Thousands of people are used to doing this locally, say, at the Jersey Shore, but it's not always the first option that comes to mind when you're going somewhere new. In reality, renting a house can be an affordable and roomy choice almost anywhere.
An internet search for "Rental Homes" in the area in which you're planning to stay will get you started. These days, most rental properties are offered by real estate agencies with full service websites. Each home will usually be listed with pictures of every room and multiple exterior shots that show any decks, pools, hot tubs, and scenic views. Seasonal prices will be listed, but you may have to email the dates you want and wait a day or two for a response as to availability. The better websites also give you a map to show the home's location and proximity to sites. Often times, we've found that a rental house accommodated our family of five for less money than it would've cost to buy two hotel rooms. Plus, with a full kitchen, it's possible to save money by eating-in for part of the visit. Most rental homes require more than one night's stay, though, which can limit the ground you can cover while visiting a given area.
Dealing with agents
I prefer dealing with rental agencies over individual home owners, since an agency with many properties will likely have multiple openings and won't necessarily be married to one specific house over another. Once you establish an email string with an agent, it's often possible to strike up a relationship that allows you to express your biggest desires/concerns, which can help match you up with the best fit. We once rented a house in Sea Ranch, along the Pacific coast of California, north of San Francisco. The properties all looked great online, but when I mentioned to the agent that cleanliness was a big issue with us, she steered us away from one home because the upkeep was not as good as the photos suggested. For a little extra, we got an excellent, spotless rental that was only a 20-minute walk from an ocean rock loaded with harbor seals. On another occasion, an agent helped us find a newer rental on San Juan Island, near Seattle, which was not a water view, but was within the price range we desired. It was spotless, and only a ten-minute drive from "Whale-Watching State Park", which made it perfect, given what we were willing to spend. In both cases, giving the agent a clear idea of priorities like price, location and cleanliness, made the transaction better.
Condos are also worth looking into, although the old adage about apartment buildings comes to mind: "A building is only as clean as its dirtiest tenant." In other words, bugs can be a problem. But overall, we've had success with this. In particular, we've had good experiences renting condos at ski resorts, during summer travel through mountainous areas. These places are usually fairly high-end and clean, but summer rental prices are cheaper. One-night stays are often allowed, too, in case you're just passing through, and the units are quiet since it's the off-season. Yet, some of the restaurants in the "ski village" are usually still open to serve the passing traveler, and it's often possible to take a ride on a ski lift during the day for a bird's eye view of the surrounding mountains, an added "fun" activity for kids to anticipate and enjoy.
The Bad and the Ugly
However, when it comes to renting private residences, I also have some horror stories. Not all agents will reveal everything about a rental, and it's worth hunting down some reviews of specific homes, if you can find them. I would be especially careful in tropical, southern locations, where bugs are more of a common fact of life. I once rented a house in Bermuda that was overrun with ants. Eventually, some large roaches showed up at night, and we ended-up moving everybody to a hotel. In Hawaii, I rented a condo and one house with no problems, but when we got to a second house on the "rain forest" side of Maui, we found empty beer cases stacked 20 high by the car port, and a house over run with mosquitoes. Again, we evacuated to a hotel. The lesson here is two-fold. First, don't automatically go for the least expensive house, even if it looks great online. There's usually a reason it's less. Second, be prepared to pay more money if you have to bail. In both of the above cases, the real estate agency or home owner agreed to reimburse some or all of our money, and the hotels we tracked down gave us great, last-minute deals. But they were more expensive than the houses, which put us over budget, and we wasted a few hours of what should have been relaxing down-time, frantically searching for alternative lodgings.
In summation, rental houses can be a great deal, or a nightmare and it definitely takes more attention and a risk taker's spirit to pull this off. Most of our rental experiences, from California, to South Dakota, have been favorable. But the few times the deal has gone sour, it's gone very sour, usually because of bugs. In fact, if there's one thing I would stress to any rental agent, it's the bug issue. Beat the drum loudly on that one, and it might help you get into a house with fewer issues.