Airbnb, HomeAway and other vacation rental companies have no rewards programs of their own, but you may be able to coax some rewards out by carefully using the right card
Bargain-conscious travelers increasingly are turning to vacation rental companies such as Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway in recent years to save money on accommodations. The trade-off for rewards chasers is that vacation rentals lack the elaborate loyalty programs that have become a staple in the hotel industry. Still, if you’ve got the right credit card, you don’t have to completely forgo earning or spending points when you book a property.
The main attraction of vacation rentals is lower price. HomeAway 2014 data shows that the average three-bedroom, two-bathroom property listed on the HomeAway site goes for $217 a night. That works out to $72 a room, a price most hotels can’t match.
There are often other benefits, too. Many homes offer more space than a hotel and free extras such as Wi-Fi and parking. “Plus, often you can feel like you’re staying where the locals are, instead of in a business district or next to a highway,” says Tim Leffel, a travel writer and author of “Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune.” “You’re in a real neighborhood where you can walk to shops and restaurants and pay non-tourist prices.”
Conspicuously absent, however, are programs that let you earn free nights or other benefits after booking a certain number of stays. “For now anyway, there are no points or perks from Airbnb or VRBO, no matter how many times you use them,” says John E. DiScala, founder of the travel website JonnyJet.com.
The credit card workaround
Travel credit card programs can fill part of the gap. You won’t find a co-branded card that’s equivalent to, say, the Chase Marriott Rewards Visa (no annual fee the first year, then $85), which comes with a 50,000 point sign-up bonus — enough to buy two nights at a Tier 5 hotel. But you don’t have to walk away empty handed, either.
The key is using credit cards that award extra points on travel purchases, including vacation rentals. For example, “Airbnb earns double points on the Chase Sapphire Preferred,” says Daraius Dubash, founder of the blog Million Miles Secrets.
Redeeming points on the right card is also important. The Barclaycard Arrival card, for example, lets you use points for statement credits on travel purchases. Airbnb stays qualify for those credits.
But not all vacation rentals count as travel. It depends on the company’s merchant category code (MCC), which is assigned to the business by the credit card network being used (Visa, MasterCard, etc). An MCC describes what kind of products or services a particular merchant sells.
It’s not always self-evident. For instance, many cash-back cards code stores such as Wal-Mart as discount stores, even if you’re buying groceries there. So if your card offers extra points on grocery purchases, you won’t earn them at Wal-Mart.
Similarly, some vacation rental charges are coded as travel, but others are classified as real estate. That’s important because no credit cards give you bonus points for real estate transactions.
The bad news: HomeAway and the companies it owns (including VRBO, VacationRentals.com, and CyberRentals.com) code as real estate. That means you will not earn bonus travel points when you book through those companies, no matter which card you use — at least, for now.
HomeAway was recently acquired by Expedia (pending regulatory approval), and there are hopes those sites might start coding as travel once their booking systems are integrated.
The good news for now is that Airbnb and FlipKey code as travel. So if you rent a place through one of those sites, you will get bonus points if your credit card awards them for travel categories.
Airbnb gets more rewards-friendly
Airbnb has also built some new relationships that make it a bit more attractive for rewards chasers. A new partnership with American Express makes it easy for AmEx Membership Rewards members to redeem points seamlessly on the Airbnb website.
Unfortunately, just because you can redeem your points on Airbnb doesn’t mean you should. The industry baseline for point valuations is 1 cent per point. Some points are worth much more than that, especially if you’re using them to buy first-class airline tickets, but anything less than that is not a good deal. The Membership Rewards rate for Airbnb is only 0.7 cents. In other words, a $70 rental will cost you 10,000 MR points.
If you really want to use MR points for Airbnb, you’d be better off using them to buy an Airbnb gift card. The same 10,000 points would get you a $100 gift card, yielding the benchmark penny-per-point return.
Airbnb has also partnered with Virgin America. Book an Airbnb room on the Virgin website using your Elevate frequent flier number and you’ll earn one point per dollar spent. The first time you book you’ll get 1,500 bonus points and a $20 Airbnb credit.
Booking.com and rewards portals
Using the right credit card is not the only way you can save money on vacation rentals. Airbnb and HomeAway are huge players, but Booking.com is also big in the vacation rental market.
The difference between Booking.com and others, though, is that you can get cash back by booking via Internet shopping portals such as Ebates or BeFrugal. “My best advice is to be strategic about your booking — take a look before you book,” says Dia Adams, a mother of two and author of the blog TheDealMommy. “For instance, you can get up to 6 percent cash back on Booking.com by using one of the Internet shopping portals to enter the site. I use CashBackMonitor.com to find the best discounts.”
Use this deal in combination with the right credit card, and you could earn 8 to 9 percent on a vacation rental.
Even if you unknowingly booked your vacation rental with an agency that codes these charges as real estate, you might have recourse. Try to call or send a secured message to your credit card issuer and explain that you booked the property in good faith, thinking it would qualify for bonus travel points. They may still allow you to earn extra points on your purchase as a one-time courtesy.
See related: Weighing rewards cards in aftermath of airline changes, Best ways to earn, redeem rewards points over the holidays, Video: How one woman travels the world on credit card points