What You Need to Know about Vacation Rentals before You Go

That time of the year is finally here. You know what I'm talking about, the one or two weeks you get every year to escape from "real life" and just be you. Relax, eat and drink well, enjoy your family, catch up on some much needed sleep. But, before you pack up and head out, rethink the all-too-normal hotel stay. Believe it or not, you have options, one of which is the vacation rental.

Would not it be nice to leave your own home, arrive in your destination city and settle into a "home away from home" for your next vacation? That's what vacation rentals are all about. These are homes waiting to be rented out by people on vacation. Each vacation rental owner will have different criteria in what type of renter they are looking for, each vacation rental house will vary in amenities, and each price will be dependent on the time of year and the length of stay. So, it sounds like a great idea, but how do you figure out how to make it all happen? Not a problem. Below you will find answers to frequently asked questions regarding vacation rentals. Read on, my friend, your next "home away from home" vacation rental is right around the corner.

Frequently Asked Questions on Vacation Rentals

What are the advantages of a vacation rental?

Do you ever wish your hotel room had just a little more personality? Yeah, I thought so. Well, renting someone else's home for your vacation might just be the thing you're looking for. Usually offering larger living spaces than hotel rooms, these vacation rentals are all about living like you were in your own home. They offer greater privacy than hotel rooms and most rentals have a kitchen area for cooking, which in the end will save you money if you prepare some of your own meals.

You'll enjoy several rooms, and maybe even different levels, instead of one big room where the whole family sleeps. Many owners will leave information on things to do and see in the local area. Vacation rental homes are clean, friendly, comfortable and inviting. This is because many of them are not just rental homes, but also function as the owner's own residence for part of the year.

A majority of vacation rentals tend to be cheaper on a per night basis than their hotel. By renting directly from the owner you will avoid taxes, tips and other external charges. However, there is a wide variation among others based on a number of factors (see How Much Should I Expect to Pay below)

What are the drawbacks of a vacation rental?

Of course, there's always the other side of the coin. As vacation rentals are not usually monitored by a central managing company, you'll only know what you're getting yourself into when you actually arrive to your rental. Many owners require pre-payment, or at least a large deposit fee, before arriving. Therefore, if things are not the way you anticipated after arriving, or if you find your dwelling unacceptable and decide to head to a local hotel, you may lose any money you prepaid. This is also true for last minute cancellations. There is not usually a refund. You always run the risk of getting less than you expected, but, it's rare.

Most times, vacation rentals tend to be cheaper than an average hotel room per night. But, not always, so make sure you are comfortable with the price you will be asked to pay.

Another disadvantage to vacation rentals is the lack of a managing member on site to deal with any problems that you may encounter with the home or during your stay in general. Most owners get around this by having a list of emergency numbers, utility companies and other such items available to the renter should they need anything.

What amenities are included in a vacation rental?

Since every rental is owned by a different owner, each will include different amenities. Some come with swimming pools, hot tubs, others with golf packages, and horse stable privileges. In cities with tourist attractions, some owners include tickets to local attractions.

Most vacation rentals come with the essentials: TV, equipped kitchen, towels, linen, and everyday appliances, but it never hurts to ask these questions when searching for the perfect place. Be sure to understand exactly what you are paying for before sending in the payment.

What types of rentals are available?

Pretty much any type of dwelling that you would want to live in during your vacation is available somewhere. From studios in downtown Manhattan to a villa in the south of Spain, you'll be able to find what you're looking for. The range of available options is mind boggling. Additionally, each week, month and year there are new possibilities as owners put their homes up for only certain weeks or months of the year, the choices are constantly changing.

Are vacation rentals only available in the US?

Vacation rentals are available worldwide. They can be found in every state of the US and almost every country in the world. Do not be fooled by their different names, though. Vacation rentals are also known as holiday cottages, tourist rentals and holiday rentals. If you are looking for one in Europe, the Italians call them agriturismi, while the French say gites. If you are in Germany you will be looking for ferienwohnungen (yep, try to say that three times fast with a bratwurst in your mouth!)

Regardless of what you call it, though, a vacation rental is a great option for those getting ready to take a few weeks off from reality and enjoy the good life a bit.

How do I find a property?

There are several ways to go about finding the perfect vacation rental for your next trip. Check with your local travel agent to find someone in your area that specializes in finding owners and renters and getting them together. Another option is the yellow pages. Finally, there is a wealth of information on the Internet. Type in a search for "vacation rentals" and over 13,300,000 websites can be found just on http://www.google.com alone. Some websites only list vacation rentals in the United States while others specialize in vacation rentals worldwide. There are some sites that will allow the potential renter to look for a residence by specific search criteria such as a particular destination, certain number of bedrooms and types of amenities that are included in the property.

Most of the vacation rental services on the internet are only the "go-between" or the "classified" section of the newspaper. They take no responsibility for the truth or correctness of the ads that are listed on their sites. So, do your homework by making phone calls, speaking with the owner and asking specific questions. Make sure you feel comfortable with the answers, if not, move on to the next rental, there are plenty.

If you're not comfortable with the whole renter / owner thing, there is another way to rent a vacation home. Some companies exist that strictly buy and rent out homes to vacationers. They offer a bit more security so that you feel you are really getting what you bargained for (although nothing is ever 100% fool proof). Additionally, sometimes these agencies will give you cancellation insurance. In other words, if you cancel before arriving, they may be able to refund a portion of your deposit or payment instead of keeping it as most owners do if a cancellation occurs. With some agencies you'll find that you pay a higher price than going directly to an owner. This is how the agencies make their profits. There are always pros and cons to each scenario. Ensure you know which one works best for you.

How much should I expect to pay?

This is a tough question to answer. The amount you pay will depend on what country or state you are visiting, number of days you are staying, and type of house you are renting. Some owners offer package deals including tickets or sightseeing events along with the rental, others include bonus days if you stay for a certain length of time. There are other owners who may offer free or add-on house cleaning service with your stay while some go to great efforts to ensure you have everything you need, even additional items such as a crib, highchair or wheelchair. Each vacation rental will be entirely different from the next. Your best bet after deciding on your destination is to review multiple rentals to determine which is better suited to your needs and overall budget.

Are there any hidden fees?

Hidden fees usually only emerge after you have arrived. These may include extra for phone calls, house cleaning service, extra person fees, excess heat and air-conditioning bills, pet deposit, computer access … etc. Again, be extremely thorough when interviewing the owner of your prospect vacation rental. Ask about any "extra" fees, or if the house is "all-inclusive". Do you have free access to all the pantry and food items? How about the laundry supplies? All utilities? It never hurts to ask!

Vacation Rentals

In summary, cover all bases by asking lots of questions. Getting your agreement in writing is also a very smart idea. After these basics are out of the way you will be ready to take off for your home-away-from-home vacation rental. Try one this year and see for yourself that vacation rentals can be a fantastic means to really getting the full enjoyment out of your next vacation.

Do Alt and Title Attributes Help With SEO?

A highly talked about topic is the SEO world is, “Do Alt and Title Attributes Help with SEO?” Well to help shed a little light on this topic, I did some research and came up with a few good conclusions. I’m not suggesting these are 100% accurate but from my initial research they seem to be right on target. I welcome all other SEO experts to share their opinions on this topic by posting their comments – because as we all know, every little bit of information can help us all.

Well to start, I want to provide a brief introduction of each attribute to help you understand their “intended” purpose.

The alt attribute is, popularly and incorrectly referred to as an alt tag and is commonly misunderstood to provide a tool-tip for an image. Both of these are incorrect. First of all, the alt attribute is an attribute and not a tag. The alt attribute was always intended to provide alternative information about an element and is generally required for image and image maps and is not meant to be used to display a tool-tip. The alt attribute, can be used for the img, area, and input elements to help provide alternative information to users who cannot display that element in their browser. As an example, here is how you would define an alt attribute for an image: <img src=”imagepath.gif” alt=”this is our company logo”>. If the image is not displayed the text, “this is our company logo” will be displayed in the place of the image.

The title attribute, on the other hand, is meant to provide additional information about an element, which is displayed as a tool-tip by most graphical browsers. The title attribute can be used to describe any HTML element except for base, basefont, head, html, meta, param, script, and title.

An excellent use for the title attribute is to provide descriptive text within an anchor tag to let the users know where the link will direct them if they click on it. When the user places their mouse over the link, it will display a small tool-tip displaying the title text that you’ve provided. An example would be

So as you can see the alt and title attributes have different purposes but how do they affect SEO? This is the true question we all want to know and understand. Do they help with SEO or are they simply ignored by the search engines? I tested several different scenarios, all in Google, and after my research I’ve come to the following conclusions.

Alt attributes seem to be picked up by Google, whether or not there was a link within that element. Some SEO experts have mentioned that if there is no link, then the alt attribute would not be indexed… from my research I’ve found this to be false.

Going further, I noticed in one testing scenario, if there was an image with an alt attribute and a link to a completely other site, that other site was also indexed by Google when searching for the text within the alt attribute. It was difficult for me to verify this multiple times but I definitely verified it in one testing scenario.

I also took this one step further and analyzed my results with what Google Images was displaying. I immediately noticed that Google sometimes takes the alt attribute text and provides this text as the description for the image in Google Images, something that is very valuable to know and understand when doing SEO for your website.

In all of my testing scenarios, the title attribute do not seem to be picked up by Google and adding a link to that element did not seem to affect this result at all. If you really think about it, this makes complete sense. Since you can place title attributes in almost every element of a website, it would be very easy for a user to affect the search engines by keyword stuffing throughout their web pages, something that Google and the other major players do not want, hence why title attributes do not help with SEO.

In my opinion, you should use the title attribute to help with your user’s experience and not with SEO. Since tool-tips provide more useful information to the user about images, links, fields and much more, you will help your users to understand what is happening around the web page.

So from my testing I’ve determined that a title attribute is meant to provide tool-tips to the user for user experience, whereas the alt attribute is helpful in terms of providing alternative information to the user when their browser cannot display an image or input element and helping to increase the SEO of a website. My recommendation is to pay close attention to when, where and how you are using your alt attributes. If they help with SEO, then you should pay close attention to what you are adding.

When adding images always be sure to add an alt attribute to the code of each image. If you do not have one, then just specify a blank one, such as alt=”". Also, be sure to add alternative text that is relevant to that image, the content on that page and be sure not to specify an alt attribute greater than 100 characters in length, as this may be perceived as spamming.

I hope you find my brief overview on the topic of, “Do Alt and Title Attributes Help with SEO?” to be beneficial for you and your business. I’m sure one could dive deep into this topic, spending weeks determining the differences between how Google, Yahoo! and the other major search engines handle title and alt attributes with regards to SEO for a website.

I welcome all comments and/or feedback.

4 Ways to Target Mobile Micro-Moments and Boost Your Sales

The goal of every brand is to create a strong bond with customers whenever they need them. Keeping your brand visible before your potential customers during various micro-moments is crucial for your brand success.

Micro-moments refer to a short term of attention any potential customer uses on a mobile device in order to buy, search or watch something.

Mobile is no longer just a tendency and micro-moments are here to stay. Here are some effective ways to target mobile micro-moments and boost your sales:

1- Identify the Right Micro-Moments For Your Brand

As per Cassandra Wesch, Founder of the digital media agency, Upward Ecommerce, “Identifying opportunities to share relevant micro moments with your customer make it easier, faster, and more fun to connect with your brand”.

For a hotel owner, it would be great if the customers are able to check in immediately without having to wait in the queue.

From the customer point of view, the micro-moment happen when they are traveling and wanting to get into a hotel room without having to wait in line to check-in.

Well, you can do just that with the help of Starwood app. The customers are able to check-in right on the app.

As soon as the customers enter the hotel, the beacons recognize that the customer is there. Verification is done with the help of a fingerprint (if you’re on an iPhone), the app provides a room number, and then you simply hold your phone up to the entranceway and can go right into your room. That’s an amazing way for a brand to help the customers in a micro-moment.

2- Your Brand Should Be Seen Whenever the Potential Customer Needs You

As a brand, being present in all phases of consumer journey, not just when someone is ready to buy, is where the biggest opportunities exist. Google has defined four micro- moments that represent the full user needs.

I want to know moments – The consumer is exploring and researching but not yet in the purchase mindset. They are looking for useful information, education resources or an inspiration.

I want to go moments – Consumer is searching for a local business or considering buying a product at a local store.

I want to buy moments – The all important buy moments are when shoppers are ready to make a purchase and may need help determine what, how, or where to buy.

I want to do moments – These refer to moments when shoppers are looking for help getting something done or learning something new.

3- Mobile is the New Shopping Assistant – Your E-Store Must Understand This

Americans are shopping online, allocating their shopping budgets to browsing, expanding a regularly of five hours per week purchasing online.

The telecommunication company sprint discovered that one in four people who click on their mobile search ads actually end up being physically present in a sprint retail store.

As a business, you need to get your website mobile friendly and have an app that will help you to connect with your customers in real time.

It is essential to find out the different mobile search queries that the potential customers are using while locating your brand and further optimize your business presence in order to reap in more sales.

4- Deliver Relevant Messaging and Tap Into the Power of SMS Marketing

In this age of mobile connectivity, it is important to leverage the power of SMS marketing to improve your business visibility and increase sales.

8.6 Trillion text messages are sent every year on average and such messages are read within 5 seconds. This is a tremendous opportunity to explore where people are able to read your message within seconds of receiving it.

Tools like TextMagic are excellent in automating the SMS efficiency and reach. You can easily build one to one dialogue with your customer using dynamic inbound SMS messages.

While sending messages, it is recommended to follow the below tips:

Segment your audience and send the right message to the right customer.

Send messages that have time bound deals which are set of expire soon. This will drive instant actions.

Send triggered messages based on the action of the user. For example, if the customer has placed some items in the shopping cart and didn’t ordered them then you can send a triggered message with a special discount in order to persuade the customer to make an order.

Mobile is no longer in its teens. Your brand must understand the real power of mobile micro-moments and must ensure to be present at all times depending on the needs of the customer.

Feature Stories With Heart

Feature stories have heart. Feature stories have warmth. Most of all, feature stories force a writer / reporter to evaluate the human side of a community – beyond the facts, beyond the opinions – to find the spirit of the story.

I have always favored feature stories (or soft news) as a writer because it gives me the chance to get to know people on a higher level than straight news reporting (hard news) does. Beyond that, it also forces me to work as a reporter with feelings – yes, some reporters have actual feelings.

For the past few weeks, I've evaluated a variety of types of college feature stories in preparation for a workshop I'm presenting at the Associated Collegiate Press and College Media Advisers National College Media Convention. After sifting through stacks and stacks of archives of papers, I've come to the conclusion that college newspapers are much more active to seek out the feature elements than mainstream, professional newspapers.

My students (and former students) from The Montage, have compiled heartwarming stories of life and death, fun and frolics, and service and sacrifice. Here are a few examples:

"A Day in the Life of Mary Davis:" As a regular series, my students write personality profiles, covering students, faculty, staff, locals, etc. This particular story highlights an 86-year old student still eager to learn.

"Turning Lead into Gold:" This profile provides an in-depth look at a faculty member's passions.

"Inauguration Road:" Following a road trip to the White House for Barack Obama's engagement, two of my students compiled a piece about a 1st person account of the journey itself.

"What's Brewing in St. Louis:" Beer is a priority for many college students. Recognizing this, my students compiled an in-depth centerspread on St. Louis. Louis' beer culture, including a list of "things" to do with beer.

"The Vertical Expression of a Horizontal Desire:" Fun and frolics come in all shapes and sizes as detailed in this feature about the art of tango music.

This list of stories (found at http://www.meramecmontage.com ) includes a variety of subjects, topics, and angles. Primarily, though, these stories offer readers something "different," something soft – a much-needed break from the heart-wrenching news of reductions, murders, and swine flu statistics. Even more so, they offer reporters (whether student or professional) a chance to explore more than just the facts but rather the fun-loving spirit of life.

I could spend all day listing compelling, heart-warming and entertaining features that have been written by both students and professionals, but I'd rather open my eyes and seek the next big story that could possibly touch someone else's life and in return, touch mine.