In November 2015, Expedia agreed to buy HomeAway and its subsidiaries which include VRBO, vacationrentals.com and a long list of others. (These companies are referred to as OTAs - Online Travel Agencies.) Expedia paid $3.9 BILLION for the sale of HomeAway. This might not have been interesting news around your dinner table, but it has reshaped what it looks like for travelers to rent a vacation home.
How? Expedia is a public company. That means they have one primary goal - to raise the price of their stock for shareholders. They do that by generating more revenue and profit. In a market where they do not own the product they sell - their product, vacation homes, are owned by the homeowners - there is only one easy way to generate more revenue and profit. FEES.
In the pre-Expedia days, vacationers would find a home to rent on an OTA site, contact the homeowner through that site, and make their reservation. Money exchanged hands directly between the guest and the homeowner through personal check or credit card. The homeowner was able to email and talk with the guest to answer questions, help with vacation itineraries, and generally provide personalized customer service. The OTA made their money through subscriptions homeowners bought each year (typically $400 to thousands, depending on type) in order to be listed on the site.
Vacationers were happy. Homeowners were happy. Wonderful vacations in wonderful homes were enjoyed.
Flash forward to early 2016. Expedia has to justify the $3.9 billion sale and so institutes a 'service fee' on each rental that the vacationer must pay in order to book the vacation property. This service fee can be as much at 20% of the rental cost and it goes directly to Expedia's bottom line. There is a behind-the-scenes algorithm used by Expedia to determine the service fee % on each rental, which means there is no way to predict how much it will be until you get an online quote through the site. A recent guest at SEAS THE DAY in October 2017 paid a 17.5% service fee - $245!! - when they booked our home through an OTA. Yikes. I can think of about a thousand better things to spend vacation money on than fees. The fee can be hundreds - and in some cases, thousands - of dollars, depending on the cost of the rental. Again, this service fee goes right to the OTA's bottom line, it was never intended as a way to provide you, the vacationer, with additional 'service'. The service you get comes from the vacation rental owner - it always has.
Another new change is that contact information between the homeowner and traveler is blocked. No longer can we talk to guests on the phone or email them to answer their questions before a reservation is made. This restriction was implemented so that homeowners and travelers are forced to run any transaction through the OTA website, ensuring the OTA gets their fee. A classic example of putting profit before customer service.
If you are like my family, you don't want to spend hundreds or thousands of extra dollars on a 'service' fee just so that you can book a property online! So what to do?
Here are some suggestions on securing the vacation rental of your dreams WITHOUT paying any additional fees:
1. Go ahead and look for a rental ALL OVER the internet. Google everything you can think of (e.g. Miami Beach vacation rental, Miami Beach beach rental, Miami Beach beach house for rent, etc.). Don't restrict your search to HomeAway, VRBO, AirBnB, etc. Most homeowners now have vacation home websites like SEAS THE DAY's. Do a little homework - it is worth it.
2. If you do find a home you want to rent on an OTA website, try to find that home elsewhere on the internet before inquiring through the OTA. If the home has a name (like SEAS THE DAY) or another identifying feature, Google it and try to find the owner's website and contact information. They will be so happy to hear from you and you will have saved yourself a bundle!
3. Here's a trick someone taught me - Google a photo of the house on the OTA's site to see if the photo shows up on another website. Most times, homeowners use the same photos on their OTA listing and on their own website. To do that, go to the photo of the home on the OTA site and right click on it, then choose Search for Google Image. It doesn't work every time, but you could get lucky.
4. Join Facebook groups pertaining to where you like to travel. There are lots and they are great resources for vacation rentals directly from owners.
5. Never be shy about contacting the owner directly, outside of an OTA site. Many vacation homeowners are very unhappy about Expedia price gouging YOU - our customers. If an owner would prefer you book via an OTA (which is unlikely, but could happen), they will let you know and you can decide how you want to proceed.
I hope this overview helps you on your next vacation search. Life is short, go on vacation! And don't forget that we would love to welcome you at SEAS THE DAY on your next visit to spectacular Cape Cod. Contact me for information!
(P.S. If you are wondering why SEAS THE DAY and other vacation rentals are still active on the pay-to-stay OTAs, it's simply because there are no viable competitive sites in the market YET that don't charge fees AND generate enough traffic. I hope that will change.)