Our lists include: what to expect and what to do before you book, and tips for planning your trip and finding the perfect cabin.
What To Expect
Before You Book
The 200-odd rental companies all work differently. Learn these general rules. Then when you call, explain what you want out of your vacation. They'll help you choose.
- Individual cabins: You're off to yourself, tucked away in the mountains and probably can't even see your neighbors. These havens are individually owned and decorated--and unique. But remember the Forrest Gump Chocolate Principle: You never know what you're going to get.
- Resort communities: Imagine clusters of cabins--maybe a dozen, maybe hundreds--built and decorated pretty much alike. One central rental office may offer a front desk and 24-hour staff. Some resorts feature community pools, day spas, and wedding chapels. Others feel like neighborhoods where the "homes" are rented out by different companies. Comfortably consistent or cookie cutter? Your call.
- What you'll pay: Prices vary widely--and you get what you pay for. A one-bedroom cabin ranges from $50 to $300 per night (depending on the cabin and season). Many companies rank them: budget, moderate, and luxury, based on size, decor, extras, and view. Our find: a delightful one-bedroom with sauna and private view for $115 a night.
- Seasonal rates: The three main categories are off-season (pay less), in season (more), and peak/holidays (max).
- Length of stay: Most cabins require a two-night stay, though three- or four-night minimums prevail during the peak season and on holidays.
- Hidden fees: Watch out for them, and ask questions before booking. Expect a one-time cleaning fee (from $40 to more than $100). Some companies tack on a reservation charge or a hot tub fee ($25 to $50 each) to drain and clean the tub after you're gone (required by law). It's sneaky, we agree, but common.
- Cancellation policies: Canceling within 30 days usually incurs no penalty. After that, your refund gets docked--the nearer the date, the bigger the charge. Find out before booking.
Planning Your Trip
Plan ahead to nab choice cabins and dates. (Book holidays a year in advance.) Last-minute trips are doable too, but be prepared to make a few trade-offs.
- How to score deals: Save big in the off-season from January through March (except holidays). We saw a $300 luxury cabin drop to $150 in winter. Stay longer in slower months, and get the fifth or seventh night free. Group bookings often earn discounts. Ask about promotions and deals.
- Ways to save: Get more and pay less by sharing a cabin with family or friends. Three couples can afford a swankier property by pooling their cash. Use pullout couches to comfortably accommodate more. (We tested this: One editor squeezed 10 in-laws in a three-bedroom cabin for four days. All survived--and even had summer-camp fun.)
- For big groups: Planning a family reunion, wedding, or big-group trip? Check out the newest trend: mega-cabins. Like private lodges, they generally have 5 to 12 bedrooms and sleep up to 30 people (some claim more). These tend to be newer and jam-packed with luxury amenities.
- What to pack: Coffee filters, extra paper towels, dish soap and laundry detergent, and bathing suits. Ask if you need firewood or charcoal for grilling. We like to take kitchen knives (beware dull loaners) and special cookware (cake pans or cookie sheets).
- When you go: Arrive before dusk. Steep mountain roads with hairpin turns get downright scary in the dark. Shop for groceries at home, because the local markets stay packed.
Pick Your Perfect Cabin
"I would have paid twice what we paid," Scott says. "It was exquisite--the cleanest rental I've ever seen."
Executive Foods Editor Scott Jones thought a Pigeon Forge cabin wasn't his thing--until we sent him to scout a new resort with his extended family. They paid $370 a night (walk-away cost, including taxes and fees) for a three-bedroom luxury cabin. The family split the price three ways for a cost of $123 per couple per night. (We priced rooms at a local Hampton Inn for $130 to $160.)
Follow these easy steps to narrow down your options. We toured the cabins at each operation we recommend. (Remember, though, they vary, and we couldn't scout them all.)
- Step 1: Figure out what you want. Choose a category: Romantic Getaways; Families With Kids; Big Luxury, Big Views; Large Groups; Great Prices; or Something Different.
- Step 2: Pick a location. Each town appeals to a different type of traveler. Determine your desired proximity to outlet malls, attractions, or nothing at all.
- Step 3: Do your homework. Compare at least three Web sites. Take virtual tours, and then call and ask questions. Our list of questions.
Are you a Smokies skeptic? Our picks won over several testers who thought that they didn't love the area. They escaped the traffic, the tourist traps, and the crowds. After one stay, they're fans. Here's why.
- The setting: Sigh-worthy vistas, affordable prices, and family attractions. There's something for everyone. Truly.
- Why you'll love cabins: Spread out, cook, and enjoy perks that please parents, kids, and even picky teens. Cozy fireplaces, grilling on the deck, moonlit soaks in a hot tub--what's not to love? Keep the conveniences of home (such as a washer and dryer), but add views that remind you you're on vacation.
- The advantage: Stretching your dollar. Save by cooking at "home" (or ordering pizza delivery) instead of waiting in line. Enjoy the cabin's entertainment features rather than dragging the group into town. Shoot pool. Watch movies. Share family time. Trust us, you'll relax.
- What you'll find: Not your granny's cabin. We stayed in places nicer than our own homes and found good fits for honeymoons and family reunions alike.
- The average cabin: One to three bedrooms and a full kitchen, with decor ranging from country chic to rustic elegant. Gold standards include fireplaces (gas or wood), a hot tub on the deck, a whirlpool in the master suite, and a fun entertainment feature--pool table, Foosball, or arcade game.
- Extra extras: Luxury cabins sport a designer's touch--leather couches, granite countertops, upscale decor. You might find satellite TV, a video game system, Internet access, sauna, or even a climbing wall. The next trend: movie theaters and indoor pools.