Vacation rentals have been the backbone of so many of my travel itineraries over the years. Sure, a lot of that had to do with the fact that they often offered a more affordable alternative to hotels and resorts, but my love of vacation rentals extends far beyond value.
I love how they get me into the heart of local neighborhoods. I love the relative privacy. And I love temporarily living in someone else’s interior design vision. As I’ve evolved (er, gotten older), my vacation rentals have evolved with me. In my single days, I’d find no-frills pads for me and my friends, but after I got married we invested a little more for two cute-and-cozy Airbnb stays in Lisbon during our honeymoon in Portugal. Now, they remain a popular choice for me as a parent. With kids in tow, I don’t have to worry (too much) about the tots waking up or disturbing neighbors with their antics. We can eat the majority of meals at the homestead, if need be. And we have plenty of space to sprawl out and have separate sleeping quarters (important, as good sleep is my new vacation currency as a parent).
Along with my age, my vacation rental standards have been inching up. My love of great design went from being a want to a need. Amenities like a dishwasher and a washer and dryer are increasingly important, both because I have kids and because I’m just willing to pay a little more to get more comfort and convenience out of the experience. Once checked in, I have become more critical of just about everything. They could have stocked the place with higher quality cookware, no? How much is the cleaning fee? You would have thought they would clean under the couch and the beds.
In late spring, as we emerged from the coronavirus pandemic-spurred lockdowns, my love for vacation rentals took on renewed vigor. Between the contactless nature of vacation homes and the seclusion the residences offer, this felt like the safest way for me and my quarantine crew to travel. As long as we took our “safer at home” mentality and lifestyle and transported it to another home within driving distance, it seemed as though we could at the very least get a much-needed change of scenery while keeping the risk of coronavirus transmission low for ourselves and others.
In light of the pandemic, I definitely wanted to be certain that anywhere we stayed was going to be clean and well managed. When planning to visit my parents in Southern California for the first time since the pandemic, I scoured Airbnb and Vrbo listings near their home so that we could remain socially distanced. The listings touted “sanitized” and “deeply cleaned” stays, but how can you be sure with a vacation rental? (Airbnb hosts who have committed to enhanced sanitation protocol have an “Enhanced Clean” emblem on their listing; Vrbo hosts can outline cleaning practices in their listings such as whether are cleaning with disinfectant and are ensuring a minimum one-day vacancy between guest stays.)
Suddenly, wanting a really nice vacation rental was about so much more than just picky preferences—it was about feeling safe and secure, too.
Then I remembered that last year, one of the world’s largest hotel companies entered the vacation rental market with a new platform—Homes & Villas by Marriott International. Initially a portfolio of a little more than 2,000 vacation rental homes in 100 destinations throughout the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America, the number of homes has grown to more than 10,000 in nearly 250 markets, including such new destinations as the Hamptons, New York; Yosemite, California; Edinburgh, Scotland; Ibiza, Spain; and South Africa, making it an excellent Airbnb alternative.
Similar to other vacation rental booking platforms, you can search by your destination and dates. But if you’re looking for some inspiration to help drive your decision, Homes & Villas by Marriott International also has a series of “Curated Collections,” homes that are organized into categories such as “Homes with Pools,” “Drive Worthy Gems: Road Trips Worth Taking,” and “Cozy Cabins.” There is a 10-day cancellation option for the majority of the homes for stays through December 20, and each week the platform showcases new destinations with a 10 percent discount on bookings. The homes have an average nightly rate of about $500, but they range from urban and beach condos for about $150/night all the way up to sprawling English manors and Caribbean villas that go for $20,000/night. The platform does not have a built-in option to request a 24-hour booking buffer between stays, but according to Marriott guests are welcome to put in a request for a buffer with the individual home management companies.
To me, this seemed like an ideal way to marry my coronavirus-amplified love of vacation rentals with corporate oversight that could provide an added sense of trust and security in terms of the way the properties are vetted, managed, and cleaned. And after a recent stay at a Homes & Villas farmhouse property in Sonoma County, I can attest that it hit all the right notes for me—including any potential COVID-related concerns.
For one, the properties are all a notch above—from the minute you land on the platform’s homepage, it’s clear that this is a well-curated collection of residences. They have that enviable balance of character, design, and polish. That is the result of Marriott having partnered with experienced home management companies (all of which Marriott audits and reviews), such as Austin-based Turnkey Vacation Rentals, that are designed to provide a more consistent vacation rental experience.
When we checked in to our Sonoma County abode, a chance encounter led me to realize how important the professionalism of a good management company really is. A face mask–wearing representative of Turnkey Vacations was inspecting the property when we arrived, and she gave me her and her colleague’s cell phone numbers in case we ran into any issues and couldn’t get through on the support line. All homes come with things like 24/7 support, provided by the property management companies, but she went above that by offering her personal cell.
Why wouldn’t you book the homes directly with those management companies? Well, you could. But in addition to the properties themselves, one of the biggest benefits of the Homes & Villas product is the fact that Marriott Bonvoy loyalty members can earn and redeem points when staying at the vacation homes. More than 90 percent of bookings currently come from Marriott Bonvoy members (one-third of those are redemption stays—members who are using points to pay for the booking). Clearly, Marriott loyalists have found—and seized on—vacation rentals.
Other guarantees include Wi-Fi, in-home washers, and premium bed linens and towels—the beds and bedding in our Kenwood farmhouse were divine (the entire family got great sleep). Toiletries are also provided; Turnkey had gone through and stocked the house with disposable shampoos, conditioners, and soaps. These are all standard amenities across Homes & Villas by Marriott International.
Another big selling point is that the homes are all professionally cleaned (before and after your stay) and Marriott says it is particularly keyed into the importance of this during the pandemic. The company ensures that the home management companies it partners with implement and enforce the cleanliness standards it has introduced at its hotel properties. And indeed, the home felt very clean—I never had any concerns about any of the “icky-ness” that you sometimes feel at vacation rentals (if you know, you know).
Assured that the place was clean and that we were in good hands, we were able to focus on what really matters. For our four-year-old son Niko, that was the fact that he had the entire second floor to himself. He ran around bragging about his new abode and all the fun finds—he was particularly smitten with a mini foosball table in his playroom upstairs. For us parents, we loved that the master suite on the first floor had an adjoining room with blackout shades that kept our 20-month-old daughter Catalina snoozing well into midmorning. The location in a quiter enclave of Sonoma County offered just the right mix of lush greenery and vineyards, access to great takeout venues, and nearby family-friendly destinations such as the Russian River.
As many corners of the travel industry continue to struggle amid the pandemic, Marriott’s vacation home business experienced its strongest booking weeks since launching between the end of April and the end of July 2020. And according to Marriott, it is adding properties at a rapid clip to keep up with demand—this summer, the number of homes has increased by 20 percent.
While there is, of course, never a 100 percent guarantee that the cleaning was carried out per the promised standards and that the environment is totally risk-free, the entire time we were in our Homes & Villas vacation home, we didn’t worry about much other than where to get our next takeout meal, when to play our next round of bocce ball in the backyard, and how long was too long to hang out in the hot tub. In an environment where not everyone can or feels safe traveling, to be able to is a privilege not to be taken lightly. The kind of worry-free local escape Homes & Villas afforded us was priceless during a pandemic.