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In the past year, bunking in people's homes instead of hotel rooms became an increasingly popular choice for holiday accommodations.

Major vacation rental agencies like Airbnb, Craigslist, FlipKey and HomeAway made booking a property by the day or week a habitual choice for travellers looking to live like a local in a residential neighbourhood. But none of these major vacation rental agencies do an adequate job of plotting rentals on a map for quick comparison-shopping, making it difficult to pick out the prime vacation pads and avoid the clunkers.

Thankfully, this problem is being addressed by three new meta-search sites, all of which debuted in 2011. These sites can zero in on an ideal property in a traveller's preferred neighbourhood and plot its location on a mash-up version of Google Maps. They aggregate listings from the major vacation rental agencies, allowing you to get a quick gauge of alternative lodging in any given neighbourhood along with estimated nightly rates. 

Rentmix
Mark Crady, a former Google engineer who was exasperated with the vacation rental market, invented this meta-search site, which streamlines the booking process. Using the site is simple: punch in your travel dates, budget range, preferred type of lodging (such as cottage or townhouse) and required number of bedrooms. The site will reveal on a map the vacation rental vacancies that match your criteria. RentMix includes Airbnb, FlipKey and Homeaway listings in all major cities and towns worldwide.

Tripping
Though this site debuted as a social network for travellers in 2010, Tripping added a "discovery engine" in late 2011 which pulls together listings from vacation rental sites such as HomeAway, FlipKey and Roomarama. This tool -- found by clicking on the "Stay With Locals" link on the homepage -- plots listings on a mash-up of Google Maps. Users can sort the listing results by distance from a preferred location, dates of travel, number of guests, price range and type of property preferred (such as a single room or a whole house). Results include photos and estimated nightly rates.

While Remix relies heavily on the map interface, Tripping also allows users to navigate via a set of detailed property descriptions, presented side-by-side in a way that's similar to what you would see on a major online travel agency site. Click on the properties to be directed to individual agency sites for more information. Properties are available in every major city worldwide.

HousingMaps
This simple site is similar to the other two in that it makes the latest vacation rental listings more relevant and comprehensible by plotting them on a Google Maps mash-up. Its main difference is that it focuses on listings from Craigslist exclusively. Tell HousingMaps your preferred neighbourhood and dates of travel to receive relevant results. Then filter results further by asking to only see listings that include photos. Listings are limited to the United States.

A cautionary note about Craigslist: in Internet time, Craigslist feels old. It’s the granddaddy of listing services for vacation rentals, among various other peer-to-peer transactions, such as obtaining used furniture. Craigslist stands out for how it allows travellers to skip the middlemen of online travel agencies (along with their pesky fees and commissions). But the site comes with a risk, too: you need to watch out for scammers. Use common sense precautions, such as never wire untraceable money to someone via Craigslist.

The verdict
Among these sites, Rentmix is my top pick for its easy-to-understand interface and comprehensive listings. The site lets you click on each map pinpoint in rapid succession, allowing you to view an overview of photos and details about each property without forcing open a new window to visit a travel agency webpage for each listing, a flaw of rival metasearch site Tripping. Rentmix is also more intuitive than Tripping because it has a user design that emphasises its single function, unlike Tripping which is trying to perform multiple services and may not be easy for new users to navigate. With more than 100,000 listings worldwide at any given time, Rentmix also has a more comprehensive selection of rental listings than HousingMaps, which only uses Craiglist as a source for leads.

Sean O'Neill is the tech travel columnist for BBC Travel

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