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Searching for a Last-Minute Vacation Rental Just Got Easier

A newly launched website provides a friendly search system for last-minute vacation home rentals.

With all the travel writers urging “rent early,” you might think that “last-minute vacation rentals” is an oxymoron. Fortunately, it isn’t. A newly launched British website, Snaptrip, focuses on last-minute vacation rentals, and the industry giants HomeAway and Flipkey allow you to locate various special deals, including last-minute offers.

Newcomer Snaptrip provides a friendly search system. Enter a destination—either a town or a county—plus dates, length of stay, and number of beds, and the site posts available results. The price displays account for your length of stay; they post full-stay prices rather than prices per night. The top menu also includes a “top deals” option that returns, as you might guess, the best available deals for your dates throughout the U.K., listed in order of percentage discounts. I tested the site for one-week stays at the industry standard Saturday to Saturday periods: For a stay starting one week after the day I tested, the site returned 33 properties with discounts ranging from 6 percent to 29 percent, with several above 15 percent, and about the same results for rentals starting two weeks after my test. By the third week, discount percentages dropped sharply, and by the fourth week, only four deals were available. Snaptrip also displays a map with deal locations highlighted.

I focus on Snaptrip because, to my knowledge, it’s the first website devoted specifically to last-minute vacation rentals, and the pricing pattern provides some insight as to how the market operates. All in all, Snaptrip is a well-planned and user-friendly website, making last-minute searches easy within its relatively small universe of rentals in the U.K. and Ireland. But I wonder how scalable it would be for really large worldwide databases.

Given the typically high cost of last-minute airfares, a last-minute rental in the U.K. is a very limited market for North Americans. So Snaptrip is more interesting as a template for potential U.S.-based search systems than as a resource for typical North Americans.

Presumably, interest in last-minute rentals concentrates on destinations within comfortable driving distance rather than those that require you to buy airline tickets. The giant rental websites do post some last-minute deals, but they’re generally not as easily accessible as those through Snaptrip.

The industry’s giant, HomeAway, continues to be puzzling. Altogether, it lists more than a million properties, worldwide, well ahead of Flipkey’s 300,000. Although HomeAway seems to be consolidating some of its many subsidiaries, it still operates separate English-language systems (HomeAway.com, VRBO.com, and VacationRentals.com) that cater to North American markets, plus U.K.-based Owners Direct.

For some reason, Owners Direct seems to have the friendliest last-minute search system. Log on, select the “Find a Deal” button, enter country and region, and you get a list of deals. Examples include percent discounts, fixed “reduced” rates, and extras such as a rental car. This site has limited coverage of North America, however, with only 13 properties in the United States, of which 12 are in the Orlando area, and none in Canada or Mexico.

Although the main HomeAway site doesn’t post specific “last-minute” deals, it does allow you to filter your search by prioritizing “special offers.” VacationRentals.com tags some listing as special deals, although its former last-minute blog seems to have been discontinued. VRBO does not screen by special deals—or at least I couldn’t find it.

FlipKey’s primary property display page includes a “deal” button that filters results according to special offers. The display does not show the exact nature of the special offer, however, just that it’s a deal.

In addition to varying deal display, the big online sites encourage you to sign up for periodic bulletins that feature any specials that might arise. Clearly, that’s a good idea if you’re at all interested in spur-of-the-moment vacation rentals. And regardless of the online posting prices, you can always email or phone a property owner to ask about any special promotions that might be available for the dates you want to visit: Owners are free to negotiate as they choose.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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By Ed Perkins

A nationally recognized reporter, writer, and consumer advocate, Ed Perkins focuses on how travelers can find the best deals and avoid scams.

He is the author of "Online Travel" (2000) and "Business Travel: When It's Your Money" (2004), the first step-by-step guide specifically written for small business and self-employed professional travelers. He was also the co-author of the annual "Best Travel Deals" series from Consumers Union.

Perkins' advice for business travelers is featured on MyBusinessTravel.com, a website devoted to helping small business and self-employed professional travelers find the best value for their travel dollars.

Perkins was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, one of the country's most influential travel publications, from which he retired in 1998. He has also written for Business Traveller magazine (London).

Perkins' travel expertise has led to frequent television appearances, including ABC's "Good Morning America" and "This Week with David Brinkley," "The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather," CNN, and numerous local TV and radio stations.

Before editing Consumer Reports Travel Letter, Perkins spent 25 years in travel research and consulting with assignments ranging from national tourism development strategies to the design of computer-based tourism models.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, Perkins lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife.

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