Booking a vacation rental from a desktop computer is passé. The best vacation rental apps can handle any task you do on your PC, and then some. In fact, some of the top vacation rental apps have more features than their desktop counterparts.

Vacation rentals are a $36 billion a year market. A recent study by Travelport suggests that 58% of travelers prefer searching for their trips with a mobile device. Is anyone surprised that vacation rental sites are putting so much effort into their smartphone apps?

Since booking vacation rentals by smartphone is a thing now, it’s probably worth asking: Which are the best vacation rental apps? Here’s what you need to know:

  • There’s a short list of best vacation rental apps. 
  • Each of the apps is suited to a specific vacation rental booking task.
  • A deep dive into one of them, the Vrbo app, will show you what it’s like to look for — and book — a vacation rental through a smartphone.

Which are the best vacation rental apps?

If you want to book a vacation rental on your mobile device, these apps are worth checking out:

Airbnb

Airbnb is the best known of the vacation rental apps. It promises to deliver “unforgettable travel experiences” on your smartphone. (Download it for iOS and Android.)

Pros: The app is easy to use. It allows you to do everything you can do on the Airbnb website: search listings, make a reservation, and look at local experiences. Setting parameters like your dates and number of guests is a snap. The Airbnb app also makes it easy to communicate with your hosts. “AirBnB’s app is great,” says Jordan Gary, a project manager from Chicago. “Very simple and easy communication.” 

Cons: Airbnb won’t let you use the app without creating an account. That’s unfortunate for anyone who wants to just browse the listings, which you can do on the website without an account. Also, the app doesn’t display a full price when you’re shopping — only a “nightly” rate that looks deceptively low. Once you click the “book” button, Airbnb adds all the taxes and fees for your stay. 

Booking.com

Booking.com boasts access to over 27 million options across the world. Like TripAdvisor (see below), it handles a lot of travel inventory. But it specializes in accommodations. Booking.com owns a variety of online travel companies, including Agoda, Cheapflights, Kayak, Priceline and Rentalcars.com. (Download it for iOS and Android.)

Pros: Booking’s interface is easy to use and fast. You can specify your desired destination and dates quickly. It also displays an all-in price for a rental. No messing around with a tricky “per day” or “per week” rate.

Cons: Its rental inventory is somewhat limited in the United States — and expensive. Also, by default, its app tries to put you in a hotel. You have to click on “filter” and select “property type” and “vacation homes” to access its inventory.

HomeToGo

HomeToGo is a vacation rental aggregator. It lists 17 million properties from all of the major sites, including Airbnb, Booking.com and Vrbo. (Download it for iOS and Android.)

Pros: The app gives you a quick overview of what’s available and then sends you to the site to make a reservation. (Think of it as Kayak for vacation rentals.)

Cons: Users complain about the ads and inaccurate prices on HomeToGo.

TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor, which bills itself as the “ultimate travel companion,” incorporates vacation rentals in its app. You can access inventory from FlipKey, Holiday Lettings and Niumba. All are owned by TripAdvisor. (Download it for iOS and Android.)

Pros: TripAdvisor’s app is the Swiss Army Knife of smartphone apps. It allows you to book vacation rentals and much more. It gives you access to its vast database of user-generated reviews. It also quotes rates by the week and for the entire stay, avoiding the price games other apps play.

Cons: The vacation rentals on TripAdvisor tend to be far more expensive than on other apps. Also, there are complaints about fake reviews and the app being “pushy” about other TripAdvisor products. Like other apps, they are trying to sell you something. 

Vrbo

Vrbo offers to set up the “perfect vacation” with its smartphone app. You can search more than 2 million unique places to stay in 190+ countries. (Download it for iOS and Android.)

Pros: Vrbo’s new Trip Boards, integrated into its app, make it easy to find and share vacation rentals with friends and family. The app is great at showing instead of telling, putting big photos front and center.

Cons: Occasional complaints about glitchy software or currency confusion for non-American renters. Vrbo renters also gripe about high fees. 

What’s the best way to use a vacation rental app?

So which of these apps should you download? If you live in vacation rentals (like I do), the answer is: All of them.

  • An app like HomeToGo offers a broad overview of what’s out there. If you’re just trying to get an idea of pricing and availability, it’s a good place to start. 
  • Airbnb has a lot of inventory and is easy to use. Many travelers just default to Airbnb, believing they’ll always get the best deal. They might. Then again, they might not.
  • Vrbo is hands-down the winner when it comes to collaboration tools (scroll down for details). Although its prices are a little higher than Airbnb’s, sometimes its hosts are willing to negotiate a lower rate if you ask.
  • Booking.com is a must-have app if you’re planning a trip overseas, especially to Europe.

Although these apps have been thoroughly tested, they are far from perfect. As a regular user of all of these programs, I’ve found a glitch or two and have had to revert to booking on the website. 

Even if you prefer booking on a desktop, you should still consider having an app on your phone. The reason: One of the standout features for all of the apps is their messaging capability. You can easily communicate with a host through most of these apps. Best of all, there’s a written record of your communication. That can come in handy if there’s a dispute.

What’s it like to book a rental through one of the best vacation rental apps?

I used Vrbo’s app recently to find a rental in western Colorado. My choice: Vrbo’s smartphone app (reviewed above). As is the case with most of my vacation rentals, this one didn’t lack drama.

I picked Vrbo for several reasons. At the top of the list: The collaborative features that allowed me to share rental options with my family.

Creating a Trip Board is a snap. You just have to “heart” a property. The app gives you the option of saving to an existing Trip Board or starting a new one. You can also select a friend with whom to share your collection of vacation rentals and they can add properties, vote on their favorites and leave comments.

One of the challenges of booking on a smartphone is that you’re working with a much smaller screen. Even a small desktop offers ample room to view photos and listing details. Vrbo’s answer is to simplify the booking interface and put the photos front and center. I liked the way it allowed you to swipe right to view property photos.

My kids and I can’t agree on much of anything. Also, we always do everything at the last minute. (That’s actually a good thing when you’re looking for a vacation rental. The best prices go to the renter who can wait.)

We couldn’t even agree on a region. 

My 14-year-old son wanted something on the Front Range — Denver or Boulder, but definitely not Fort Collins. I like Fort Collins, but was put off by the high prices in Denver in August. My 17-year-old son liked the ski towns in Summit County, but the hosts there had lost their minds, when it came to pricing. My 12-year-old daughter and I liked western Colorado. Grand Junction is a quiet, frontier kind of town, and we would be there during peach, plum and apricot season.

So we had three Trip Boards going plus a few dark horses, like Chicago and St. Louis. I thought we had an excellent chance of scoring a reasonably priced rental in at least one of the places. But the properties we liked were either unavailable or wanted to charge us the full rate for a monthly rental. 

And we were running out of time.

Here’s where Vrbo’s messaging capabilities made a difference. With just hours before we had to leave, we had to make some quick decisions. So when the western Colorado property came through with a decent monthly rate, I received the notification immediately through the Vrbo app. And I jumped on it.

The Vrbo app has a few standout qualities. They include messaging, collaboration and a dead simple search tool. Just about the only thing I didn’t do through the app was the actual booking. I preferred to do that from my browser, where I could review all the fine print in a larger desktop environment.

Behind the scenes at Vrbo

It turns out Vrbo’s app is relatively new. The company introduced it in 2017 but has made several significant updates to it since then. One of the most significant was its latest, in which it added Trip Boards. Vrbo says the app has been downloaded more than 10 million times.

“A great mobile experience is extremely important in the travel industry,” Eric Moore, Vrbo’s vice president of product, told me. For Vrbo, the trick was to build an app that made this a “go-to” app where you could find all the information you need about your vacation rental, such as check-in times, the address of the property, and instructions on accessing the vacation rental. 

He says the Vrbo app has three standout features:

Trip Boards

Trip Boards allow you to invite your family and friends to view, add, comment and vote on places to stay, making it easy to find a place that makes everyone happy. “Our new group planning tool makes planning a trip easier,” he says.

Virtual Assistant

A new Vrbo virtual assistant offers travelers a new way to locate property information quickly. With the help of artificial intelligence, the virtual assistant uses information from the listing page like ratings and reviews or text from the property description to answer commonly asked questions about the vacation rental. For example, “How many bedrooms?” or “Does your property have a pool?” “This saves both the traveler and the owner time,” says Moore.

Messaging

Communicating with owners is pretty seamless on the app. “It’s much more convenient than digging up an old email confirmation,” says Moore. “Additionally, push notifications alert you whenever you receive a communication from the owner or when any of your friends and family members comment or vote on a Trip Board property.”

Moore says his programmers are planning more features for upcoming releases of the Vrbo app. “Our developers are always looking for ways to optimize the user experience to make discovering, searching and booking vacation homes as convenient and enjoyable as possible,” he says.

Bottom line: if you’re not looking for — or booking — your vacation rental through a mobile device, you might be missing out. The best vacation rental apps have features that can help you find a vacation rental faster — and maybe help you save a little money.

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