So you’re planning your big summer vacation. You’ve got your family plus a couple of friends. You’ve got your new luggage: check. Flight arrangements: check. Hotel room – wait a minute. It occurs to you now that the six or seven of you, plus all of your stuff, isn’t going to fit very well into that standard room. This year, you might need two rooms. Or three…how much is this going to cost, again?

The solution is a vacation rental, and in places like Hawaii it’s been an established segment of the lodging industry for half a century. But elsewhere, it’s just being discovered.

“People who come here for the first time tend to go to the hotels, because they don’t know any better,” says Rob Smith, owner of Property Network Ltd. (Rental Division) (www.hawaii-kona.com) on the “Big Island” of Hawaii. “Once they get here, they discover that no matter where you’re staying you have to go out to dinner. You have no choice. Well, you don’t always need to eat a huge 30-dollar meal. Instead, there’s a lot of great food that you can get fresh. So it’s much more affordable.”

Saving money on meals is only part of the benefit, according to Smith – the real windfall is in freedom, at mealtime or anytime. “A rental is so much more relaxed and it’s more your own,” he says. “In a rental condo, you’ve got all the amenities of home: dishes, silverware, dishwasher, washer and dryer. You can just drop your bags and go do whatever you want. Then, you come back and barbecue some ono or ahi yourself.”

Smith says that the Big Island is a getaway from the traffic and bustle of Oahu, which despite being the smaller island has nearly six times the population of Hawaii. Property Network Ltd. represents units in at least 30 complexes across the western shores, or the “sunny” side of the island, from ocean view studio condos upward. It also offers a variety of rental homes, including upscale homes with large-screen TVs, pools and lanais.

The Experience

“The vacation rental is a different experience altogether,” says William May, director of the Vacation Rental Owners Association (VROA). “You go to a hotel to be pampered – and to be interrupted. Staying in a hotel means that, sometime during the day, somebody is going to come in and rifle your room…you are 100 to 300 yards from the beach. And you’re paying anywhere from 100 to 300 dollars for your meals. Or, you can go and stay in a beautiful condo. It’s much bigger – three or four beds, two or three baths. The beach is two steps out. Your car is 20 feet outside the front door, not 100 yards out in the parking lot. And you can still go to a restaurant whenever you want.”

Still, vacationers who are familiar with the concept view rental properties as upscale and pricey. That’s not entirely off the mark; but for those on a limited budget, it’s not as much an automatic deal-breaker as it may seem. According to May, the largest groups that fuel the growing vacation rental industry are families. This is because of the incrementally larger expenses as the family grows – two, three, four hotel rooms to accommodate different family members of different ages. “At (one of the local hotels on Kauai, in the Hawaiian islands), the minimum price is 500 dollars,” he says. “And that room is pretty much the same configuration as Motel 6. We are sort of amazed that people go and stay ten days and they will have spent four thousand dollars. You can stay in a private home, outfitted lavishly – and you’re saving 75 percent of your cost. It is phenomenally cheaper, especially as you get to seven or eight guests.”

“You can definitely fit more people into the accommodations,” says Smith. They’re good for honeymoons, weddings, reunions…we can arrange for two, three, four, fifteen condos in the same complex. The cost is much less than a hotel – it’s a lot less than hotels in reality. You can rent a condo for the same price as you can a hotel, and you have so many more options.”

An Option for Any Budget

One of the people discovering the vacation rental trend is Jenny Schmitz, a mother and annual summer vacationer from Minnesota. Last year, Schmitz decided to bite the bullet and rent a full-service villa-style cabin, rather than a nearby hotel room, offered by a Wisconsin resort and waterpark.

“We have three kids,” says Schmitz. “One of them was two years old. We wanted a bedroom where we could put him down for a nap, and shut the door. (In the standard hotel) there wasn’t a place where we could shut the door and then the rest of us could be there and play cards or something like that.”

It turns out that the rental idea was great for the older kids, as well. “The way they’re laid out, I think they’re really designed for two families,” Schmitz says. There’s a loft area with four twin beds. There’s a television area and bathroom. (So) the kids could have their own little space, play their video games or whatever, and my husband and I could sit out on the porch.”

“You get all the amenities of your own home. People come back year after year. It’s the best way to take advantage of the lifestyle in paradise.” – Rob Smith, owner, Property Network, Ltd. (Rental Division)

What’s behind the rental vacation concept? According to the National Realtors Association, 25 percent of homeowners and buyers rented their properties in 2005, with a trend upward in areas where resorts are prevalent. “I think it’s the ‘live for today’ syndrome,” says May. “Everybody used to say ‘when I retire, I’m going to buy a condo.’ Now they say, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to be in ten years.’ The growth that we’ve seen in the industry is that there are a lot more homes being built, and they are costing more. People are seeing more need to rent them when they are not there.”

On the renter side, the Internet is. “There’s not so much renting sight unseen,” May says. “Having a picture of the property was wonderful. Now, you can see where you’re going to stay on video.”

In fact, one of the initiatives of the 500-member Vacation Rental Owners Association, consisting mainly of owners and affiliated real estate agents, is an inspection program with set standards that insure vacation rental homes actually are what they are advertised to be.

“One of the good things about vacation rentals is that you are unlikely to get a terrible situation,” May said. “But (vacation rental customers) are not looking for just a good location. They’re looking for a perfect vacation. They need to make sure they know what they got.”

“(Rental) homes are upcoming in popularity,” says Smith. “You get all the amenities of your own home. People come back year after year, and they’ll never stay in a hotel again. It’s the best way to take advantage of the lifestyle in paradise."