While many hotel rooms in the United States stayed vacant last year, stir-crazy travelers headed to private beach and mountain houses, where they could enjoy nature but keep their distance from others.

“Vacation rentals recovered pretty quickly as soon as destinations opened up last spring,” says Melanie Brown, director of data and analytics for Key Data, a company that provides market data for the short-term rental industry. “And in a lot of cases — especially in these beach destinations— [business] just did not slow down.”

It’s not slowing down for this summer, either. Shaun Greer, vice president of sales and marketing at Vacasa, a management platform for vacation rentals, said the company hit record reservation levels in January, surpassing 2019 demand during the same periods. He expects interest in rental properties to stay hot through this year, even as hotel occupancy increases, too.

So, with all the competition, how do you find the best beach house for you? Industry insiders and vacation-rental regulars gave us their top advice.

If you want a beach house this summer, book now

Now that more Americans are traveling again, they’re planning their trips further in advance than they did last year. That means those who do not plan ahead may face limited availability over the next few months.

Over spring break, occupancy at Vacasa properties in popular beach destinations such as Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach, S.C., was at about 95 percent, Greer said, and current booking data suggests summer will be just as busy.

In Alabama resort destinations Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, vacation rental companies are also reporting strong booking traffic for the summer, said Kay Maghan, spokesperson for the region’s tourism board.

“The floodgates have opened, and people are tired of staying at home, apparently,” Maghan said “My encouragement to anybody who’s looking to go to a beach this summer is book early, because everybody seems to be looking toward the summer.”

Maghan has noticed that travelers are now coming from outside of the usual markets: After becoming one of the first beach destinations to reopen last year, Alabama’s Gulf Coast is attracting visitors who may have normally gone to Florida or Mexico. With more Americans booking domestic travel this year, there is likely to be more competition for vacation rentals all over.

Flexibility pays off

If remote work is still an option and you don’t have kids back in school, consider rethinking your standard vacation time to get better deals on beach rentals.

Sheila Davolos, a rental manager with Jack Lingo Realtor in Rehoboth Beach, Del., said business picks up around the second week of June, and peak prices last from the week before the Fourth of July through the third week of August. “You can get definitely cheaper rates if you’re coming in May, early June, and September and October,” she said.

Chelsea Brennan, a project manager who lives in D.C., leads the charge in booking her friend group’s annual beach trip. This year, she is booking a place in North Carolina’s Outer Banks in the early fall — for a third of the cost it would be in the summer.

“The price drop-off from August or September is insane,” Brennan said. “The beach will also be less crowded. And the weather was really nice.”

Another way to save money is to be flexible with your location, said Molly Fergus, general manager of TripSavvy. Looking for rentals a few hundred yards off the water or a beach town’s main strip can yield cheaper rental results.

Try a local rental agent for better options and security

Retired Falls Church, Va., resident JoAnn Allen started going to Davolos’s agency, Jack Lingo, nearly 30 years ago for her family’s beach-rental needs in Delaware and North Carolina. The company had a larger selection of properties than she found on her own, plus they knew her taste after decades of bookings together.

Allen also said it is comforting to know that rental agents are available to help with all your urgent — and not-so-urgent — requests.

“If you get there and there’s not a pot that you need or a utensil or whatever, they’re very good about accommodating,” she said.

Brennan stumbled on the technique cherished by seasoned beachgoers such as Allen. She originally used Airbnb and VRBO to find vacation rentals, until one day she noticed a listing had been posted by a local beach-rental company instead of an individual owner. When Brennan looked up the agency’s website, she found the same listing available at a lower price.

“It’s always like a couple hundred dollars cheaper or more because you cut out the fee from the platform,” said Brennan, who has been using local rental agencies ever since. Another perk she likes: lease agreements for the bookings that come with clear cancellation policies.

Brian Hofmann, a Chicago resident who works in marketing, discovered local rental agencies when hunting for a beach rental in Cape Cod last summer. Options on his go-to travel booking sites were limited or too expensive, and in the midst of an uncertain year, they felt unreliable, too.

“Working with Airbnb, there’s always so much in the air with whether or not somebody is going to accept your rental,” Hofmann said. “It’s not like everything solidified, and there’s always so many services that are tacked on at the end of it.”

After some Googling, Hofmann found WeNeedaVacation.com, a vacation-home rental agency that specializes in Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and Cape Cod properties. Talking to local real estate professionals, Hofmann learned that most properties in the area had week-minimum booking requirements, which was why he was struggling to find ideal options for Friday-to-Tuesday rentals.

By adjusting his dates, Hofmann opened up better choices from the site’s 4,000 listings, and he said he ended up with a better rental at a lower price than his original searches had yielded. The local pros were to thank.

Don’t forget travel insurance

Kay Maghan, of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, said many travelers do not purchase trip insurance when staying at beach rentals — and regret that decision if they have to cancel unexpectedly.

“A lot of people don’t realize that vacation rentals are not like hotels. You can’t cancel three days out and get your money back,” she explained.

But don’t choose just any travel insurance: Maghan said that even some vacationers who did pay for the service faced a rude awakening last year when they discovered pandemics were not covered under their policies. Be sure to read the fine print and choose a plan (or upgrade) that fits your risk tolerance.

Travel during the pandemic: