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How To Book The Perfect Beach Rental

Here are seven tips for seeking out a superior seaside rental. By Caroline Costello,

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Book Early … / Via

Summer is peak season for the majority of domestic beach destinations, from northern Florida to New England to coastal California. So the competition is steep. To have your pick of the choicest properties, start your search in spring or even late winter. A good rule of thumb: Book no later than three months in advance. Jon Gray, Senior Vice President at HomeAway, told me, "Like with most things, the best-priced rentals tend to go first. The average booking window is about 90 days, but the sooner you can get started, the more options you'll have."

… Or Book Late (But Really, Early Is Better) / Via

Let's say you've suddenly grasped that it's June (how is it June already?) and you haven't reserved your beach rental for the season. That's not ideal, but it's OK. Although it's standard practice to book quite far in advance for peak-season beach travel, it's possible to get an excellent deal on an oceanfront abode just weeks before departure. You have two options: Make an effort to hunt for last-minute cancellations, or consider booking your rental in a low-season beach spot, such as the Caribbean.

"Sometimes cancellations occur and owners are willing to offer deals to secure bookings," said Gray. To grab last-ditch deals, email property owners and ask that you be notified of any cancellations (this works best if you're flexible with your dates). Or browse eleventh-hour rental sites like Owner Direct's last-minute deal page, which, as of this publication, shows coastal properties at 10 to 20 percent off select dates in June. You may have to do some work, but with a little determination, you could get lucky and happen upon a top property for a nice price.

Willing to go abroad for your beach retreat? Since summer is low season for travel to the Caribbean, you'll have better luck finding a healthy inventory of beach rentals in, say, the Bahamas or Puerto Rico.

Pick Your Destination Wisely

Flickr: masstravel / Via

Some destinations are better rental spots than others. Many Jersey Shore beach towns, for instance, are heavy on rental homes and lighter on hotel rooms. Same goes for places like Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts; Tybee Island, Georgia; or Gulf Shores, Alabama; these are great destinations in which to rent.

If you're not too familiar with your prospective beach destination, investigate the availability of different types of properties: rentals versus hotels or B&Bs. A rental might not be your best option in your beach town of choice. Compare prices and amenities. And go from there.

Summer is low season for some beach destinations, such as the Caribbean and Costa Rica; these could be a great option for deals if you're OK with paying for flight costs and your passport is up to date. (Summer coincides with hurricane season in the Caribbean, though, so watch out for stormy weather. Consider purchasing travel insurance.) For example, this luxury beachfront villa in the Bahamas, which sleeps up to six, costs $499 in the summer. But rates rise to $570 per night throughout the rest of the year. And this oceanview rental in Costa Rica costs $275 per night during green season (May through December), compared to $375 per night in high season.

Look Out for Minimum-Stay Requirements

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Pining for a long weekend of beach reading and boogie boarding? You may have to forego a rental and just book a few nights in a hotel or B&B instead. In popular beach towns during peak summer season, it's very common for property owners to require a weeklong minimum stay. This condo in Ocean City, New Jersey, for example, requires a seven-night minimum stay during "peak summer weeks" in July and August; this is pretty standard for many beach towns.

Check Multiple Sites / Via

Compare prices using a variety of booking sites. The big ones are HomeAway, FlipKey, (SmarterTravel's sister site), and VRBO (owned by Homeaway). You might see some inventory overlap, but that's a good thing. You can often read reviews for a single property on two different sites and get a clearer picture of what to expect. For beach rentals in popular destinations, these three sites are fantastic.

Then there are a number of smaller, alternative booking options, including destination-specific booking sites or associations that list beach rentals. I've had positive experiences using Airbnb, but the site doesn't have a consistently robust inventory when it comes to beach towns—at least, not compared to the aforementioned big three. For more ideas, see 10 Most Valuable Alternative Booking Sites.

Beware of any listing that doesn't have reviews. Ask for references if reviews aren't available. Most importantly, never send money via wire transfer or as a "gift" through PayPal, neither of which offer any protection to the payer.

Prioritize Your Amenities

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Pool? Parking? Pets? Jot down your rental must-haves. These are the features you need to prioritize before you start your search so that you can weed out properties that don't meet your needs and save yourself some research time. For the most part, major booking sites have advanced search features with which you can specify whether you need, say, a condo that allows large dogs. Or a house with three bedrooms that has off-street parking and a dishwasher.

Further, take into account additional amenities, rules and regulations, and payment structures when comparing different properties. These could include anything from use of beach chairs, bikes, and towels to complimentary ferry tickets to cancellation policies. One big factor to consider is whether you'll receive access to private or residents-only beaches. Any property that comes with access to a private or semiprivate stretch of sand offers a huge advantage to travelers who hate crowds.

Use Your Feet

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One simple way to save: Be willing to walk (or bike) a bit to reach the shore. Properties farther away from the beach are almost always more affordable than similar ones bordering the water. HomeAway's Jon Gray told me, "Proximity typically comes with a price, so look for places that are farther from the tourist hot spots. Homes that are just a stone's throw away from the main attractions can more than make up for the distance in pricing and often in authenticity, too."