—Get a written agreement spelling out terms and conditions. Never wire money or write a personal check. Plastic is the way to go because your credit card company may offer some protection. If you can show that promised goods and services were not provided, you may be able to get a refund.
—Don't trust an owner who will only communicate via e-mail, and don't hesitate to pick up the phone to ask the owner/property manager detailed questions or even request more photos than those displayed in the online ad.
—Find out how you'll get back your security deposit, if there is one, and what it covers.
—Ask friends for recommendations. If you decide on a house or condo belonging to a stranger, ask for references from others who have stayed there.
— If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. In most cases, you get what you pay for.
—Plug the property owner and address into a Web browser and see what comes up. You may discover complaints from previous renters. Make sure you're dealing with the real property owner. Scammers can steal information to create phony listings.
—Seasoned renters suggest negotiating with owners/managers on price if vacancy rates in the area are high. You can also inquire about perks to sweeten the deal, like free tickets or discounts to local activities.
—Be skeptical of glowing online reviews, especially if the reviewers are anonymous.
—Ask the owner/property manager to define nebulous terms like "oceanfront property" and "5-minute walk to the beach." Make sure you're clear on such things as how far the house is from the center of town.
—If the owner doesn't live in the area, find out if there's a local caretaker who can deal with problems like blown fuses or an overflowing toilet. Find out whom to contact in case of an emergency.
—If you have physical limitations, ask about handicap accommodations including elevator service. Everyone, with or without disabilities, is likely to want to know about noise levels, air conditioning and heating, and mattresses.
—If your group plans big communal meals, make sure there are enough pots, pans, utensils and table service. Inquire about essentials like coffee makers, cutting boards and good knives.
—Ask what the cleaning fees will be, and try to determine whether any fees have gone unmentioned. Pauline Frommer of Pauline Frommer travel guides notes that in some European countries you may have to pay extra for electricity or other utilities. Ask about phone service, Internet and Wi-Fi.
—If possible, visit the property before renting it.
—If a property doesn't live up to its billing, document problems with pictures or videos. Complain immediately to the owner or property manager. Keep receipts. Compile a meticulous record of all transactions and what went wrong. If you believe you've been a victim of fraud, you may be able to seek recourse in court. Check your state's consumer protection laws to see what you may be entitled to and whether there are deadlines for filing.
-- By ANN LEVIN For The Associated Press