The first time I went to Salt Lake City for a convention, I was in a crappy Econolodge motel with stained carpets, intermittent Wi-Fi, barely working heat, lukewarm hot water, and a lumpy bed.
The next time I stayed in a pristine room with a heavenly mattress, in a craftsman bungalow house in a quiet location, through Airbnb. The Wi-Fi and hot water worked flawlessly and I had a table I could work at.
The interesting thing is, the latter was quite a bit cheaper.
Many hoteliers and the cities that get their marketing funds from them are not at all happy about this. They blame vacation rental units for all the ills they can find in their market, as if all their problems would go away if they could just go back to the good ‘ole days when a hotel was the only option.
Sure, Airbnb is a symptom of many problems, like a lack of affordable housing, the inability for hotels to raise room rates, and even overtourism. Sometimes they may even play a part in making the problem worse. In most cases though, the rise in vacation home rentals is a result of market forces. The apartment rental is just a better value, plain and simple.
When Vacation Apartments Makes Sense
There are plenty of times a hotel is the best bet for where you’re going and the good ones can be excellent spots to roll into to get some work done or be right in the center of the action. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Often though, the vacation apartment, condo, or house is going to meet your needs much better than a hotel will. Here are a few times where you might want to rent through Airbnb, Vrbo, or Flipkey (TripAdvisor rentals) rather than getting a hotel room.
1) If there is a huge price difference.
When I went to find a hotel during another conference, in Salta, Argentina, I couldn’t find anything decent for less than $80 a night. This was a few years ago when the official exchange rate was way out of whack with the street rate. So I went to Airbnb, where the prices were more in line with reality, and paid $31 per night instead with all fees, right in the center of the city. Here’s what places are going for there right now.
In expensive Los Cabos, in Mexico, I had a couple nights in between writing assignments and just needed a place to sleep and get some work done. My wife and I got a nice apartment in San Jose del Cabo in a residential area walking distance to a grocery store and restaurants, about a 25-minute walk from the historic center. In a city where hotel rates are sky-high, we paid $42 per night with all the fees and taxes.
In Queretaro, Mexico we paid less than $40 all-in for a nice apartment there. In La Paz we paid $83 total for two nights at the place you see at the top, with use of that nice courtyard and a much-needed washing machine.
When demand is high and hotels jack their prices up, even the crappiest places like Motel 6 and Super 8 will raise their rates to $150, $200 or more per night, as I found a few times when I attended that Salt Lake City convention. Often you can click over to the vacation rental sites and find a much better deal. I did that on a trip to Washington, D.C. later and shared with a friend. We each got our own bedroom and paid half what we would have at even the crappiest local hotel.
2) When you need more space
A typical hotel room is 200 to 450 square feet and you can probably picture the layout in your head. A bathroom by the entrance, then a narrow long room with one or two beds and a smattering of furniture. You have to step up to a “suite hotel” to get a bedroom door that closes in every room, separating it from the living area.
When you go for a vacation home rental or apartment though, that kind of typical hotel room layout is considered a spare room or a studio. It’s usually the cheapest option, with almost everything else getting larger as you go up in price. This is especially important if you’re traveling with a family: typical hotel rooms aren’t a great option if you’ve got two kids along and luggage for four.
I used Airbnb with my family when vacationing in Puerto Escondido years ago. We paid less than we would have for a very basic hotel, but had two bedrooms and a pool to ourselves. When traveling with a family, it gets old when all of you are sleeping in the same room, sharing the same bathroom. Renting two connected rooms can be inexpensive in some countries–we did that in Thailand and Cambodia a couple times—but often not.
Where I live now in Mexico, there are plenty of cheap hotels around. Most of the cheapies are not very nice though and are understaffed, so you’ll get more room if you rent an apartment or home for the same price.
Airbnb is not the only game around though and there’s often another dominant player or two you should pull up as well. Sometimes you’ll find better deals on the traditional sites like Vrbo. Always go beyond the market leader if you’re not finding a deal that fits your budget.
3) When you want to have a kitchen on vacation
Kitchens aren’t very common in hotels. You usually have to be at a Residence Inn, Embassy Suites, Candlewood Suites, or some other “extended stay” option to get a full fridge and a place to cook–even a microwave.
In the vacation apartments rental space, however, you’ll have a kitchen more often than not. When I balked at the expensive hotel rates in Rio de Janeiro and got a rental apartment with a view instead, there was no stove or oven. I did have a panini maker, a microwave, and a fridge though, so I was good to go. In many other places I’ve rented we’ve had a full kitchen, while in others we have had access to a shared one, hostel-style.
Either way, we could avoid having to eat out at restaurants every single meal and had a place to keep beers or bottles of wine. This can save a small fortune in expenses over the course of a few days.
4) When you want to stay in a real neighborhood instead of a tourist zone
There’s been a clear trend over the last decade to see more of a city like a local does instead of just being around thousands of other tourists. Since vacation rentals by owner are, by nature, in a neighborhood where people actually live, you can avoid the tourist district, the business district, or the roadside mall zones where many mid-range hotels and motels are located.
This often means a more walkable area, restaurants that are priced for locals, and places to go out that aren’t just tourist traps. In some cities, vacation apartment locations can mean a better chance of avoiding predatory taxi drivers and “surge pricing” that plagues the tourist zones.
When a Hotel or Resort Makes More Sense for Your Vacation
I’ve had a few vacation rental stays that weren’t exactly smooth and friends of mine have had some that were downright disasters. One had his laptop and camera stolen in what looked like an inside job. One arrived to find the kitchen sink full of dirty dishes and floors that looked like they hadn’t been cleaned in ages.
Often the description is not fully accurate or it leaves out important details, like the fact you’re sharing a wall with a loud bar that doesn’t close until 3:00 a.m. Or in a place I stayed in Puerto Vallarta, that the apartment doesn’t have air conditioning, just fans.
I like hotels a lot and my job has me reviewing a lot of them. I have had many happy vacations and good business trips while staying in a hotel or resort and sometimes that’s the best option. Here are a few reasons:
1) You are only staying for a night or two
Sure, it can be fun to be in an apartment in a real neighborhood, but much of the time it’s more hassle than it’s worth if you’re only staying for a night or two. You’ve got to deal with getting a key or entry instructions, you’ve got to figure out how everything works, and you can’t just drop off your luggage at the front desk if you arrive early.
For a short stay, a hotel usually makes more sense. The front door is open at all hours, it’s easy to find, and you have a general idea what to expect when you get there. A real human can answer your questions rather than a print-out on the table.
2) You are arriving at an odd time or want to hit the ground running
As mentioned before, hotels are great if your room is not ready: you can store your luggage and take off or just hang out in the lobby until your room is clean. Often I’ve had people booking my company’s Guanajuato tours that start in the morning, but they’re asking me where to put their luggage because they are staying in a rental apartment where they can’t get in until the afternoon. We have to help them find a place to store their bags…at a hotel.
Many times I’ve flown across the world on an overnight flight, arriving in the morning tired and jet-lagged. The last thing I want to do is kill six hours while watching the luggage. When I landed in Bangkok with my family after flying for 16 hours, we were very glad we had booked a hotel. They gave us a place to change clothes, then stored our luggage. We had breakfast and lounged by the pool until we could check in. I’m certainly glad I wasn’t trying to message someone on WhatsApp and finding a place to hang out until the afternoon.
3) There’s no big price advantage
Just as a taxi can sometimes be cheaper than Uber, sometimes a hotel is a much better deal than a rental apartment. I’ve run into this in expensive places like Stockholm, as well as cheapo places like Kathmandu. Sometimes the hotel scene is so competitive, or occupancy is so low, that the hotels are rolling out better deals than apartment owners are.
4) You want big hotel facilities
How many vacation rental places you’ve booked have beach access, giant swimming pools, water slides, a gym, a spa, organized activities, a business center, a game room, or an on-site bar?
Business hotels have facilities that business travelers need, resorts have facilities that vacationers want for fun. There are lots of advantages that come with scale and very few vacation homes or apartments have anything close to the number of entertainment options—unless you are spending thousands of dollars per night.
There’s also something else most hotels and resorts have that you won’t find in Airbnb places: a staff. The do-it-yourself ethos is fine much of the time, but at other times you want someone to wait on you, someone to answer your questions, and someone to bring you a cocktail while you’re doing some serious lounging in the pool chair.
Also, don’t forget that you can get free hotel stays sometimes if you belong to the right loyalty program, especially if you have a credit card from the likes of Hilton. Follow this link to get the Hilton Amex card and you could get three free nights just from the bonus offer.
How about you? Do you rent vacation apartments when on vacation or during your long-term travels? When have you opted for a hotel room instead?