I've Booked Almost 100 Rooms This Year — Here's How I Choose Between the Two
Christina's AirBnB in Saigon gave us a warm welcome at our check-in. If you value that warm-and-fuzzy"hygge" feeling, AirBnBs have the edge.
I wasn’t an early adopter to using AirBnBs. It took some convincing for me to try it for the first time. Three years ago my girlfriend (now my wife) convinced me to book one for a trip we took to the Sonoma wine region. The decision was a function of price — all the available Sonoma hotels were above our budget. So we found an AirBnB hosted by a what seemed to be a kind retiree on the outskirts of town who lived alone and was renting out a spare bedroom.
The woman seemed to love being a host, primarily because it provided her a captive audience to wax nostalgic on her two favorite topics: 1. telling and retelling the story of how she went on “the Amazing Race” (she had hung a photographic shrine in the rental room so that guests would ask her about it) and 2. bashing conservatives and “morons from the flyover states” (my entire family are Midwestern conservatives). Looking back it’s surprising that we ever had a second experience with AirBnB. But hey, I’d probably sit through a marathon of that Kardashians show if it meant I’d save money on a timeshare (That reminds me, I need to call back that telemarketer).
In the last seven months, my wife and I have booked 31 AirBnBs and 61 hotels as part of a year-long trip we're taking around the world. We decided to travel for a year on what we’re calling our One-year Retirement. We quit our jobs to use part of our existing savings to travel for a year, and will return to our home base of Washington, D.C., when our year is up, to go back to work and start saving again. This means we’re on a pretty tight budget, and AirBnBs can come in handy to save on lodging. But there are other factors to consider when deciding between travelers’ two biggest options for lodging today.
First, a caveat. If you’ve never used them, you should know that AirBnBs come in three categories:
Entire Home: You are given the keys to the entire apartment/home, ranging in size from efficiency flats to multi-bedroom homes. Nobody else is staying with you and your key is either in a dropbox or you meet the owner at the front step when you arrive. This is like “Weekend at Bernie’s,” without the dead guy.
Private Room: You are given access to a bedroom (and usually some common area like a living room or kitchen) but will be staying in someone else’s home; or sometimes a hotel/hostel layout with a lobby and perhaps a common kitchen. Most, but not all, have ensuite bathrooms. This is like the situation in “Misery,” without the sledgehammer.
Shared Room: You’re sharing a multi-bed room with others. These close confines are similar to many hostels and aren’t for everyone. It’s sort of like “Apollo 13,” without the space travel.
For this checklist, I’ll only be comparing standard four-star hotel rooms to the first option (Entire Home AirBnBs that are one-bedroom), because it’s the most apropos comparison to the privacy and access of a hotel room.
If you value PRICE, lean toward AirBnBs (with a caveat) Generally the price is better for Entire Home one-bedroom AirBnBs than for similarly sized four-star hotel rooms, with some exceptions. For the 31 AirBnBs and 61 hotels we booked over the last seven months, here’s the cost breakdown:
AirBnBs average cost per night: $90
Hotel rooms average cost per night: $116
That’s a difference of $26 per night, making hotels cost 29 percent more than a similar AirBnB per night, which can add up for long-term travelers. While this isn’t a scientific example and we only included the bookings we actually made in each city, not a comparison of prices for a particular city on a particular night, these are real bookings based on our 90-plus purchase decisions and the information we had for each city and town. That means over the course of a year if we only used AirBnBs, we’d have the opportunity to save almost $9,500!
So why didn't we stay in AirBnB's for every stop? Before you throw out your hotel rewards membership card, know that each city is a unique market, and in several cities we found that the ratio of AirBnB listings in comparison to hotel rooms sometimes meant that hotels were at the same price or even less expensive. To check, we would research desirable neighborhoods and found available rooms using both hotel aggregating sites and AirBnB.com. If prices are the same between hotels and AirBnBs, we’d book a hotel (because we valued hotels on the other factors described below). If the AirBnB price was 10-20% less expensive, we’d book an AirBnB that was to our liking.
If you value RESPONSIVENESS, book a hotel The great thing about hotels is no matter when you arrive, there’s a (hopefully) smiling front desk clerk to immediately check you into your room, or to take your bags if you’re too early for check-in. This is more iffy with an AirBnB.
For example, after a five-hour train ride to Berlin, we lugged our bags on the tram and through the streets, arriving at the front door of our Berlin AirBnB at nearly 10 p.m. But the owner was running late, and we ended up waiting another 30 minutes for him to arrive and let us in. This can be frustrating after a long day of travel. It only happened to us a few times using AirBnB, but it’s basically impossible for this to happen at a hotel.
Add to that the availability of the front desk or room service with a phone call, and hotels clearly have the edge. While more than 90 percent of the AirBnB hosts have been extremely responsive when I’ve contacted via the AirBnB app before and during my stays, you can’t beat 24-hour service that’s a phone call or front desk away.
Of note, with AirBnB you can search for only locations with self check-in, which eliminates these delays. But we’ve found that usually eliminates about 75 percent of your options, as most hosts want in-person check-in to see you before they check you in — I assume to ensure we’re not more people than we say we are (they usually charge additional fees when you have go above their allotted number of renters per bedroom.)
If you value AMENITIES, it’s a toss-up but some research will help If you just threw a dart at listings of hotels and AirBnBs, the hotels would usually have more amenities, as the hotel room market is more standardized than AirBnB listings. But today’s hotel aggregator sites and the AirBnB.com search function both allow for searches for the specific amenities you need.
For our hotel search, we filter to ensure we’re checking prices only on rooms with free wifi (which we’ve found is pretty much standard now). For AirBnB searches, it’s a much more varied marketplace — you can’t assume the listing will have standard hotel options like air-conditioning and a TV. But the AirBnB search function allows for this filtering. For example, we’d only search AirBnB screening for locations with wireless internet, a washer, a dryer, air conditioning, TV and a kitchen. The kitchen, washer and dryer help us save additional money on our yearlong trip, allowing us to make our own breakfasts and do our own laundry.
If you value YOUR TIME, get a hotel With hotel aggregator sites and especially with quick-purchase options like the HotelTonight app, you can book a standard hotel room with just a few clicks and know your price is probably pretty close to the market average. If you want to save money, it’s going to take some time slogging through the hotel vs. AirBnB marketplace, identifying potential alternative lower-cost-yet-still-safe neighborhoods and possibly emailing back-and-forth to AirBnB hosts about their incomplete listing, because they failed to mention whether the location has free parking, or whether what looks like an appliance in the grainy photo is indeed a washer you’re hoping to use.
AirBnB’s confusing pricing adds to this complexity. The per-night price on AirBnB’s search results and map search listings doesn’t include extra charges or discounts that you’ll see included in the final total when you’re ready to book. This could add even more time to your search if you have to scrap a potential booking with a surprise final price tag.
If you value LIVING LIKE A LOCAL, AirBnB has the edge It makes sense that you’re more likely to live in a residential area via an AirBnB than a hotel. For some travelers, this gives them a sense that they’re experiencing a new city as the locals do — going just around the corner to the neighborhood bodega, the quaint bistro or the trendy wine bar, instead of the hotel bar or the Hard Rock Cafe across the street. Some travelers feel they’re also more likely to interact with other locals this way. While I think you can have a great local experience no matter where you stay, we certainly felt like we were residents of Buenos Aires for the two weeks we stayed at an AirBnB exploring our surrounding Palermo neighborhood.
If you value BEING HYGGE, AirBnB has the edge Assuming that hygge — the recent fad of feeling uber-cozy — is still a thing, then you’re more likely to get those warm fuzzies with an AirBnB than a hotel. We’ve met so many AirBnB hosts who clearly were going out of their way to create a unique and comfortable experience for their guests, and were willing to put in the extra time, effort and costs necessary to do so. In Christina’s Ho Chi Minh AirBnB, upon our arrival, our host sat us down with watermelon slices and tea and talked through the city’s best tourist spots as well as some hidden gems to eat and drink. The "welcome Jim and Megan" sign in the front lobby sure made us feel at home as well. In Auckland, the host Dawn greeted us at the door with a bottle of wine, and walked us through her amazingly well-appointed art deco apartment, which included a refrigerator with milk, eggs, bread and even a chocolate bar. At Rod and Chun’s secluded Australian AirBnB, while we were enjoying our complimentary breakfast on the deck, a Rosella parrot landed on the fence beside us to check on our meal. That does not happen at the Radisson.
In travel planning, inertia can be a powerful force, and before this yearlong trip I would typically use a single hotel search site or hotel loyalty program to find my hotel room. But this year of travel has taught me that a little research can go a long way. If you can prioritize what is most important in your stay needs, it can make your decision easier and result in a less expensive and more interesting travel experience -- those are two travel priorities we can all agree on.
I'd love to hear your experiences and decision process for staying at hotels, AirBnBs, and even hostels, bed-and-breakfasts or other options, so please comment below. And to my friends and family reading this: if you decide you’d like to use AirBnB for the first time, go to this link to start your account for your first AirBnB booking. If you decide to book a room I’ll receive a voucher for $20 off my next stay. Think of it as giving me a thank you for giving you this free checklist! A classic win-win! (And no, I’m not being paid by AirBnB to write this post.)