list. In the United States, Craigslist offers countless rentals, with more posted every second. Unlike other sites, Craigslist requires no login or pesky user profile to fill out. That said, Craigslist comes with some obvious downfalls — namely, you never quite know what you’re going to get. There are, of course, plenty of legitimate properties available for short-term rentals, but it’s up to you, the traveler, to approach renting through Craigslist with a healthy dose of skepticism and sharp eye for the weird. (Unless, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.) World travelers should also beware that, while Craigslist is ubiquitous in the US, it’s not nearly as widely used in many other countries around the world. So if you’re looking to travel abroad, Americans, you’d probably be better off using another service.

HomeAway networkHomeAway network

HomeAway is your parents’ Airbnb. Founded in 2005, this Austin, Texas-based vacation rental site offers more quality places to stay than any of its competitors — about 540,000 property listings in 145 countries — and has a more robust infrastructure, for both property owners and travelers, than other sites on this list. The HomeAway network is expansive. In addition to HomeAway.com, the company also includes VRBO.com, BedandBreakfast.com, TripHomes.com and about 10 other sites based in countries around the world.

While HomeAway is perfectly good for travelers, the site charges homeowners $300 per year to list their property on the site. Through sites like Airbnb and 9Flats, on the other hand, it’s free to list a property, and only a small percentage is charged to both traveler and homeowner for each booking. In reality, this means that HomeAway has far less invested in booking each and every property on its sites, compared to its competitors.

SabbaticalHomesSabbaticalHomes.com

Started all the way back in 2000, SabbaticalHomes is one of the first sites of its kind — but is entirely different than any other option on the list. Unlike HomeAway or Airbnb, however, SabbaticalHomes offers its services primarily to the members of the academic community who are traveling abroad for long periods of time — though anyone looking for an extended getaway is welcome to use the service. In addition to home rentals, the site also offers home exchanges and house-sitting opportunities. SabbaticalHomes includes about 7,000 listings in 56 countries, and its prices tend to be better than other sites that are competing more fiercely for business.

FlipKeyFlipKey.com

Started in 2005, FlipKey is the predecessor to Airbnb, and competes most closely with the HomeAway network in terms of look, feel and clientele. Because travel giant TripAdvisor owns FlipKey, the site has the advantage of a well-established travel network, which has helped gain the site more than 100,000 properties in 5,000 regions. The TripAdvisor link also gives FlipKey the advantage of having “the world’s largest collection of authentic vacation rental guest reviews,” so travelers can accurately know what they’re going to get before they get there. In addition to privately owned rentals, FlipKey also includes a wide variety of “professionally-managed” options — which means, if you’re not entirely ready to give up on hotels, but still want a unique experience, this site allows you to have it both ways.

Also check out our article, Alternative travel sites for flights, hotels, and more.

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