Lifestyle

Airbnb vs VRBO: Battle for the Best Vacation Rental Website

by Mac Misseldine

airbnb vs vrbo
Photo: Joshua Ness

Hotels and resorts have their perks, but sometimes it’s nice to skip the crowds and stay in a vacation rental. Thanks to services like Airbnb and VRBO, finding a private, one-of-a-kind rental for your next getaway is easier than ever.

To some, it’s a strange concept. Instead of heading to the Marriott where you’re guaranteed clean sheets and room service, you’re trusting someone you’ve never met to hand over the keys to their house for the weekend. Hopefully their mom taught them how to clean and the place actually looks as great as the pictures.

Oh, and did we mention you need to pay in advance, including cleaning fees and a security deposit?

It’s a wild idea, but here’s the crazy thing — 99 times out of 100, it works! For a fair price that’s often cheaper than hotel accommodations, you get a vacation rental that feels like home (because it’s actually someone’s home).

The bathrooms are clean, the bed’s made, there’s a fully stocked kitchen, and you get to enjoy the space and amenities that are normally reserved for high-priced hotel suites.

Vacation rentals also let you ditch the traditional and embrace the unique. Book a night in a treehouse to bring out your inner child. Reserve a private island for the ultimate bachelor party. Enjoy a one-of-a-kind experience in a castle, windmill, or cave. The opportunities are truly endless.

If you take the bait and search for the perfect vacation rental, you’ll inevitably wind up browsing Airbnb and VRBO. They’re the biggest names in the game with a combined 8+ million listings in more than 190 countries.

So, what’s the difference between these two behemoths that dominate the vacation rental market, and what do you need to know before you hit the reserve button? We’ll run through the subtle differences with each service, including the important policies lurking in the fine print, so you can book your next trip with confidence.

VRBO

VRBO stands for Vacation Rental By Owner. They’ve been connecting property owners with guests since 1995, so it’s no surprise they’re one of the top players in the industry.

Over the past 25 years, VRBO has steadily grown into a global community with rental properties in 190 countries. Since joining the Expedia Group and merging with HomeAway, the service boasts well over 2 million condos, cabins, beach houses, and everything in between.

It’s worth noting that HomeAway and VRBO share all of the same properties, so searching one site produces the exact same results as the other.

Accommodations

VRBO focuses exclusively on private residences, so you won’t find any shared rooms on their site. That’s the primary reason VRBO has fewer properties than Airbnb. It’s also why VRBO properties tend to have a higher nightly rate — shared rooms are obviously cheaper.

Don’t let the numbers fool you, though — this is a classic example of quality over quantity. Airbnb may have more options with a lower average price, but you’ll find a higher concentration of high-end properties on VRBO. So, if you’re seeking luxury accommodations, start your search at VRBO.

Also, don’t let the lower number of rental listings trick you into thinking VRBO has less of a global reach. You’ll find VRBO rentals in 190 countries, so it’s a safe bet they’ve got a property near just about any destination.

Reservations

There are two ways to book a reservation with VRBO: Instant Book or 24 Hour Confirmation. With instant booking, VRBO will immediately charge your credit card and email a confirmation.

When instant booking is unavailable, you’ll submit a request to book the property. The host has 24 hours to accept or decline your request. As soon as your request is accepted, VRBO will charge your credit card and email a confirmation.

In rare cases where your booking request is declined or goes unanswered, your request will be cancelled in 24 hours so you can book with another property. You may also cancel a pending request at any time before the host accepts it (note that only applies to 24 Hour Confirmation requests, not instant booking).

VRBO may ask to confirm your identity by providing your full name, phone number, email, physical address, and birthdate. This is optional, but some property owners only accept booking requests from guests with a confirmed identity.

Contacting Hosts

When you book a stay with VRBO, the site lets you include notes and questions for the host to answer. If you have a question that needs answering before you make a reservation, you can send a private message to the host through the property page.

After booking, you’ll have a direct line of communication with the property owner. They will email you any information you need for check-in, and you’re free to ask them anything before and during your stay. Most accounts list a phone number for emergency contact.

Service Fee

VRBO charges guests a variable service fee at the time of booking. The fee often ranges from 6% to 12% of the total reservation cost, excluding taxes and refundable fees. You’ll find that the percentage is generally higher for affordable properties and lower for more expensive properties.

The service fee is a pain point for some travelers because you don’t usually see this in hotel bookings, though “resort fees” are becoming more commonplace in the industry. That said, online services like VRBO need to turn a profit to maintain a seamless website and good customer service, so we’re okay with reasonable fees.

Cleaning fees

VRBO lets property owners charge a cleaning fee at their discretion. The good news is the cleaning fee must be clearly displayed on the property page. The bad news is that cleaning fees can drastically increase the nightly cost, so that sweet deal you found for $100 a night may actually be $150 a night once the cleaning fees are added.

Deposits

Like most companies in the hospitality industry, VRBO charges a refundable deposit to cover their bases in case you trash your room. However, in this case they actually charge the deposit to your method of payment. In contrast, many other companies (including Airbnb) simply place a hold on the funds — they don’t actually charge it unless the property owner files a damage claim.

With VRBO, the company charges the deposit at the same time they charge everything else, so be prepared for a significant charge on your credit card. The damage deposit is refunded after you complete your stay, usually within 2-3 weeks. The deposit amount is determined by the property owner, so it may vary by property.

Cancellation And Refunds

Property owners with VRBO are allowed to set their own cancellation policies, so it’s important to pay attention to these when you book as they can vary significantly by property.

If the property owner allows a full refund, you can cancel the booking online and process an immediate refund. If the property owner only allows a partial refund, you must submit a cancellation request and wait for approval. When the property owner confirms your cancellation, VRBO will issue the partial refund (often 50%).

Note that cancellations and refunds do not include the VRBO service fee.

VRBO does offer travel insurance that includes cancellation protection. If you’re booking a non-refundable trip, it may be wise to consider adding this protection to avoid losing your money.

The Book With Confidence Guarantee

VRBO understands that vacation rental customers can be a little wary of paying a total stranger to stay at their house. To alleviate these concerns, the company offers a Book with Confidence Guarantee that includes the following benefits:

  • Payment protection against listing fraud
  • Dedicated Traveler Care Team to answer questions before and during your stay, available by phone or chat depending on the region
  • Lodging assistance if you’re unable to check into the property, or if the property is significantly misrepresented by the photos on VRBO
  • Rebooking assistance to help you find another vacation rental if your booking is cancelled by the owner/manager last minute
  • Damage deposit protection to help you recover a deposit that’s wrongfully withheld after your stay

To be eligible for the Book with Confidence Guarantee, you must pay directly through VRBO online or by phone (i.e. you can’t cut a side-deal with the property owner). For check-in issues, you must contact the Traveler Care Team within 12 hours of the checking in. For all other incidents, you have 30 days from the time of the incident to contact the Traveler Care Team.

Airbnb

Airbnb is a much younger company than VRBO, but you’d never guess that from their published statistics. Since its founding in 2008, the site has grown to include more than 6+ million listings in nearly 100,000 cities and 191 countries. That’s only one more country than VRBO, but 3x the number of listings.

To put Airbnb’s market dominance in perspective, consider this. An average of 2 million people stay in an Airbnb property every night, and the company has successfully processed over 500 million check-ins since its inception.

There are two secrets to Airbnb’s success. First, they offer shared spaces in addition to private residences. By offering the ability to monetize a spare bedroom, the company has turned millions of property owners into hospitality entrepreneurs — a win-win for guests and hosts. As such, you’ll typically find far more options per city through Airbnb (if you’re willing to share).

Second, Airbnb emphasizes local experiences that complement their vacation rentals. They recognize unique hosts, spotlight communities, and curate travel experiences guided by local residents.

The latter are aptly named Airbnb Experiences, and the site offers 300,000+ activities across 1,000+ global markets. It’s a growing part of the company, so expect those numbers to continue to climb as Airbnb evolves into a greater travel brand beyond just vacation rentals.

Accommodations

The biggest differentiator between Airbnb and VRBO accommodations is Airbnb’s inclusion of shared spaces, where the guest can rent a spare bedroom in someone’s home. Such accommodations obviously lack the privacy of a full-property rental, but they’re great for travelers who don’t mind sharing amenities in exchange for a lower nightly rate.

Airbnb also takes the cake for unique accommodations. Like VRBO, they offer homes, condos, cabins, and beach houses.

But they also offer properties rarely offered by their competitor. We’re talking 14,000+ tiny houses, 4,000+ castles, and over 2,400 tree houses. You’ll also find igloos, AirStream trailers, yurts, private islands, and the Spice Girls Spice World tour bus. So, if you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind stay on your next vacation, you’ll certainly find that at Airbnb.

Reservations

Booking with Airbnb is almost exactly the same process as VRBO. When you’re ready to make a reservation, you can book right away with Instant Book properties or you can submit a booking request to the host. The host has 24 hours to respond to booking requests, though most respond within a few hours.

When booking an Instant Book property, your payment will be charged immediately and Airbnb will email a confirmation. When requesting a booking, Airbnb will charge the payment once the host accepts your request.

Some Airbnb hosts ask for a government ID to confirm your identity before accepting a booking request. This is a little interesting, because VRBO does not ask for a picture ID. In the end, it’s up to the host whether they want to impose this requirement. If you don’t feel comfortable with this, try to find another property that doesn’t ask for a government ID.

Superhosts and Airbnb Plus

Airbnb has a couple of unique programs to guide travelers towards the best hosts and properties. These aren’t meant to dissuade you from booking a stay with a non-qualifying property. Rather, it presents a gold standard that instills a little more trust for travelers who are on the fence between booking a traditional hotel or vacation rental.

The Superhost program celebrates and rewards Airbnb’s top-rated and most experienced hosts. Superhosts boast a 4.8-star average rating, host at least 10 unique stays per year, maintain a 90% response rate, and have no cancellations in the past year. So, when you see the Superhost badge on a property page, you can trust that you’re dealing with a professional host backed by stellar reviews.

The Airbnb Plus program highlights the highest quality vacation rentals, with hosts who are known for great reviews and attention to detail. Before awarding the Plus badge, Airbnb performs an in-person quality inspection to ensure thoughtful design and premium quality.

Airbnb guarantees the property’s quality and listed amenities, and considering the host is a Superhost they implicitly guarantee you’re dealing with an awesome host.

So, if you want to dip your toe in the vacation rental water but you’re feeling nervous, stick to Superhosts and Airbnb Plus properties.

Contacting Hosts

Contacting hosts with Airbnb works just like VRBO. Before booking, you can send the host a private message through Airbnb. After your reservation is confirmed, you can communicate with the host by message and email. Many hosts also provide their phone number for confirmed guests.

Service Fee

Airbnb charges a variable service fee, ranging anywhere from 0% to 20%. Considering VRBO usually tops out at 12%, Airbnb service fees can be significantly higher.

That said, consider the fact that the average nightly rate for Airbnb is lower than VRBO, especially when you’re looking at shared rooms. So, while Airbnb’s fee percentage may be higher, the actual fee amount should be comparable to VRBO.

Cleaning Fee

Like VRBO, Airbnb allows hosts to impose cleaning fees for their property. Unfortunately, you won’t see this until checkout, and it can have a significant impact on the final price. Even worse, cleaning fees contribute to the Airbnb service fee, driving the price up even further.

Deposits

Here’s one place where Airbnb shines over VRBO. Instead of actually charging a refundable deposit, Airbnb simply places a hold on your credit card for the amount of the deposit. As long as the host doesn’t initiate a damage claim after your stay, Airbnb will release the deposit within a few weeks after checkout.

This is a huge improvement over VRBO because it’s always easier to dispute a damage claim before they take your money. Of course, you’ll still need room on your credit card, so check your card balance and credit limit before you book. The hold amount won’t be available until about 2-3 weeks after completing your stay.

Cancellations And Refunds

Airbnb features a tiered cancellation policy with three primary options. It’s up to the host to determine which cancellation policy to follow, so pay attention to the rental agreement when you’re booking.

For the Flexible Cancellation Plan, guests may receive a full refund if the reservation is cancelled up to 24 hours before check-in. Cancellations within 24 hours of check-in will refund everything after the first night.

Guests who decide to leave early will receive a full refund for unused nights starting 24 hours after checkout. For example, if you booked Monday through Friday and decide to leave early on Tuesday, you’ll get a refund for Wednesday and Thursday nights.

With the Moderate Cancellation Plan, guests may receive a full refund when the reservation is cancelled at least 5 days prior to check-in. After that, the first night is non-refundable, and the remaining nights are eligible for a 50% refund. Guests who leave early may receive a 50% refund for unused nights starting 24 hours after checkout.

Under the Strict Cancellation Plan, guests only receive a full refund when cancelling within 48 hours of booking and at least 14 days prior to the scheduled check-in. When cancelling 7-14 days before the scheduled stay, guests may receive a 50% refund. Cancellations within 7 days of the scheduled stay or after check-in are not eligible for a refund.

Under all three cancellation plans, cleaning fees are always refunded when a reservation is canceled before check-in. The Airbnb service fee is refundable three times a year when the cancellation takes place within 48 hours of booking and at least 14 days before the scheduled stay.

Conclusion

So, after taking a deep dive into the operations and fine print of VRBO and Airbnb, what’s the consensus?

Here’s the sparknotes version:

  • Airbnb offers 3x as many vacation rentals as VRBO with more diverse property types
  • Airbnb offers shared spaces for travelers looking to save a few bucks
  • VRBO only offers private rentals and generally has more high-end properties
  • VRBO offers more long-term rentals (though Airbnb’s long-term options are growing)
  • Both services guarantee a response to booking requests within 24 hours, with a growing number of instantly-bookable properties
  • Both services charge a variable service fee, with Airbnb charging 0% – 20% and VRBO charging 6% to 12%
  • Both services allow cleaning fees, and they should be listed on the property page
  • Cancellation policies are determined by the property owner, though Airbnb exercises a little more control for more consistency between properties
  • VRBO charges a security deposit, while Airbnb places a hold on your credit card to cover potential damages

Unless you’re pressed for time, we’d recommend checking both Airbnb and VRBO when looking for a vacation rental in a specific area. You may find more options on Airbnb, but quantity doesn’t always mean quality, so don’t discount VRBO because they have fewer properties.

That said, if we had to pick a favorite, we’d go with Airbnb. They have far more unique properties, there’s affordable shared rooms for budget-minded travelers, and plenty of high-end digs for luxury travelers.

We like how easy it is to spot a professional host through the Superhost designation, and we love the fact that Airbnb Plus properties have been personally inspected for quality, amenities, and thoughtful design.

Recommended Vacation Rentals

Heading to Oregon? Check out our favorite Oregon coast vacation rentals, treehouses, and Oregon coast cabins.

Can you hear the Rocky Mountains calling your name? Check out our favorite Colorado glamping rentals, secluded cabin rentals, cabins near Denver, and cabins near Estes Park.

Don’t worry desert dwellers, we’ve got you covered with the 11 most unique Airbnb rentals in Arizona.

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