How Food Lovers Find Great Vacation Rentals
Imagine, on your next vacation, whipping up meals in a killer kitchen. In the last five years, the number of Americans skipping the hotel and going the home-rental route has tripled, and for food lovers, that means being able to stay in a "4-bedroom with a lake view"—and well seasoned skillets, an arsenal of Japanese knives and a six burner range. If that sounds like your kind of vacay, follow these steps and book your dream place to cook.
1. Set your search terms
No matter which online middleman you use to look for a vacation rental—Airbnb, HomeAway, etc.—you won't find a filter for "envy inducing kitchen." (Airbnb does have a "kitchen" check box, but that's for ruling out spots with no cooking space at all.) Instead, Google the rental website name, the city and zip code you plan to visit, plus "gourmet kitchen" (or "designer," "chef's," "renovated"...), suggests Melanie Fish, HomeAway's travel expert. To avoid a dimly lit galley with an incomplete set of pots (the culinary equivalent of a "partial water view"), beware of words like "rustic," Fish says. It's a clue the place may not be equipped with up-to-date appliances and cookware.
2. Zero in on the descriptions
Do you need plenty of steak knives and room to entertain, or just the basics for breakfast? You can suss out most of these details from the description. If it boasts a quality grill or "everything you need for a clambake," the odds are good that the owner cares about food, Fish says, and will have the gear to prove it. Phoebe Damrosch, a Brooklyn writer who has booked rentals all over the world, pores over descriptions. "I'm always looking for listings that describe the kitchen as well-equipped and say there's a place where the kids can hang out."
3. Don't skip the reviews
They'll let you know if other guests had issues. "We recently booked a house for a family vacation with 10 people," says Erica Kirklewski, an interior designer in Milwaukee. "The reviews raved about how it was the perfect home for entertaining a large group, and reading them put our minds at ease." Reviews might also reveal unadvertised perks. "I'm not gonna lie, I recently booked a rental in part because the reviews said the owner stocked prosecco, tea and coffee for guests," admits Leah Vanderveldt, a food writer in New York City.
4. Find clues in the photos
If you see pots of fresh herbs or a shelf full of cookbooks, the place could be a contender. Ditto a state-of-the-art grill or above-average appliances. A retro (in the bad way) toaster and a stovetop that looks neglected? Next! "High-end homes with large kitchens will likely have high-quality versions of everything you need, but you can also find that little cottage with an owner who happens to be a big cooking enthusiast," says Brooke Roeder Andrus, owner of Emerson Guest Properties, which books more than 30 rentals in and around Austin through HomeAway. Focus on the quality of the photos as much as what's in them. If an owner can't be bothered to upload detailed pics that make the spot look its best, renter beware.
5. Just ask!
"Messaging a host directly before you book will ensure you get what you want from your stay," says Aaron Zifkin, an Airbnb spokesman. "Inquire about kitchen amenities or culinary bonuses around the neighborhood." Explain that you're planning to cook up a storm, and ask for all the details. Don't worry about annoying the owner—it's what he's there for! Some questions that are totally fair game: "Can I see a list of kitchen items?" Not every house will have one, but many do and you won't know unless you ask. If the host doesn't have a list, try: "Will a [certain tool or ingredient] be on hand?" ("I made sure there was a big lobster pot at a rental in Maine," Damrosch notes.) "Do I need to know anything special to operate the appliances? Is the grill clean and ready to use? Should I bring pot holders or cleaning supplies?" And don't just listen to what the owner or manager says—pay attention to how he says it. A guy who can rattle off which make of food processor is in the cupboard has likely stocked the kitchen with everything you need and more.
6. Map out where the shopping is
Before you book, make sure there's a local green market, supermarket (for necessities) and any specialty stores (butcher, bakery, fishmonger) you like to shop at. Google Maps can help here, as can an owner worth his (Himalayan pink) salt. That way, you won't waste valuable vacation time hunting for supplies—as happened to Tony Cournia, general manager of food and beverage operations at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. He and his wife booked a beautiful villa in St. Thomas. "Since it's a tropical island, we assumed that fresh fish, vegetables and fruit would be easy to find," he says. "We were wrong." Next time, he says, he'll start that conversation sooner, for more beach time and less time driving around hangry.
Where to Start Your Search
Sites now list everything from single rooms to entire islands for rent. (Hey, you can dream!) Here are the best options based on your family's needs.
The big players
HomeAway and Airbnb are the best known. HomeAway (which encompasses VacationRentals.com and VRBO) is the O.G. of home rentals with more than 400,000 listings in the U.S., mostly second homes on beaches or in the mountains. Airbnb's 560,000-plus Stateside offerings tend to focus on cities, and include a lot of house shares (meaning you should be ready to bump into the owner in common spaces).
Though it's not yet a major player, Tripping.com aggregates dozens of listings sites (including HomeAway, VRBO, TripAdvisor and Booking.com), so one search covers a lot of territory. Some property owners prefer to post their rentals on niche sites, so those are also worth a look: Owner Direct is an option that allows owners and renters to negotiate prices. Kid & Coe offers family-focused rentals decked out with highchairs and toys, and can even recommend a local sitter.
How to pack like a pro chef
If you have a little space in your luggage, consider bringing along some of your favorite kitchen helpers, like that knife you use to chop everything.
In your carry-on
Salt and pepper grinders
Any special spices you'll need for a recipe you have in mind. (Most homes will have the basics, but bring your own Aleppo pepper or curry blend.)
In your checked luggage
A knife sharpener (Dull knives are a common complaint at vacation rentals.)
Your own paring knife and chef's knife (Cover blades with a sheath.)
Good olive oil (unless you're headed to the Mediterranean)
A small cutting board, in case the rental only has nubby or warped ones
To haul in the car
A task-specific dish (e.g., a lobster pot for your beach vacay or a roasting pan for Thanksgiving)
By the numbers:
The average amount domestic travelers spend per day on food. More than 80 percent of that goes to restaurants.
The percentage of families that say they look for homes that include a kitchen when vacationing
How much you'll save a night, on average, by renting an Airbnb instead of staying at a hotel in New York City
The portion of the average family's travel budget that will go to food and alcohol on domestic trips