How to Choose Among Hotels, Airbnbs, and More

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Are you pursuing any bucket list items? You can do epic things! Those that involve out-of-town trips can benefit from planning and lodging reservations. Finding the right place to stay is both an art and science. Here I’ll show you how I peruse listings, identify relevant property features, and determine the optimal accommodation based on my goals and budgets.

In the past few years, I’ve visited large cities and tiny towns. While I won’t say I’ve seen it all, I’ve ridden my bike from my city hotel to a bed-and-breakfast in a town with less than 1,000 residents, hopped on the subway or light rail just steps from my accommodations, awoken to sunlight streaming through a window overlooking Puget Sound, enjoyed organic meals at combo corner grocers-diners, and wandered from my apartment during the day to explore a city and then at night to listen to live music. I’ve slept overnight in private homes, condos, and apartments rented through Airbnb as well as VRBO. In addition, I’ve stayed in chain hotels as well as family-run hotels, inns, and resorts.

As a result, I’ve learned the benefits and drawbacks of various types of accommodations. I’ve also learned to ask questions about properties to make sure reality matches my expectations. At the same time, I’ve come to anticipate surprises and enjoy the subtleties of various offerings, whether delayed check-ins and crowded laundry facilities or free watermelon, bottled water, and garages designated for bicycles.

Accommodation Choices

Here are various types of accommodations, their simple yet standout features, and items to consider when making a reservation.

Hotels

Hotels offer standard room types and levels of service, particularly if you visit mid-priced chains. Generally, prices reflect the quality of the rooms and the location. Listings allow you to determine amenities at a glance. That is, you can determine whether breakfast is included in the lodging fee and whether there’s a fitness center. If you scrutinize hotel-provided information, typically you can uncover extra charges like resort fees and charges for parking.

One of the biggest competitive advantages of hotels is the generous cancellation policy, which is usually 24 hours before check-in time. So if I change my mind or something comes up before a trip, I can cancel my reservations without financial pain. To make sure I don’t get charged for a room if I need to cancel, I’ll make sure I don’t elect the no-refund option when booking and confirm the exact cancellation time frame.

Other benefits to a hotel typically include:

  • consistent and easy check-in and check-out processes
  • freedom from check-out chores like emptying the trash or washing sheets
  • concierge services, including luggage storage prior to check-in and following check-out
  • travel reward points accepted for payment
  • shuttle services to the airport and other key destinations
  • no minimum stay requirements

Generally, hotel locations are transparent. So, you can easily determine its proximity to restaurants, stores, and local sites of interest. This feature is an overlooked benefit of hotels, unlike many Airbnb listings that won’t reveal specific locations until after you’ve made a reservation.

Airbnbs

Airbnbs offer you the opportunity to live like a local lives. Rentals tend to be situated in residential areas, which may include suburbs or city neighborhoods. The Airbnb platform offers many lodging choices. These include private rooms in homes, bed and breakfasts, and “entire homes” that may be houses, apartments, or condos. In addition, the site allows you to book experiences, such as outings to nearby national parks.

One of the biggest advantages to using Airbnb is the ability to rent an entire home and accommodate family members and/or friends at a price that’s less expensive than individual hotel rooms. This set-up allows you to spend more time visiting with each other. Further, you’ll likely get access to a kitchen and can save money on meals.

There are a few downsides to Airbnb and its platform:

  • Pinpointing and comparing prices often requires effort. The least expensive per-night price displays in a general search but may increase when you specify dates or return to the site a week or so later. There are also varying philosophies among individual owners in regard to cleaning fees, damage deposits, etc.
  • Cancellation policies tend to be stricter than hotels. The “strict” policy for example requires 50% to 100% of accommodation fees to be paid unless you cancel within 48 hours of booking.
  • A rental may allow a certain number of people but sleeping arrangements may involve an assortment of air mattresses, sofas in common areas, and bunk beds.
  • Access can be tricky and inconsistent. You may need to download apps, enter key codes or use special devices for access to gated areas or buildings, and bring along a key to enter the space.
  • Parking may or may not be readily available.
  • Minimum number of nights are more commonly required with Airbnbs and similar rentals.

Some tips to help you with your selection:

  • Get the full price for your dates before making a decision
  • Pay close attention to cancellation policies
  • Use filters to find rentals with key features including your desired number of bedrooms and review the listing to determine the number and types of beds in each room

Guest reviews are treasure troves of information and insights. They give you a sense of the property’s surroundings, quirks of the space (whether air conditioning is available, for example), unnoticed bonuses (such as concierge services), friendliness and flexibility of the hosts, and its suitability for your needs.

Another positive feature Airbnb is the ability to communicate through the platform so messages are clear. Some owners take conversations offline, particularly when they have special contracts to sign; I haven’t had any problems with this approach but prefer messaging through the platform. In general, though, owners have been responsive, empathetic, and helpful when I’ve expressed concerns before or during my travels.

VRBOs

VRBO spaces are similar to Airbnbs in many ways. In fact, I’ve had Airbnb owners refer me to their listings on VRBO for future bookings. They tell me that extra charges are minimized in the VRBO platform, so I may get a better deal here.

I have more experience with Airbnb but plan to start comparing prices between the two platforms to see if I can save money. When I first used VRBO several years ago, I enjoyed being able to find rentals there. However, at the time, minimum stays tended to be for an entire week instead of a few days. Further, there was little consistency in how information was presented to potential renters so I had to carefully evaluate properties before choosing vacation space.

Today, it’s easy to use VRBO to locate rental properties, gather information on property features, and get help with problems.

The biggest advantage of VRBO is that the listings are for entire homes so you don’t have to scrutinize property details or apply filters to get a private space for yourself and your family or friends. Further, there may be fewer fees so you could save money by booking with VRBO. In addition, the firm has added consumer protections relating to property representations, damage fees, and more.

Still, it pays to scrutinize listings and contracts to determine all costs, review checkout policies that may involve extensive cleaning (a friend rented a place that required guests to wash linens and clean bathrooms), and note cancellation policies.

Bed and Breakfasts

Bed and Breakfasts offer an excellent way to experience local culture and receive personal attention during your travels.

The biggest advantage of the bed and breakfast is that you can receive a home-like stay without the hassle of keeping house. They typically boast common areas where you can enjoy others’ company but retreat to the solitude of your private room when desired. They may have laundry facilities available to guests. Generally, they serve sumptuous breakfasts that may keep you satisfied until a mid-afternoon snack. You don’t have to clean up after yourself or follow an elaborate set of check-out rituals.

Still, there may be extra rules that don’t apply in hotels or other types of vacation rentals, such as strict check-in windows, no small children, and quiet times at night. Further, while European establishments tend to serve breakfast early, those in the United States often serve much later — say 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m. The later times are great if you want to sleep in but may not be as appropriate if you’d like an early start on an outdoor adventure.

Some hosts and hostesses are more flexible with their guests than others. So it pays to review policies, read guest reviews, and ask questions before booking.

Factors in Choosing a Place to Stay

After deciding where I want to go and the general type of experience I’m seeking, I begin evaluating choices. Here’s a rundown that may help when pinpointing the right place to stay.

  • Location: is the space within walking distance of restaurants, grocery stores or markets, sight-seeing destinations, special events, and public transportation? is the neighborhood safe at night (and during the day)? is the area noisy because of construction, trains, planes, barges, or automobiles, or something else?
  • Cost: what are the nightly rental charges and taxes? is a security deposit required? are there cleaning fees? is there a resort fee? what’s the total cost for the time period I want to stay? can I get free coffee? is breakfast included in the price? are there special touches such as free snacks or wine-and-cheese receptions? can I use or earn rewards points for my stay?
  • Cancellation Policies: how strict are the cancellation policies? can I cancel as late as 24 hours before arrival?
  • Extras: are there onsite amenities that may be useful such as common areas, fitness facilities, laundry facilities, luggage storage, concierge services, security, WiFi, onsite restaurants, and shuttle services? can I prepare coffee, breakfast, and other meals in my space?
  • Potential difficulties: is the rental or hotel easy to find? are there any special requirements relating to check-in? what’s the checkout process and is the to-do list for leaving renters long? are there unusual rules beyond no smoking and no parties?

In many cases, I’m traveling to places where I’ve never visited so I’m more careful and studious about my selections. Generally, a prime location trumps other priorities, mainly because staying near activities means I can accomplish easily what I intended by traveling in the first place. Typically, there are trade-offs among factors like convenience, cancellation ease, and cost.

At some point, I realize that travel is an adventure. It’s then that I make a decision and hope for the best. So far, I haven’t been disappointed.

How do you choose a place to stay?

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