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How to find the best vacation rental bargains

Memorial Day is still nearly two months away, but scoring a beachfront summer rental is a lot easier—and cheaper—for vacationers able to plan ahead.

Vacation rental sites say their early bird users tend to book about 90 days out, meaning summer spaces are already starting to fill up. On HomeAway.com, "a little over half [of owners] are already half-booked," said Jon Gray, senior vice president of HomeAway Americas. (See chart below for average prices in some of the more in-demand locales.)

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Nightly rate comparisons in popular markets

Market
Vacation Rental
Hotel
Miami, Fla. $345 $189
Lavallette, N.J. $329 $106
Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. $300 $106
Fort Lauderdale. Fla. $289 $140
Crested Butte, Colo. $286 $232
Austin, Tex. $280 $143
Las Vegas, Nev. $244 $108
Mexico Beach, Fla. $229 $103
Moonridge, Calif. $227 $70
Manteo, N.C. $224 $106
Cocoa Beach, Fla. $218 $96
Cape Canaveral, Fla. $217 $87
Orlando, Fla. $156 $98
SOURCES: HomeAway.com, STR, Hotels.com

There's good reason to look: Rentals may be an even bigger bargain this year for some travelers, with new properties balancing out growing demand. The average vacation rental costs $1,520 per week, or $217 per night, according to HomeAway. That's down 3.5 percent from last year. In comparison, hotel prices are an average $110.32, up 3.9 percent, according to industry monitor STR. And they're expected to rise another 4.2 percent this year

Pricier than hotels, yes, which is why it's smart to compare options when deciding where to stay. But rental sites are quick to point out that properties usually boast at least two or three bedrooms, a kitchen (cutting food costs) and extras like a private pool.

"You're looking at that house versus a five-star hotel," said Anirban Bardalaye, chief executive and co-founder of Zaranga.com. Looking at the average rates, a rental's price can be a bargain for large families or friends who would otherwise book two or more hotel rooms.

Date flexibility is key to snagging a better deal. One oceanfront eight-bedroom rental in Nags Head, N.C., has weekly summer rates ranging from $4,795 to $9,950. Owners may also offer further discounts of up to 20 percent or other perks—from free groceries to waived pet fees—to fill less popular weeks.

Watch the video for more tips to compare the costs and fees (of which there can be many) and get the best value.

A final caveat: While browsing, check out property reviews and site listing policies to avoid getting stuck with a space that doesn't live up to expectations. Or worse, that's a faux listing where the "owner" runs off with your cash.

Most big rental sites verify owners' IDs; take precautions by paying through the site, and using a payment method that gives you recourse if things go awry. "Never ever pay with checks," said Bardalaye. "Always use a credit card."

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