Why Free Is Not What It’s Cracked Up To Be

The Price of Free

It’s hard not to be attracted to a free listing or a free template to build a vacation rental website.  You won’t have to look hard to find blog posts and articles suggesting you use them – after all there is no cost to doing so and why wouldn’t you?  It’s free.

When I started out in this business nearly 20 years ago there were no big sites like Home Away or VRBO; we relied on classified ads in local newspapers and word of mouth to attract guests to rent our vacation home.  Then, in the mid-90’s listing sites began to pop up enabling owners to use the internet to advertise and promote, and we were off to the races.  In the the first edition of Renting for Profit (2003) I included examples of the types of emails I was receiving daily offering free listings, claiming they would boost occupancy and bring hundreds of inquiries.  Of course they didn’t  deliver on the promises, and within a year or so or sometimes after a couple of months, became a bunch of dead links.

With the quality and sheer size of listing sites today with such huge clout in search engine marketing, the volume of free stuff has lessened a little, but there’s still the odd one or two offering the next best thing that will ‘revolutionise’ the vacation rental industry.

I’m not against using a free option but before you sign up, think about this:


Free Listings

The reason site owners offer free listings is to build their portfolio of properties, because once they show a decent number they can move to a paid model.  The time you spend building a listing, posting your photographs, updating the calendar, and remembering to go back and change them every time you add a new amenity or facility works more to their advantage than yours.  Once they have built the site to get any decent traffic (if it ever gets that far), your free ad will often move to the bottom of the list to make way for the premium, paid listings.  Look at it this way – tiny fish are called ‘fry’ and fish keepers will feed them special foods to help them grow faster.  When they move to the next level those special foods are no longer required as the fish have absorbed all the nutrients necessary to boost their growth.  I just consider free listings as the foods that ‘feed the fry’.


Free Web Sites

It’s not hard to pick out the vacation rental web sites that have been built on free templates.  They tend to be clunky, generally unattractive, have poor navigation, lack  flexibility and can take a huge amount of time to set up and get right.  If this sounds harsh, I have no apologies…I have yet to see a site built on a free template that looks really good and appealing.  I just have a hard time understanding why an owner would not invest a small amount in a site that people will really enjoy visiting and one they can actually find because there is a decent amount of time spent on optimising it for search engines.


Free Blog Platforms

There are a number of free blog platforms  you may have heard of such as Blogger, Tumblr and WordPress. WordPress is by far the best platform for blogs and sites for people  who want control over just about every aspect of the site, from the look and feel to the set up of the navigation.  There are two ways of using WordPress – one is a free model that is hosted by WP at wordpress.com and it’s great for many simple blogs where the author just wants to post the occasional blog for friends to read and doesn’t need their own domain name or advanced functionality.  The drawback of using this is the limited amount of space and customization options available.

So, what’s the alternative?

Well, folks, it’s called investment.

Investing in building a web site or blog that people will visit, like the look of, and feel confident with booking a vacation from, will pay off in increased bookings and repeat customers.

The lowest cost option would be for a hosted WordPress site with a premium theme for which you’ll pay around $130 for the theme + a year of hosting. Check out our Resources page for some recommendations.  If you have the time to learn how to use WordPress ( I have done it and given my limited level of technological expertise, I found it relatively simple to learn) this would be a great option.

Paying a little more – around $500 – could get you a WP site set up and running to your specifications with some expert help.  You could outsource using sites such as Odesk or Elance – topic of an upcoming post – which is an inexpensive way of getting a site off the ground while you learn the ins and outs of the WordPress dashboard.

Listing on well-known international sites such as Home Away, Flipkey and Vacation Home Rentals can increase overall costs but the payback is in increased interest and a far greater potential for occupancy.

We all love ‘free’ but we’ve been spoilt over the years with the wealth of free content  available on the web.  Let’s stop objecting to being asked to pay for services and information that is of such value that they are worth paying for.


Great post Heather.  I couldn’t agree more. While there are plenty of things out there that can be had for free, I’m not sure why many folks refuse to consider investing in tools that can generate revenue that is many times greater than their purchase cost.


If internet not was for free than it was not so big.
Rental Websites on commission are the best.


Flipkey also start working on commission.


Free also can’t hurt if used properly. One booking may pay for the time it took to put the listing up. Check out FlipGoat.com. Its free and we get several inquiries from them


So true….  You get what you pay for!  One pretty small caveat that I’d add is that some free listing sites can provide a little value in link-building, as part of your SEO strategy.  We blogged about that here: http://blog.myvr.com/2012/10/09/10-free-vacation-rental-listing-sites-to-boost-your-seo/  But if you list on such a free site and expect FlipKey or VRBO level of inquiries, you’ll be greatly disappointed.  It’s just night and day in terms of what they do for you…


Above post related to the vacation rentals contains very useful information.
I really like this post. Here are many things which will be very useful for me.
Keep updating these kinds of useful information. Thanks a lot and good luck.
Cristina Monny @ http://www.byowner.com/new-york/new-york/vacation-rentals


Hi Heather,
Another great post! However enticing Free might sound, it actually costs you more in terms of lost bookings and website migration. Like myvr, I do agree that free listing sites can provide valuable SEO links, and would add that it is imperative to have all your listings up-to-date and synced through a http://kigo.net/channel-manager.


Hi Heather,
Indeed nothing in life is free! So my Mum used to say. But then my Dad would say ‘Never look a gift horse in the mouth’. The point is, sometimes there can be value in free listing adverts. SEO being one of them if they allow a link back. I have to agree on the website point though. Basically, you get what you pay for, so expect nothing for nothing. It sometimes amazes me that a rental owner will spend hundreds of thousands on buying and equipping their home and then skimp on the major marketing tool, their own website.
I have a real worry about this industry that as we move to the booking commission model owners without the ability to promote their own websites will quite quickly realise their over reliance on the big listing sites will begin to hurt them. And badly. 
It is imperative owners have their own website, that is properly built and equipped to meet the rigours of online marketing. And the owner knows how to improve their search engine positions AND market their site.
So free, for me, doesn’t cut it.


Hi Heather.
My mum used to say ‘nothing in life is free’. But then my Dad would counter ‘Never look a gift horse in the mouth.’ And this illustrates my point. 
Sometimes free listing sites are worth it because they might just get you something and some will link back to your own website which is useful for SEO.
I do agree wholeheartedly on the free website front however. It is absolutely vital owners get their heads around this. With the booking commission model now creeping across the industry it is becoming very, very important for owners to be able to marketing their rental themselves and not rely on the big listing sites. 
One of, if not the major marketing ploys now is through your own website. Trying to do that for free is absolute folly. It sometimes amazes me to see owners spend hundreds of thousands buying and equipping their rental to then try and throw up a two bit website to promote it. 
Investment in this is vital. Firstly in terms of a professional website and secondly in time to learn how to market it.  I write widely on internet marketing and website functionality and I know the value you can get when you do it right. As booking commissions increase owners will realise it isn’t so much a choice but a requirement to know this subject, and know it well.


Alex Goldenville

Great ideas, thank you. But WordPress is originally free platform, and I would advice to invest in self-education, not in the experts and premium platforms. It pays back better and you feel safer if you control any point of your website by yourself.

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