When it comes to lodging, the options are overwhelming. Boutique hotel? Cottage on a beach? Apartment in a city? Old barn-turned-log-cabin in the mountains? Holiday Inn with free breakfast and a view of the ocean? Vacation rental or hotel? Which route do you go?
First, by "vacation rental" I mean a place that you can rent directly from owners or property managers. We're talking apartments, houses, villas, condos. Our family has rented them in Germany, Japan, the US, Canada, Italy - okay, all over the place. We've also stayed in hotels (chains and indies) all over as well. Our family and preferences have changed over the years, and now we don't take a trip without considering the major pros and cons.
If you're not considering these 10 factors, you might be missing out.
Vacation rental pros/Hotel cons:
1. Location (often, that is)
When we’re hunting for lodging for our upcoming trips, location is our first consideration. Vacation rental locations run the gamut, but we’ve found that in terms of bang-for-buck, we can get better pricing on a rental in the location we’re after. Also, when it comes to finding a place to stay in a picturesque small town or other off-the-beaten path locale, hotel rooms can be hard to find at any price. We've found the same to be true in historic European cities like Vienna, where the city center was built long ago and there's no room for massive hotel blocks.
Example: We recently took our family of 5 to Southwest Utah to enjoy Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park, two particularly fantastic national treasures. Because the driving distance between them is less than 90 minutes, it’s easy to visit both in the same weekend, especially if you stay somewhere in between.
But what lies between these two National Parks? Almost nothing. It’s rural Utah. Our solution: this cute little place, a barn-turned-2-bedroom cottage that cost us around $100 per night and housed the five of us comfortably.
There are definitely places worldwide where a hotel's location wins out over vacation rentals. For this reason we always recommend doing as much research as possible. You never know what you might find. Maybe you need a hotel that's on public transportation route or offers a shuttle to the airport. Perhaps you're wanting something right on the ocean, and a hotel is your only option. There are tons of scenarios where hotels will have the edge on location.
In our experience, there’s nothing worse than a long-term stay in a hotel room when your party is larger than two people. When it comes to square footage, vacation rentals almost always win.
What does a hotel room generally offer? A room with two beds and an attached bathroom. If you’re lucky, you’ll also get a dorm-room fridge and a tiny coffee maker.
Vacation rentals? They vary widely, but for a similar price to a single hotel room you’ll generally get a bedroom or two, a living room, and (our favorite) a kitchen. The units often have laundry facilities as well. The rental owners/hosts generally stock the kitchen with all the dishes, silverware, pots and pans that guests will need to prepare and serve basic meals. This is huge for us!
Consider, too, the benefits of shared space when traveling with friends or extended family. Would you rather spend time as a group in a living room, dining area, and kitchen? Or crowd into someone’s hotel room and play a board game on someone’s bed?
Many hotels do offer 2- and 3-bedroom options with small kitchenettes, and we definitely appreciate those options. However, they tend to be pretty pricey.
3. A kitchen
I briefly mentioned this for #2, but it merits its own category. When small kids are involved, nothing beats a kitchen. Kids are hungry (ALWAYS AND FOREVER) and having a spot to whip up an early morning breakfast or pre-bedtime snack is crucial for everyone's vacation happiness. As much as we enjoy eating out when we're traveling, the option to cook is so helpful. Sometimes the kids are tired and crabby. Sometimes we want to save a few bucks. Sometimes we're staying in the middle of nowhere (like rural Utah) and the nearest restaurant is 40 minutes away. The kitchen comes in handy so often!
Because we like to travel a lot and don’t have unlimited resources, the price is a major consideration.
So is a rental actually less expensive than a hotel room? It depends.
First of all, you have to compare apples to apples. Are you looking at the price between a luxury 4-bedroom rental and a budget hotel? Obviously the budget hotel will win. If you’re a solo traveler and are looking for a simple, inexpensive stay, a hotel is a great option. You can find great deals online on all sorts of websites.
But for us, we’re a family of five. We do all kinds of price comparisons with each trip we take, and the vacation rental option is always comparable in price to what we’d pay at a hotel. And if a Courtyard by Marriott will cost us $150 per night, and a 2-bedroom condo (of similar location, etc.) costs us $165, we’ll choose the condo every time. We place a high value on our sanity.
And often our party is larger than five. We travel with our parents, other extended family members, and friends. When you’re talking two (or more!) hotel rooms vs. one rental, the rental is almost always more cost effective.
Example: We recently visited Disneyland with Josh’s parents (7 of us total) and rented a 3-bedroom, 2.5 bathroom condo from Airbnb that was a 5-minute walk from Downtown Disney.
$272 per night x 4 nights + $100 cleaning fee= $1,188
The comparable hotels near Disneyland (with 2 rooms per night booked):
Fairfield Inn (3 stars): $189 per night x 2 rooms x 4 nights = $1,512
Courtyard by Marriott (3 stars): $389 per night x 2 rooms x 4 nights = $3,112
5. Live like a local
Another positive aspect of using vacation rentals is the opportunity to enjoy a more authentic experience instead of being sequestered behind the doors of a hotel. When you go the vacation rental route, you act less like a tourist, and more like a resident. You’re less dependent on restaurants, more likely to grocery shop and cook, more likely to live in a community of local residents. In short, it’s homey. When you walk out of your front door, you might pass school children or mail carriers or regular folks headed into work. A hotel? You're surrounded by other tourists and hotel staff.
This is especially true for international travel. In my experience, a hotel stay in Argentina feels almost identical to one in Tokyo. But choosing vacation rentals around the world has allowed us to get an intimate peek into the local lifestyle, culture, and architecture that we would have otherwise missed.
6. Unique charm
Suburban house and pool? Sure. Italian Villa on the Mediterranean? No problem. House boat? High rise? Garage apartment? Something historic? We stayed in the most adorable house from the 1600's a couple of years ago in Germany, complete with super low ceilings and wonky twists and turns. We were totally enamored, and have such fond memories of our stay. The landlord called us each evening for the next day's bakery order, and we always woke up to find fresh buns at the front door. Not to mention we were staying in a tiny town along the Mosel River with no hotel around for miles. Vacation rentals offer all of these kinds options AND MORE. Search away - you'll be amazed at what you can find. We're headed to a castle in the North of England this month!
The stove at our Kyoto rental talked to us cheerfully in Japanese when we switched it on. Local baked goods and a bottle of wine awaited us when we arrived at our rental in Dingle, Ireland. These tiny details make for such fond memories.
Okay, how about the other side? As much as we dig our vacation rentals, there is definitely a case for choosing a hotel from time to time. We do it regularly!
Hotel pros/Vacation Rental Cons
Vacation rentals are homes, and daily housekeeping isn’t usually part of the deal. In our experience, a cleaning staff comes in before your arrival and after you leave, but not during your stay. For some rentals, additional maid service is available for an extra fee.
Vacation rentals generally don’t offer room service. However, with a kitchen on site it’s never been a huge deal for us. However, if you're headed to Cancun and want the all-inclusive resort perks, an Airbnb won't be the direction you go.
Vacation rentals are also unlikely to offer luxury treats like spa treatments and on-site golf courses. However, many of them do offer pool/beach access, sporting opportunities, and more -- just do your research!.
8: Check in
The most challenging part of renting vacation homes, in our experience, is getting into them! There’s no 24-hour front desk. By contrast, we’ve experienced a number of different ways that property owners and managers give us access to the place: a lockbox, a meet-up, or a code lock on the door. Some hosts have met us to show us around personally, while others have called or texted.
In our years of renting homes in the US and abroad, we’ve had overwhelming success and very few problems.
However, there was a time in Italy when we couldn’t get ahold of our host. We called. We waited outside of a restaurant. We didn’t speak Italian and wondered if we got our wires crossed. We waited some more. We wondered if we’d need to scramble for backup, overpriced lodging. It was stressful.
As it turns out, the host’s motorcycle’s tire had sprung a leak and her cell phone battery died. All was well eventually and we got into our rental house an hour after we’d planned. Not ideal, but not the end of the world.
Thankfully, vacation rental companies like Airbnb have excellent customer service policies and work hard to ensure their customers have great experiences. There's just added risk and headache when things go awry or wires get crossed.
9. It's a small group or you're solo
We so often have kids in tow that rentals like Airbnb are usually no-brainers. But when it's just the two of us, a hotel stay can be a nice treat! Who needs a full kitchen or separate room when you're alone or with one other person?
10. It's just a night
If we're just looking for a quick spot to sleep for a night on a road trip or before we fly out the next morning, a hotel always works. Many vacation rentals require a 3-night stay at a minimum, so you may not even be able to book one if you tried. And it's generally not worth the hassle of check-in if our stay is so brief, so we pile all five of us into two double beds and hope for the best.
So where does that leave us? Well, obviously, it all depends. There are definitely times we'll choose a hotel stay, and be perfectly happy with our choice. While each traveler has their own preferences, we generally choose to rent a place (generally a house, apartment, or condo) instead of booking a hotel room. The space and kitchen just win out in our stage of life. And we usually use Airbnb, or Booking.com.
What about you? What is your family's vacation preference? Would you choose a vacation rental or hotel for your next trip? Luxury? Bargain basement? Is anyone out there a Bed & Breakfast aficionado? (TELL ME MORE) A Hampton Inn junkie? A whiz at finding the best hotel deal online?
Also, if you're new to Airbnb you can get $40 off of your stay with if you click here!