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Is it better to book a hotel or a short-term vacation rental? In some ways, this is like asking whether boxers are better than briefs or whether crunchy peanut butter is better than creamy. And the answer is the same: It depends.
Yes, there are some clear-cut differences between the two. Short-term rentals can be better for large groups or unique stays. Hotels are generally more predictable and offer benefits such as rewards points and elite status perks.
I’ve railed against Airbnb in the past for failing to offer a rewards program to its most loyal customers. Despite spending a whopping $26,243 on its platform since 2016, I don’t have a thing to show for it — not even a gold star.
Well, Airbnb’s biggest competitor, Vrbo, now has a rewards program called One Key, which also includes Expedia and Hotels.com. That means that short-term renters on Vrbo finally get something back for all their spending.
“Vrbo is also the first major online vacation rental platform to offer a rewards program,” a Vrbo spokesperson told me in an email, “So this is a game-changer for the industry.”
Will One Key tilt the scales in the hotels-versus-rentals debate? Is it worth it? And will I finally get that gold star?
What took so long?
The idea of a short-term rental loyalty program isn’t new. Airbnb announced a “SuperGuest” program back in 2017 but never launched it. And Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky seemed to dismiss the idea during a recent earnings call.
“The best loyalty program is building a product people love so much they want to come back,” Chesky says. “You don't have to pay them to come back.”
Airbnb has dominated the short-term rental space, so it hasn’t been compelled to earn its customers’ loyalty. Airlines and hotels offer such lavish perks to frequent travelers because of the fierce competition between these brands. Without that competition, there’s no need for loyalty programs.
Vrbo is trying to change that story and stop playing Bing to Airbnb’s Google.
How does the One Key rewards program work?
Expedia Group, the parent company of Vrbo, created the One Key rewards program to work across all three of its travel booking platforms. You can earn rewards on Vrbo, Expedia or Hotels.com and then spend those rewards on any of the others.
There are essentially two parts to the One Key program:
A rewards program that earns 2% back in travel currency (OneKeyCash) for each dollar spent on hotels, car rentals and vacation rentals.
An elite status program that offers perks for staying at certain properties through Expedia and Hotels.com.
Unfortunately, this second part of the program doesn’t do much for Vrbo loyalists. You won’t receive any benefits for staying at a Vrbo property, even if you achieve the highest “platinum” level in the One Key elite status program.
So basically, Vrbo’s inclusion in the larger Expedia One Key program means that you’ll get 2% worth of travel credits for spending on vacation rentals. Shrug.
And actually, it’s not even that much. The rewards are based on the rental's base price, before taxes and fees, not the total cost. Add-on fees such as cleaning fees can be a big part of the final bill, so this can have a big impact on the effective rate of earned rewards.
When I looked up a one-night stay on Vrbo to see how it shook out, a $252 rental only earned $2.58 in rewards — a little more than 1% of the total cost.
That’s all to say that Vrbo’s One Key program doesn’t offer much tangible value for vacation rental regulars, though it’s a whole lot better than nothing.
Is it worth it?
Listen, I’m not going to turn my nose up at free stuff. Even though 2% (or is it 1%?) in rewards is pretty paltry — Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan offers roughly 10% in value for every dollar spent, based on NerdWallet estimates — it’s a decent first step in creating a meaningful rewards program for frequent rental guests.
It’s a bummer that there are no meaningful elite status perks, even for guests who book dozens of stays with Vrbo. But it’s hard to know how these benefits would work given the platform’s host-based model. Is some random host going to give me a bottle of wine because I have Platinum status? That would be weird.
Yet it’s nice that these rewards are usable — and earnable — through more than just vacation rentals. Earning a few rewards through Vrbo and a few through Hotels.com could add up to meaningful savings for frequent travelers, especially since these rewards are on top of those earned through travel credit cards.
Most importantly, I can now earn a gold star (or at least gold status) by booking short-term rentals.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card