How do you select the best holiday accommodation service for your cottage, cabin, hotel room, guest house or other type of place to stay in Scotland when on holiday?
Well, this depends on what is most important to you. It may be that the location of the holiday house is the first consideration. You may have your heart set on being in the mountains, being by the sea, going to a new Hebridean island or visiting a new city or village.
Or it may be other things like price, star rating, fast Wi-Fi, good reviews by previous customers, a hot tub, accessibility, the handiness of shops or entertainment or local attractions, the number of rooms if your party is large, acceptance of dogs, and so on. The quality of hygiene and the cleaning done in the Covid-19 era is also a consideration.
As both providers of accommodation to tourists and as regular tourists using self-catering houses and hotels ourselves, we have some insight into how guests make choices which work for them. Our guest book and online comment system are full of notes of appreciation of one-off things we would never have guessed are so important. One example – as holiday cottage providers we have several full bookshelves packed with non-fiction and old children’s story books which many families love more than other costlier features of our property. As travellers, we value peace and quiet above all else: not always easy to get though!
Our insight will inform this look at some of the services which we feature on Scotland-holidays.org:
Of course, there are many more services than this, but this selection covers most accommodation options for your guidance.
Comparing providers when some are local and some are worldwide makes no sense unless we analyse like for like, so that is what we will do here. We will do that by seeing what each provider offers for a particular place in Scotland. Our choice for how to choose your holiday accommodation will be Inverness, the capital of the Highlands of Scotland, and its surrounding areas including the famous Loch Ness.
In the old days before the internet you had to find holiday accommodation like self-catering cottages by scanning newspaper classified ads or publications like the Scots Magazine, then phoning the owners, hoping your dates were free, and then hoping the accommodation was up to scratch. Remarkably, this usually worked. In the 1970s a memorable trip took us to a stunning cottage in Diabaig, in the north-west Highlands; the owners moved into a caravan for the summer season to let out their house.
Now of course it is easy to find places online, see which dates are free, view extensive photographs and reviews, and book in seconds. In response, the number of listings available is huge and the accommodation offered is in most cases of much higher quality, whether hired out by the owner or by an agency.
Searching for accommodation
All providers make it easy to find the location you want – just type it into their search box – and to get the dates you need. (Tip: if your dates are flexible, just leave the date fields blank to see all properties available.) As well as listings, you can usually browse a map of all accommodation offered, which is useful to see if the house or cottage is close to a beach (good) or on a main road (may be bad). Remember that having a potential place located accurately on the map allows you to switch to Google Street view either directly or in another independent tab with a bit of detective work: this gives a more objective picture of the property, even if you do not yet have the address. You can then see if there is something like a service station, a MacDonalds, or a pub next door, which may not be what you want. Since Google Street view is not always up to date, be aware that the property may not look the same any longer: considering one property in Glasgow we could only see a garage, but in reality it had been cleverly converted recently to an attractive two-bedroom flat.
Tip: One of the most essential options, if there is any chance at all you will not be able to actually take up your booking in the end, is to look for properties that have free cancellation (for example, see More filters>Booking options in Homeaway). You can also select Instant Confirmation, if you are trying for a last-minute break.
Cottage, self-catering, cabin, guest house, hotel – what do they mean?
First some definitions, and what to expect. There are no official and widely used classifications in Scotland for anything but hotels.
See Which? Guide - What the star ratings mean. https://www.which.co.uk/reviews/uk-hotel-chains/article/hotel-star-ratings-explained
Inverness / Loch Ness
So now we look at what is offered by all the providers in this wonderful part of Scotland, and how their interfaces can help you find the right holiday accommodation.
Entering ‘Inverness’ in their search field will do the trick, with or without required dates. They offer their default results, which, if you don’t apply any filters, will rank properties geographically closest to your search term (in this case Inverness town centre) and also by traveller reviews and ratings, freshness of the listing owner response time and ‘other factors’. You may even see different results on mobile and desktop, for some reason.
It is recommended that you do use their filtering system to get closer to the type of accommodation you want. Otherwise in this case you would have to scroll through about 240 total listings for the town alone. You can search by number of bedrooms, price for the dates you choose, the type of property, if pets are allowed, if there is a hot tub and so on. Their map show the location of all properties, and in this case, if you want to be in a rural area close to Loch Ness, just drag the map down to see a lot of other properties appear (wait a few seconds), especially around the attractive village of Drumnadrochit, close to the famous Urquhart castle on the loch itself.
When you find a property you would consider, check the description as well as the photos. You want to see as full a description as possible before you part with your money, and since this is provided by the owners it gives a good indication of their honesty and commitment to their potential guests. You can also read the guest reviews: pay more attention to the most recent ones, as properties can become poorly maintained and the owners lose interest, especially if the guests come easily. You will look for comments about cleanliness, facilities and furnishings: you don’t want an uncomfortable bed!
If the property has an owner, rather than a manager, the owner’s details are provided, and a way to contact him or her through the Homeaway system – look for the 'Ask owner a question' link. This is very, very useful. If accessibility is critical for you, or you need certain facilities, or you have a question about small children’s safety or similar, make use of this contact facility. When potential guests expressed concern about the fish pond they saw in our photographs, we decided to get rid of it. Most owners treat their rentals as a serious business, and are happy to respond to you. Also, most places now ban parties, so don’t bother asking about those!
They offer self-catering properties which they have inspected, to ensure what the list is of good quality. They cover England, Wales and Scotland.
Searching for Inverness, they list about 35 properties, mostly in the rural areas around the town itself. Moving the map does not show more properties, so one trick you can use is simply to select the dates and house facilities you need, then search for ‘Scotland’ and zoom in on the map to see everything meeting your criteria in the Inverness / Loch Ness area. Since all properties are self- catering cottages or houses there is no property type option, which makes things simpler.
Tip: searching for properties with a hot tub will limit your results a lot! Most properties however have internet access, a garden and an open fire or woodburner – desirable if you are visiting in the colder part of the year, or for skiing.
This site very helpfully notes accessibility, and if the bedrooms and bathrooms are located downstairs, and defaults to showing prices for a 7 night stay, which many owners will prefer in the high season at least.
They use their own star rating system, which can be helpful, and also feature traveller reviews. You can also check the travel time from your home, if that is important to you.
This service aggregates searches from various accommodation providers. It allows you to see a remarkable number of options – over 500 properties in Inverness alone. Types of accommodation include apartments, guest houses, hotels, hostels, bed and breakfast and more. One of the interesting features of their system is that you can filter by district, which is handy if you know your destination already. Culduthel, Dalneigh, Inshes, Inverness town centre, Raigmore and many other suburbs are listed.
You can also filter by the all-important free cancellation option, and by distance of the property from the centre of town.
If you prefer you can view all properties on an interactive map, and select ‘Filter by visible area’ to see only the properties in the area you select.
Searching here for ‘Inverness’ shows a list of not just hotels but many types of accommodation. If you are interested in a house or cottage, just set their filter to ‘cottages’ plus ‘holiday homes’.
One of their main selling points is that most properties have free and easy cancellation, which is important in itself, but more so in our Covid-19 era. Another bonus is that they have a ‘price match’ guarantee, so if you find the same place advertised elsewhere for the same dates they will match that price. You can view extensive photographs and lots of reviews for most of the houses and cottages they list, which is very helpful to get an idea of what to expect.
Their fast-loading map option reveals new properties as you move it, with useful colour-coding for each property icon to show if the place is available for your dates. A lot of thought has gone into the hotels.co.uk design and interface, which we consider to be the best overall for a holiday home search.
Unlike the other services reviewed here, Sykes does not let you search directly by town name, so you have to follow their hardcoded options – Scotland>Northern Highlands> then search for Inverness. This produces a good selection of houses, apartments and cottages for holiday rental. You can filter the results by size and price, and by features like open fire, garden and hot tub. Pet policy for each property is given directly on the listing. They have their own ‘tick’ rating system to compensate for the lack of any national standards for holiday cottage lets.
You can also view your results on a map, and clicking on an icon reveals a thumbnail photo, price and a link to full property details. Because Sykes features only houses and cottages, their listings seem more sparse than other services, but on the other hand they have a focus on what most holiday visitors want. You can check their own selections of properties for smokers, romantic breaks, log cabins, glamping and farm cottages.
Having looked at some providers of holiday accommodation for Scotland, here are some final thoughts about what makes a holiday let really work, based again on our experience as rental cottage owners and as rental accommodation guests.
First and most elementary, has the owner given clear instructions about access? Meaning where to get the key, or where the lock box is located and its PIN? Guests may be driving hundreds of miles, and arriving in the dark, only wanting a shower and to make a meal for the kids after the journey. They don’t want to have to phone someone who lives miles away to clear up confusion about access.
Will the house be clean? Comments and reviews will often cover issues here, so be sure to read them. In the days before modern online booking, in one high summer let we could smell something bad in the kitchen on arrival: previous guests had left a roast in the oven, which had gone off. Such carelessness in cleaning is not acceptable, and the benefit of the services listed above is that user reviews would warn future guests off booking in the first place. When you arrive it’s too late….
Do the cooker and fridge and other equipment actually work, and is there guidance if it is needed? We soon realised some of our guests from overseas had never seen a gas cooker before and had no idea how to even turn it on.
Not everyone is familiar with modern digital devices like TVs and routers: written instruction may be needed. Again, guest reviews will be helpful here.
Is there cellphone reception at the property? In some parts of the Highlands this is not guaranteed, so contact the owner first if there is no information in the listing. Most kids and teens will want to be able to use their phone data, and it will be tears and consternation if they can’t. In one let we used in Sutherland the house had no reception, but you could get one bar if you climbed to the top of the garden. We wrote this in the guest book!
Most rental owners will leave a pile of information in the house covering where the nearest shops are, where to eat out, activities and attractions in the local area and so on, but as every owner is different you can’t rely on this. It is worth doing some of your own research before you leave home.
If there are issues which need to be dealt with, the owner or agent may be in the same locality, or they may be far away: make sure you are clear about contact details. You may never need them, but be prepared.
We hope this information was helpful! Wherever you go, have a great stay! Check our individual pages for the main cities and regions of Scotland from our home page.
Mary and Robert