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YOUR MONEY: Luxury travel digs without the hotel

(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Feb 20 (Reuters) - Shell out a couple of thousand dollars a night for a vacation stay, and you're not going to have to pretend you're anyone's cousin when you pick up the keys - like you might with some Web-based booking sites where people rent out their own homes to travelers.

In the wake of sites like airbnb.com, VRBO.com and HomeAway.com, there is a new luxury category for those who don't want to spend their big bucks on a simple hotel room. Companies like Time & Place (http://timeandplace.com), Luxury Retreats (http://www.luxuryretreats.com) and Villas of Distinction (http://www.villasofdistinction.com) are trying to set themselves apart from other by-owner short-term rental sites by only aiming for high-end properties and a high-end clientele.

Consider a five-bedroom 12,000-square-foot (1.1-square-metre) home in the Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean. For a starting price of $3,750 a night, Luxury Retreats could get you this beachfront mansion, which comes with a staff that includes a chef, butler and housekeeper.

Or how about a nearly 2,700-square-foot (0.18-square-meter) one-bedroom duplex (It has two living rooms) with a view of the Eiffel Tower? Prices start at $2,780 a night through the service Time & Place.

Hotels still get the lion's share of the business, with 44 percent of people staying in hotels for vacation stays, according to a survey conducted for the site HomeAway.com. But now about 12 percent rent homes.

While there are about 3 million vacation homes in the United States available for rent, only a tiny fraction end up on one of the high-end sites. Time & Place, for instance, currently has 230 listings in 45 locations worldwide. Overall, the home rental industry is growing, according to the Vacation Rental Managers Association and is most popular among those who earn more than $125,000 a year.

WHEN IT WORKS

The notion of eschewing the traditional hotel stay in favor of staying at a high-end home can make sense for travelers who want a more local experience or need more family-friendly space - or just want something different.

When Gregory Lung, a 52-year-old oral surgeon from Honolulu, went to France in October, his first thought was: "I want to live like a local." He signed up for a relatively modest $420-a-night apartment, similar to what he would have paid for a fine hotel, through Time & Place. He used the service's concierge in advance of his trip to help get a feel for Le Marais, the section of Paris where the apartment he was going to stay in was located. He came away happy.

"It had a lot of the charm of an old place but the amenities of a new one," he says.

For many people traveling abroad, enjoying the local food is part of the experience, says Jason Cochran, editor of the travel site Frommers.com. "So many foods you can't bring back with you. If you have a private flat or home, you can bring it back and cook it yourself," Cochran says.

Rented homes also work well for families, he notes. Instead of renting several hotel rooms, a family vacation could become a lot more comfortable by renting a house in the area with enough bedrooms for everyone.

One drawback, however, is that these properties can be a bit further away from the most popular attractions, whether it's amusements parks, theaters or museums, Cochran says.

SAFETY TIPS

To be safe from scams, rent through an agency that has inspected the property rather than just responding to postings that come directly from owners, Cochran recommends.

It's also important to ask whether the management is available in the event of a problem, anything from a plumbing issue to getting locked out.

Use a credit card for booking if you can, suggests consumer advocate and travel expert Christopher Elliott. And pay particular attention to cancellation policies. Unlike most hotels, by-owner sites tend to want money in advance.

BECOMING A LANDLORD

For homeowners who want to get into the business, the high-end bookers say you should know that not every property is going to pass muster. And when you sign up to rent your place, you should expect some requests to make certain changes - anything from getting a new chair in the living room to upgrading the bedding.

After staying at Time & Place-managed properties in such disparate locations as New York's Fire Island and Buenos Aires, John E. Stiner, vice president of Breckenridge Design Group in Washington decided to use the company to market his 4,700-square-foot (0.37-square-metre) estate on Nantucket for rates than run from $3,500 a night to more than $5,000 a night.

He found that the price doesn't just require the use of the property but a lot of service. "Folks who rent these kind of houses can be quite demanding," Stiner says.

Stiner recalls that one guest had very particular requirements about how afternoon tea was to be prepared. Another requested a crystal caviar bowl.

That doesn't mean everyone gets anything they ask for. One family got an extra TV during a run of bad weather, but he said no to the caviar bowl. Sometimes, Stiner says, "You draw the line."

(Follow us zReutersMoney or at http://www.reuters.com/finance/personal-finance; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)