For travelers craving a unique and personal place to stay over the conventional luxuries of a brand-backed hotel, vacation rentals can provide the ultimate experience. Not only can you live like a local, often with more space and amenities than a standard hotel room provides, but you also have the opportunity to connect with fellow travelers on a more personal level (after all, you are staying in their home). And as HomeAway's Senior Vice President for the Americas Jon Gray explained, "You're getting a memory of where you stay versus a memory of where you go." But while choosing to rent a room or crash on someone's couch lends an unconventional element to your trip, renting doesn't necessarily guarantee the same security as a hotel. Though fraud is rare, the vacation rental industry's online platform and anonymous user community makes travelers inherently vulnerable to Internet scammers.
To help you navigate home exchange sites and understand the safeguards put in place by the companies themselves, U.S. News Travel spoke with experts at Couchsurfing, Airbnb and HomeAway -- three sites that offer a wide spectrum of accommodation choices in a variety of destinations. Whether you're a first-timer nervous to ditch traditional lodging or an experienced host or guest, these tips will help you avoid scams and make the most of your stay.
Much like finding the right hotel, scrutinizing guest sentiment is a necessary step for vetting your lodging choices. Phil Cardenas, Airbnb's trust and safety manager, recommends analyzing a wide selection of user reviews to get a better feel for both the property and the owner. All three sites maintain a policy that guests may only submit a review if they've actually stayed at the property. According to Cardenas, this guarantee builds in a primary layer of authenticity for both the guest and the host. And while it seems like a basic concept, a third-party review system wasn't always the norm. Before HomeAway developed the user-review system currently in place, property owners provided their own reviews in an online guest book that included guest commentary about their stay and the property. After introducing the platform, the company quickly learned that travelers highly value guest reviews. Host reviews also play a key role, especially if you're using Couchsurfing, where the main allure of the Surfing experience is interacting with hosts. Members within the Couchsurfing community can leave feedback, or references, on another member's profile detailing their interaction, whether it's from a Surfing stay or from a meet-up at a local event. The more positive interactions a member receives, the more likely a traveler is to stay with them.
When scanning references, Couchsurfing reminds users to look for any missing profile information and ask in-depth questions like, "How many people live in your home?" and "Do you allow guests to use the kitchen?" While you're looking for missing information, also be on the lookout for other red flags, like poor grammar, and in the case of Airbnb and HomeAway, "too good to be true" offers and rates that are significantly lower than similar property listings. These can all be signs of a fraudulent listing.
Scouring reviews allows you to get to know the host and the property through the eyes of previous visitors, but communicating with hosts or guests directly offers heightened transparency. By getting to know your host (even if you're not Surfing), you'll develop a confidence and trust in each other. Airbnb, Couchsurfing and HomeAway all provide built-in messaging systems through their respective websites that allow hosts and guests to communicate securely without giving away any unwanted personal information. Couchsurfing also encourages hosts and travelers to build a relationship online before meeting face to face. Airbnb and Couchsurfing advise users to communicate strictly through the messaging system (until they meet in person, in the case of Couchsurfing). HomeAway also provides a secure messaging system, but strongly encourages prospective renters and homeowners to talk on the phone before a payment is made. According to Gray, a personalized level of communication lets both parties decide on the specifics of the rental agreement and offers guests the opportunity to tap into the owner's knowledge of the neighborhood. HomeAway also recommends that users draw up a detailed rental agreement that both parties sign in writing.
Since your relationship with your guest or host begins online, it's important to create an online presence that reflects your offline identity. A willingness to share your interests and a photo of yourself offers yet another degree of authenticity for the entire community. All three sites recommend linking your site profile to your other social media accounts, like Facebook or LinkedIn. According to Cardenas, cross-platform linking acts as another security measure for both parties. "It's like you've been introduced to them before you even book a trip," Cardenas said. But what if you don't have a social media account? Sharing photos is the next best thing. On Airbnb, hosts can set reservation requirements that make it imperative for a guest to have certain profile features, like a photo or a verified phone number (which users can do via phone, text message or online). This means your property choices could be limited if you choose not to share a picture. Airbnb introduced Verified ID in April 2013, which allows users to receive a badge on their profile that represents their confirmed offline identity. Currently, Airbnb is one of the first companies to have this type of extensive offline verification. Users can earn the badge through a variety of methods, including providing Airbnb with a scanned copy of an official ID, like a driver license or passport (which only the company can use for an ID verification check).
Couchsurfing doesn't follow this extensive verification system. Instead, the site relies on online references supplied by members within the community. That's not to say the site's Trust and Safety team doesn't help regulate potential scammers; members are able to report site abuses, but Couchsurfing does not currently offer official offline identity verification. And neither does HomeAway. The company directly states in its terms and conditions: "User verification on the Internet is difficult and we cannot, and do not, assume any responsibility for the confirmation of each user's purported identity." Gray said both hosts and travelers should plan to talk on the phone to verify each other's offline identity (though this step isn't required by the site). When talking on the phone, you can also ask the owner or property manager for the contact information of previous guests to inquire about their stays and the property itself.
Follow the Recommended Payment Methods
It may seem like a no-brainer, but as with most Internet transactions, it's best to never pay for a home stay by cash or through money transfer services like Western Union or Money Gram. Instead, use the site's secure payment system. On Airbnb, the payment is processed and collected through the site and the company doesn't release the payment to the owner until 24 hours after check-in. HomeAway offers its own secure system called HomeAway Payments that allows the site to operate as the trusted mediator between the owner and the renter. However, HomeAway also offers pre-payment phone verification, which enables users to pay by credit card, check or PayPal after confirming their reservation and payment details via the telephone number published on the property listing page. For a little more security, consider purchasing HomeAway's Carefree Rental Guarantee. The guarantee, which will cost you anywhere from $39 to $149, offers protection against fraudulent listings and accessibility issues due to double-booking, bankruptcy or foreclosure. HomeAway also offers Cancellation Protection and Damage Protection for an additional cost; you can find more information on the HomeAway website. Airbnb does not offer similar insurance (the company recommends purchasing travelers insurance), but Airbnb does maintain a Guest Refund Policy, with conditions detailed on its website. Airbnb cancellation policies vary by property. Note: This tip does not apply to Couchsurfing users because the exchange of money isn't allowed within the community. Surfers can show gratitude to their hosts by cooking a shared meal, bringing a small gift or offering another polite gesture.
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Be Prepared in Case of Emergency
If you're ever in an emergency situation while Surfing or staying in a spare room, contact the local authorities immediately, before getting in touch with the online rental company. Airbnb's Trust and Safety team features more than 80 members available around the clock. "We don't hire security guards -- we hire 'people people,' " Cardenas said."Our primary job is to listen, and to be as responsive ... as possible to any concerns that arise." HomeAway also operates its own online Help Center and designated fraud line available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET daily. Couchsurfing doesn't operate a phone line for Surfers or hosts to reach out to (they suggest removing yourself from the situation and contacting police as soon as possible, and then filing a report online with the Safety Team). Because you can only reach the Couchsurfing Safety Team via the website, the company also suggests arranging backup accommodations, in case you have to change your Surfing plans due to safety concerns.
-- Ann Rivall