It’s a big, wide world of vacation listings out there, each with its own set of options, niches and fees. One of the biggest is HomeAway, which likes to deliver without the latter.
Though Airbnb has become awfully synonymous with the whole concept of home sharing, sort of like how people use “Kleenex” and “tissue” interchangeably, HomeAway has been country strong since 2005, light years before Airbnb was even born. Airbnb may get all the cool points for its pretty interface and media savvy but HomeAway does one thing exclusively and does it well: vacation rentals.
Only furnished vacation homes, which are left clean and ready for visitors with no other people in the way, nor clothes in the closet or food in the fridge, are listed on HomeAway. Whether it’s a Montreal apartment or a castle rental in Scotland—oh, those are listed—HomeAway gets you the whole pad. Thankfully, the Austin, Tex.-based company has one million listings in more than 190 countries. Interestingly enough, the average rental on the site costs $217 per night, which works out to $54.25 per person each night for a family of four, for those wanting the exact math.
I turned to HomeAway, which comped our stay, for a trip I had in Montreal. A friend and I would be visiting the city for a wedding and we had decided to turn it into a four-night visit. We wanted our own place rather than a room in a shared apartment. Since we were going to be meeting up with people for wedding festivities throughout the weekend with some plain, old-fashioned touristing, which we were prepared to go sans concierge or in-house host. In other words: we wanted to do our thing.
The crucial difference between Airbnb and HomeAway is that Airbnb focuses on all types of vacation rentals, whether that gets you a bedroom in a house with a host or an empty studio apartment, while HomeAway focuses only on entire properties. Since it’s about whole homes, I didn’t need to add a search filter to weed out the full monty apartments from the shared rooms. For people who know they want that, this is a way to immediately cut through all the fluff.
Even with just vacation rentals, HomeAway had plenty for me to scroll through — about 600 options in Montreal for my selected dates. I definitely would need to be applying some filters.
Airbnb’s design (it’s impossible not to compare, so I must) is decidedly more hip than HomeAway’s website. But with HomeAway’s claim and standing as being the #1 vacation rental property for families, it works. HomeAway is going for simplicity more than anything particularly pretty or flashy but it intuitive and easy on the eye with its blue, white and gray color scheme. The design lets the properties do all the showing off, listing them digestibly one after another, rather than stacked like Airbnb. It keeps it simple and lets the listings do all the talking. (Apparently their design translates to profit, too.)
I think it’s smart. And I’ll take quality content—compounds in the French Riviera are to be had here...!—rather than bells and whistles that obscure transparent pricing. If I can easily find what I’m looking for (in this case, a load of options that fit what I’m looking for) then I’m good.
I plugged in the destination, dates and number of people. (Your options for guest numbers are 1+ to 13+. Though HomeAway seems to be the family favorite, I would say it’s the place to go to find some fantasy home for a reunion weekend, bachelor/bachelorette party, etc. etc. dream big.) The process is straightforward enough.
Now that I had my basic parameters entered, it was time to look through all the options. I clicked on an assuming little arrow next to “More Filters” that belied the ginormous dropdown menu, ranging from property type to whether a hot tub was onboard. (Not this time.)
Because HomeAway focuses on vacation destinations, I understand why their “location type” is general and panders to wanderlust as much as they do: beach, mountain, near the ocean, skiing and so on. The location filters working well for someone without much predefined beyond the destination and in search of a particular type of vacation. But that’s not how I usually look. I often have the place researched and already have a good idea of the areas or neighborhoods where I’d like to stay. For that reason, the current broad options weren’t very practical or helpful for my needs.
For Montreal, in particular, I already had a pretty specific radius of where I wanted to be, focusing around the venue of my friend’s wedding and where other people would be staying. The closest I could get to that was selecting “downtown,” and I realized that meant I was pulling up anything and everything listed in the city of Montreal itself. So, with two people, “downtown” and our specified nights, I was still facing a lot of scrolling.
I ended up going through the results, liking—you actually <3 properties—and adding things quickly that looked like they could work. I was on alert for any of the names of neighborhoods I wanted to stay in popping up in the title or description. I then went through and identified my favorites of the favorites based on guests’ property and owner reviews left on the site. From there I crosschecked the listing’s HomeAway map (which is powered by Google Maps) with a map where I had dropped a pin for the wedding venue.
In some cases owners had listed their property as being specifically in or near the Old City, which is where I wanted to stay. That was helpful because I could catch that when glancing quickly through. I found in that I only had as much information as the owners were moved to give. In some cases it was detailed with the specific neighborhood and amenities mentioned right in the title and in others it was very bare bones, such as “Downtown, 1 BR.” The onus is on the owners to provide that information and sell their property, perhaps on a home buyer's official site, and I felt like everyone missed out with those who weren’t inclined to do so—potential renters and the owners who stood to make a profit, too.
Once I had my top choices, which I culled based exclusively on location and reviews, I started contacting owners right on HomeAway’s page. (Owners’ profiles list the languages they speak, by the way, which I found helpful.) Every time I clicked to contact a new owner HomeAway automatically copied the message I had composed to the first owner. All I had to do was click send to shoot off the same recycled inquiry for every message. Now we were moving.
Fortunately, the owner of the place I preferred was the first to get back to me. Like Airbnb, HomeAway linked all the communication up to my regular email so I could send and receive from there, which I liked. The messages as emails, however, I found, often came through clunky. It always took some diving to get to the actual message. All the prior agreements and messages also were nested together in the same HomeAway image box.
The same night I sent out the initial inquiry I had the a perfectly-situated apartment reserved. That’s entirely because the owner was totally on it. She was quick to respond, friendly and spelled out everything up front: costs, details about amenities like parking (threw it in for free!) how check-in would work and more. She requested a portion of the payment to be sent via PayPal a handful of days after the initial contact in order to reserve the property, which went off without a hitch. Ultimately it is up to owners to decide how and when they request payment, though HomeAway does provide recommendations and resources for them and renters as well.
HomeAway advertises in its full listings that property owners and managers “average five years in the business,” so I would think (and hope) the odds are good that most hosts are just as responsive. In perusing places in Montreal on HomeAway versus Airbnb, as well as for other locations I tested, I got the impression that HomeAway had a higher percentage of quality listings: Places seemed nicer and more upscale, while Airbnb listings might appeal more to a middle-of-the-road demographic.
One huge plus HomeAway has going for it compared with its competitors is that it doesn’t charge a booking fee. It was all about connecting guests with properties and their owners, delivering all the necessary and desired information and facilitating renting, rather than pushing the brand around (unlike, ahem, some competitors perhaps).
For any sort of vacation rental or a stay where you want to be handed the keys with full trust and independence, I would say HomeAway is the site to consult. It isn’t one of the flashier, attention-grabbing platforms out there but it doesn’t need to be. It has top-notch listings and almost a decade in the rental game and that’s more than good enough to match up rental seekers with the right place. And it doesn’t even charge a booking fee to make it happen.