With the rise of platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo, short-term vacation rentals have become an increasingly popular alternative to hotels. In the age of COVID-19, many travelers prefer the option to avoid the person-to-person contact of staying at a busy hotel by booking a single-family home instead.
But there are safety concerns that arise with the vacation rental experience.
“While many hotels have security guards and someone at a front desk keeping an eye on the property 24/7, Airbnbs do not,” Cheryl Nelson, a travel preparedness expert and founder of Prepare with Cher, told HuffPost. “If you have a concern at an Airbnb, there usually isn’t a manager or employee on-site or another room you may move to. If you’re traveling solo and need help, a hotel will typically have people on staff 24/7 to assist, while Airbnbs may not.”
Over the years, companies like Airbnb and Vrbo have taken steps to improve safety ― from banning parties to providing safety checklists to establishing a Trust & Safety Advisory Coalition.
“Staying at a short-term rental property is generally safe,” said Jeremy Prout, director of security solutions at International SOS. “Like booking any accommodation, the traveler needs to ensure they understand the risk of the neighborhood and take general precautions that they would for staying anywhere. Many of the concerns about safety and privacy issues are driven by viral videos or posts that are not consistent with the overall experience.”
Rare or not, dangerous can things happen during travel, including at vacation rentals. That said, there are ways to diminish the risks.
Below, experts share the safety steps travelers should take when they arrive at a vacation rental. They also offered some advice for keeping safety in mind when booking these accommodations.
1. Check for cameras.
“Ask the host if there are security cameras so there is full disclosure,” Nelson advised. “Hidden cameras are prohibited, but for your own privacy, you may want to do a scan inside the house to make sure you don’t unwillingly end up on camera.”
Airbnb specifically prohibits hidden cameras or other recording devices and requires hosts to disclose the presence of any such implements. Recording devices are also not permitted in private spaces like bedrooms and bathrooms, though they are allowed in common areas.
Vrbo doesn’t allow any sort of surveillance devices inside its properties, though hosts are allowed to place cameras outside the home, so long as their locations are shared with guests. Still, over the years, there have been several news stories about travelers discovering hidden cameras in their vacation rentals.
“They’re typically in areas where you would expect privacy,” said travel safety consultant Kevin Coffey. “Think smoke detectors in bedrooms, light fixtures in bathrooms, even alarm clocks next to beds.”
He emphasized these concealed recording device instances are rare and that many hosts simply install visible cameras in permitted areas due to the countless incidents of guests trashing rental properties during their stays. Still, if you’re concerned about hidden cameras, there are ways to check for them when you arrive.
“You can use a Wi-Fi checker,” Coffey said, noting that network-scanning apps like Fing can inform guests of any unknown devices that are connected to the Wi-Fi.
Keep an eye out for objects that appear to be altered or out of place, and if you have suspicions, consider draping a piece of clothing over them.
“Use a flashlight with the lights off to look for reflections off camera lenses,” Nelson suggested. “Peer into vents covers and other openings in the wall where a small camera could be hidden. Unscrew and inspect smoke alarms and other wall- or ceiling-mounted appliances.”
Be mindful of where you stow your belongings, especially valuables.
2. Store your valuables safely.
“For the safety of your belongings, ask if the property has a safe,” Nelson suggested.
Items like your passport, electronics, jewelry and other valuables should go in the most secure location, and many rentals provide safe storage. Sometimes, you might have to bring your own padlock, which provides extra security as only you know the code.
“There are also portable safes you can travel with,” Coffey said. “They’re usually cloth with wire mesh sandwiched between two layers of canvas, and there’s a braided steel cable, so the only way for a thief to get into the bag would be to have bolt cutters.”
He recommended the brand Pacsafe, which has a variety of anti-theft items, including portable safes.
“If you don’t have a safe, gauge whether you should leave stuff lying around that can be seen through windows,” Coffey advised. “You don’t want important items to be visible.”
If you have a car parked outside, make sure to remove your belongings to avoid vehicle break-ins.
“You can also bring a camera to monitor your valuables as long as you remember to remove it by the time you check out,” said Cathy Pedrayes, a safety expert and author of “The Mom Friend Guide to Everyday Safety and Security.”
3. Confirm the presence of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
Fire safety is always a concern, but after three American tourists died from carbon monoxide poisoning at a resort in the Bahamas in May, travelers are on extra high alert for that silent killer as well.
“Check to ensure each floor of the rental has working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors,” Nelson advised.
Rental booking platforms like Airbnb allow hosts to note whether or not they have a smoke or CO detector on the property, but it’s worth checking that they’re on when you arrive.
“You can also purchase portable smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and take them with you when you travel,” Coffey added.
4. Get the lay of the land.
“After I set my bags down at a rental, I just walk around the space and get the lay of the land,” Coffey said. “Try to see where all the doors are and test them out. So many people see a door but might not realize it’s bolted shut, so that’s not a way out in case of a fire.”
During your inspection, create a mental escape plan for emergencies. Look for the first aid kit and fire extinguisher. Coffey said he inspects the fire extinguisher to make sure it’s charged and functioning.
“Remember that when you’re in a house, there are a lot of points of entry that could be used to break in when you’re not around ― whereas a hotel room usually only has the one door,” he added. “Check your door and window locks to see how secure things are from a break-in standpoint.”
Consider the safety needs of your fellow travelers in mind as you scan the property. “If traveling with children, survey the area and look for glass or sharp objects, ensure that the TV is secure, if it is within reach,” Prout said.
Scope out the general area where you’re staying as well by walking around and looking at the map on your phone.
“You should be aware of local emergency resources ― police station, fire station, hospitals, pharmacies ― should there be an emergency during your stay,” Prout said.
Check smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers and other relevant safety features upon arrival.
5. Set up your own alarms.
“If you’re staying in a street-level apartment or a place with lots of windows, consider if it makes sense for you to bring in additional door and window security devices,” Coffey said.
Ask your host or look for yourself to see if there are already alarms and outdoor sensor lights. Even if there are, you may still want extra protection.
Coffey noted that portable motion detectors are not particularly expensive and can alert you if someone is trying to break into a door or window. Similarly, portable locks can help keep your rental extra secure.
“Bring a small, portable door stop alarm,” Nelson echoed. “This one from Damsel in Defense is one of my favorites.”
6. Turn on tracking.
When you’re traveling, it’s always a good idea to let loved ones know where you’ll be. You can text them the address of your rental when you check in and share your reservation confirmation.
Coffey suggested even going a step further.
“Turn on tracking for your loved ones so that they can see where exactly you are and know what’s going on,” he said, pointing to apps like Find My Friends. “You should do this especially if you’re a solo traveler.”
Pedrayes recommended having designated people you can call in case of an emergency.
“Before you arrive at a location, know your emergency numbers,” she said. “Is there Wi-Fi or cell service? Who can you call back home to help? Do you speak the language, if not, do you have a way to communicate in case of an emergency?”
Keep vacation rental safety in mind even before your trip.
“I’ve never felt unsafe while staying at an Airbnb, but I always do my research prior to booking,” Nelson said, adding that she tries to choose properties from Airbnb “Superhosts” when possible due to their experience and top ratings. “Familiarize yourself with the local area and always read the Airbnb guests’ reviews, so there aren’t any surprises.”
She also recommended resources like CrimeMapping.com to “understand the vulnerabilities” of a particular area. Google Street View can help you see what the street and entrance look like as well.
“A short-term rental property may look great in photos, but be sure to research the neighborhood ― you will be interacting with it, including coming and going with luggage,” Prout noted. “A simple search can provide you with an overview of the risks. If you’re not sure, ask the host. If you’re still not sure, find another accommodation.”
In addition to crime concerns, Coffey said some travelers like to consider if an area is good fit from a cultural perspective.
“A person of color, someone who’s LGBTQ, a woman traveler ― they might want to take a deeper dive and look at safety scores from different apps and websites,” he explained. “GeoSure offers helpful ratings.”
He also suggested parents traveling with children check the sex offender registry for the neighborhood. Meanwhile, Prout urged travelers to think about the types of accommodation they’re searching.
“When it comes to safety, booking individual room rentals instead of an entire property can put a traveler at risk as the guest may find themselves sharing a home or an apartment with other people, which can increase the likelihood of a security incident ― assault, harassment, etc.,” he said.
Still, Prout added, there’s no simple solution for avoiding all risk.
“The reality is that emergencies can happen anywhere, at any time,” he emphasized. “Therefore, there is no one answer when it comes to ensuring your safety when booking lodging accommodations. The best thing a traveler can do to protect themselves is to do research ahead of booking accommodations to determine the level of risk associated with the location and plan accordingly.”