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Vacation rentals offer many potential benefits compared with hotel rooms, including lower prices, more amenities and a more personal touch. Yet knowing which vacation rental platform provides the best overall experience for travelers is another question.
Here we compare two popular vacation rental platforms — Airbnb and Vrbo — across several criteria. We found that Airbnb offers a better overall experience for most travelers, but the right choice will depend on your travel preferences.
» Learn more: 6 best alternatives to Airbnb
Let’s break it down.
The biggest difference between these two platforms is the type of accommodation they offer.
Vrbo offers stand-alone vacation homes only. It doesn't generally offer “shared” spaces like private rooms or more unusual options like campsites.
Airbnb offers stand-alone vacation homes as well as shared spaces and even hotel rooms. Although it started as a home-sharing concept, it now hosts many types of accommodations.
In other words, if you’re looking for a home to rent for a family get-together, both Airbnb and Vrbo are good choices. If you’re looking for a cheaper shared space or something less typical, however, stick with Airbnb.
If you’ve had bad luck with vacation rentals in the past, which were dumpier or dirtier than the pictures suggested, you might consider searching for Airbnb “Plus” properties, which have been vetted in person for quality.
Airbnb also offers long-term stay discounts, while Vrbo does not. These discounts can make a big difference when staying for a week or more, so digital nomads and others looking to put down temporary roots should opt for Airbnb.
» Learn more: The best credit cards for Airbnb
Both Airbnb and Vrbo offer similar, intuitive search tools.
Airbnb’s page certainly looks better, and it includes some nice visual elements on the map, such as prices and notable locations. Vrbo’s page looks clunky and outdated by comparison and even includes a banner ad.
Aesthetics aside, however, Vrbo offers far better filter and sort functionality than Airbnb.
For example, Vrbo lets you filter by user reviews, including properties rated highly for cleanliness and properties rated 4 stars and above.
Vrbo’s filters are also more intuitive. The “pets allowed” filter, which is a must for many travelers, is prominently displayed on Vrbo’s initial search screen. On the flip side, it’s buried deep in Airbnb’s menus under “house rules.”
Overall, Airbnb seriously limits users’ capacity to filter and search based on these obvious criteria. Want to find the best-rated property in your search area on Airbnb? Good luck. The platform offers no way to search or filter by guest rating, which is often the most important consideration for travelers.
This one is really no contest. Airbnb boasts 5.6 million active listings as of September 2020, and while Vrbo doesn't publish this number, it's almost certainly lower. Searching in the same region with both platforms quickly reveals the disparity.
For example, an Airbnb search in the tiny town of Forks, Washington, reveals 42 listings, with a broad range of accommodation styles and prices.
A similar search on Vrbo reveals just one active property (the pin doesn’t count).
This isn’t a fluke. Airbnb simply dominates in terms of the pure number of listings available.
Both vacation rental services are platforms for booking with a property host. That is, you're not booking “an Airbnb” but booking a rental “through Airbnb.” For this reason, the booking process can seem a bit strange to those used to staying at hotels.
For all Vrbo and some Airbnb properties, you first send a booking “request,” which includes a price quote and a message to the host. The host then reviews the request, including your profile and possibly previous ratings from other hosts, and confirms or denies it. In other words, you must wait for approval from the host before your booking is confirmed.
If that sounds like a lot of hassle, Airbnb offers an “instant book” option on some properties, which is just what it sounds like.
This takes a sometimes-obnoxious step out of the booking process and gives Airbnb the edge in this category.
» Learn more: What travelers want out of their vacation rentals
Both Airbnb and Vrbo let the property manager set the terms of the booking for cancellations and changes. Since these policies vary from property to property, there's no way to determine which one offers more flexibility overall.
However, the way these policies are explained, implemented and presented does vary; again, Airbnb has a slight edge.
Airbnb lets hosts choose from several preset flexibility policies, ranging from “flexible” to “strict.” Each policy features a color-coded timeline to help potential guests make sense of it.
Airbnb’s limited policies and clear explanations take some of the headache out of deciding whether to click “book.” It’s easy to see when you could receive a full refund or potentially lose your entire booking fee based on the booking dates.
Vrbo’s policies, on the other hand, aren’t as clean or simple. These range from “no refund” to “14/7,” which means you’ll receive a full refund if you cancel 14 days or more in advance, and a 50% refund (minus the service fee) if you cancel at least seven days in advance. These policies are similar to Airbnb’s but are a little harder to compare.
The real problem with Vrbo, however, is that it allows “custom” policies. This means a host can set different rules from the typical policies, so you — as the guest — must read more fine print to understand them.
While this doesn’t necessarily mean that Vrbo rentals have less flexible policies than similar Airbnb properties, it does mean they’re harder to understand.
» Learn more: How to get a full refund from Airbnb
Pricing and fees
It’s difficult to compare overall pricing between these two services since each property is unique. They both charge a service fee on top of the base rate, which is how they make money, but we compared bookings across platforms and found them to be roughly similar on average (at about 20% of the base rate).
Although Airbnb and Vrbo both allow hosts to determine whether to require refundable security deposits for guests, we saw a lot more of these deposits on Vrbo properties when we searched.
These deposits add a layer of complexity and possible expense for guests, but we’re not confident that one platform systematically charges them more often than the other.
Note: Cleaning fees are the bane of many vacation renters, and both Airbnb and Vrbo properties carry these fees. They're set by the hosts, not the platform, however, so we didn't consider them in this analysis.
Overall winner: Airbnb
There are lots of reasons to choose Airbnb for your next vacation rental search. It’s got millions of listings (literally), a broad range of accommodation types and slick booking and flexibility options.
Vrbo has positioned itself as a “family” brand, and its stand-alone house rentals certainly fit that target. But beyond some superior sort and filter tools, it’s difficult to argue that anyone, including families, should bother with Vrbo.
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