Should You Book An Airbnb Or A Hotel in 2023?

Airbnb is an attractive option for travelers, especially when the list prices are held up against hotel costs. But which is really the better choice?

By Meghan Wentland | Published Sep 21, 2023 12:18 PM

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Airbnb vs. Hotel

Photo: istockphoto.com

Everybody has their preferences when it comes to traveling. Some people prefer the luxury of a five-star hotel, while others enjoy the simplicity of a clean, well-known chain. Others travel hoping for the comforts of home in a new or exotic location. The style a traveler prefers will determine both the destination and the type of lodging that fits best. Hotels, motels, and bed-and-breakfast inns used to be the only consistent options for lodging, but Airbnb changed that landscape by providing a platform for individual homeowners to rent out their personal space to travelers interested in a less-formal, more homelike experience. Initially (and currently, in some cases) Airbnb rentals were less expensive than their chain or luxury hotel counterparts, but as the online rental marketplace has heated up, costs have risen. In addition, corporate management companies have spotted the opportunity in the online rental market and seized it, buying up large numbers of properties to rent as Airbnbs.

For a time, it seemed as if everyone was staying at an Airbnb when they traveled (while simultaneously looking up how to become an Airbnb host and earn extra income), but some people had legitimate concerns about safety and reliability. Others simply preferred the consistency of a hotel stay (along with not having to do dishes!). When comparing Airbnb vs. hotel stays, which comes out on top? A lot depends on the preferences of the customer.

How We Compared Airbnb vs. Hotel Stays:

Airbnb vs. Hotel

Photo: istockphoto.com

  • Length of stay: Long-term and short-term travelers have different needs when they consider lodging, and costs for longer stays can quickly mount up. We examined the cost considerations for both long-term and short-term stays along with the pros and cons for each duration.
  • Pricing and fees: Budget is always an element when planning travel. Both Airbnb and hotel stays have up-front costs along with some expenses that may not be as obvious, so we considered the value of each option.
  • Safety and security: Nobody wants to worry about their safety while traveling, but there are real concerns to consider. We looked at the safety and security considerations and the strategies implemented by the two industries to address them.
  • Location and convenience: When traveling, most people want to stay close to attractions or conveniences. We looked at the proximity of hotels and Airbnbs to desirable places to visit, such as restaurants, grocery stores, and attractions.
  • Amenities: What is provided to make a guest’s stay more comfortable and convenient? Airbnbs and hotels provide different benefits and amenities, so we considered how those offerings might affect a guest’s stay.
  • Privacy: While most travelers know they’ll have to engage with others (and sometimes that’s the point of travel!), nobody wants to be on display all the time. We investigated the privacy options—or lack thereof—at hotels and Airbnbs.
  • Flexibility: Plans can change unexpectedly at the last minute, and the ability to change or postpone a reservation can make or break a trip. Hotels and Airbnbs have different policies on cancellations, reschedules, and refunds.

Airbnb vs. Hotel: Length of Stay

When travelers are choosing between an Airbnb and a hotel, the length of the trip can help them determine the best option. How does Airbnb work? Airbnbs can be convenient for a short stay, but where they really shine is for the longer-term trip, especially if the guest plans to stay for longer than a week or two. Many hosts offer significant discounts or free nights for travelers planning a long-term Airbnb stay—even a stay as long as a few months. Plus, guests who plan to live away from home for a lengthy period will most likely enjoy the sense that they’re staying in a home, instead of a boxy, sterile-feeling hotel room. A comfortable living space means guests can spread out, unpack, and really relax into the space rather than feeling like they need to tidy up before housekeeping arrives. The cooking facilities in Airbnbs make it possible for travelers to shop at a grocery store and prepare their own meals, saving on meal costs and likely resulting in healthier meals, and as many Airbnbs have laundry facilities, it’s more convenient to handle day-to-day chores at an Airbnb than at a hotel. Long-term hotel stays, even at long-term-stay hotels, can become very expensive very quickly: While many hotel chains offer their members discounts on additional stays, they don’t often offer savings on extra nights. And all that room service and restaurant dining can add up fast.

For shorter trips, however, hotels make a lot of sense. They’re easy to check into, provide clean accommodation with little effort—who wants to make the bed or wash dishes during a short stay?—and are often less expensive for a few nights than an Airbnb. Hotels are usually conveniently located near a variety of restaurants and eateries, and there’s no need to spend a lot of time at the end of a short stay collecting belongings from all over the residence; hotel rooms are compact and keep all of a traveler’s things in close quarters for easy departure.

Verdict: Airbnb can be a solid option for long-term stays, and the company may offer discounted rates for extended stays. On the other hand, hotels are often the better choice for short-term stays such as weekend getaways or business trips.

Winner: Tie

Airbnb vs. Hotel: Pricing and Fees

A quick search through Airbnb’s offerings in any given town will show per-night costs that will make a budget-conscious traveler’s heart sing. But before getting too excited, customers will need to click a few more times to see how much the accommodation will actually cost per night. There are a raft of charges applied to that first-glance “per night” price. First, travelers will want to check to see if there’s a minimum night stay. If a customer only needs to stay for 2 nights and there’s a 3-night minimum, they’ll find themselves paying for an unnecessary night to get the 2 nights they need. Next, they’ll need to look at the taxes. Many municipalities and states have written rental-tax requirements into their laws to both take advantage of the income that taxes on Airbnbs can bring in and to keep the number of Airbnbs in their area under control. Those taxes can significantly increase the total cost. Then, even though guests are expected to leave the Airbnb clean, there’s the dreaded cleaning fee. The fee makes sense on the surface: Airbnb hosting is a risky business, as these accommodations are often people’s personal homes opened up to strangers. Assessing a cleaning fee allows hosts to thoroughly clean the Airbnb between each stay. And for the assurance they’ll be protected if a guest causes significant damage, they can purchase a policy from one of the best airbnb host insurance companies.

On the other hand, it might feel a little insulting for customers to be charged a cleaning fee and also be expected to clean. The cleaning fee is generally a fixed amount, rather than a per-night charge, so it can seem quite reasonable for guests staying for a week or longer. For those staying only 1 or 2 nights, though, the amount can be astronomical. The fee is not set by Airbnb—it’s set by the owner—but it’s not displayed clearly until the guest is in the process of booking the accommodation. Another surprise is the Airbnb service fee, an administrative fee that Airbnb charges to cover the cost of running its business. This fee can be paid by the host, split between the host and the guest, or passed along entirely to the guest by the host at the host’s discretion.

As some of the best Airbnb alternatives have gained strength and placed direct pressure on Airbnb’s fees and transparency, Airbnb has worked to manage customer demand for clarity. Airbnb has recently added a toggle button that will display the total price per night—not including the local taxes. The button can be difficult to find, and while it’s helpful, it still doesn’t include local taxes. The lesson here is that if a property looks enticing, the guest will want to click a few more times to get to the booking page and look at the total cost for the stay before falling in love with a rental that’s outside their budget.

While this might sound like a lot of work to find out the price of a stay, customers will want to note that hotels tend to play the same pricing games, except that the cleaning fee is already woven into the cost of the room. Most hotel websites do not include local taxes in their initial pricing, and some don’t even post the taxes on the booking page. Some hotels also tack on a “resort fee.” This fee may seem reasonable at an actual resort, where drinks are provided in common areas, towel service is provided at the gym and the pool, and there are waitstaff and concierge staff at every turn to provide service. But many hotels that now charge this fee don’t really feel like resorts: The rack of damp towels at the pool and table of bottled water in the lobby, while convenient and nice to have, don’t seem to justify the extra fee. Using a hotel booking site can help travelers compare prices and amenities between different options—customers can read Booking.com reviews to see if booking a hotel is a good option.

How does this all balance out? In general, travelers may find an Airbnb that appears to cost a bit less than a traditional hotel at first glance, though the additional fees on both sides can jumble up the cost comparison somewhat. That said, when the total costs are determined, the general quality of an Airbnb that costs the same as a hotel will typically be higher, with more amenities, more space, and finer finishes. The real clincher is for groups traveling together. Many Airbnbs offer multiple bedrooms, and some can sleep a huge number of people. Hotel rooms generally max out at four guests per room. The fact that the cost of an Airbnb can be split among a large number of people ultimately makes it a considerably less costly option for families or groups traveling together; a group of three couples traveling together would need three hotel rooms, but the same group could rent one large Airbnb for the same cost per night as one hotel room and split the cost three ways.

Verdict: Travelers with a limited budget will likely find affordable accommodations through Airbnb either by staying in a shared house or opting for a home with full kitchen amenities to save on food costs; however, Airbnb usually charges cleaning and service fees that can bump up the price. While it’s possible to find cheap hotel rooms, travelers may find the quality lacking when compared to Airbnbs at similar price points.

Winner: Airbnb

Airbnb vs. Hotel

Photo: istockphoto.com

Airbnb vs. Hotel: Safety and Security

A feeling of safety and security is critical to being able to relax and enjoy the surroundings, especially when travelers are in an unfamiliar area. Because Airbnbs and hotels are by nature different types of accommodations, the safety policies and protocols are also dissimilar, and this can make some guests feel uneasy.

There is always someone on duty at a hotel, usually at the front desk or in a hotel reception area, and in some cases hotels have security officers as well. Hotels are also usually well covered by security cameras in public areas and have established safety protocols that have been in place for years and are well rehearsed. In addition, there is really never a time when a guest can’t reach someone from the hotel: If for some reason the front-desk employees are not responsive, the guest can call the hotel’s corporate guest services line and speak to a representative immediately. For security, in-room safes protect guests’ electronics, jewelry, and other small valuables. If an item is stolen from a hotel room, guests may have some recourse via the hotel’s management.

Hotels are governed by state and local laws regarding cameras in private areas, and they recognize that any violation of these laws will result in very public charges and notoriety that will damage business at all of their locations and tarnish the company’s image, which is a strong incentive to follow those laws. The security on room doors in reputable hotels is also generally strong: While the housekeeping staff and front desk do have passkeys that will unlock the main door lock, the bolt and hasp or chain security protects guests from unexpected entry or surprise drop-ins. And barring the very unusual fluke of a desk agent’s failure to deprogram a card, the previous guest will not have access to the space simply by virtue of failing to return a key.

Airbnbs are actually someone’s home or privately owned space, which really means that it’s harder to determine a property’s security. Unless a guest has developed a relationship with a particular host by staying with them several times, there’s no certainty at all about what condition the facilities are in or what security protocols are in place. The windows may not lock, the doors may feel flimsy, and the previous guest may still be walking around with the key. The owner, with whom guests may have spoken once or twice, also has a key. Some guests are comfortable with this openness, while others are not. It’s also important to remember that not all Airbnbs are whole-house rentals; some are partial, which means there’s a private space that the guest has rented along with some shared space, usually a kitchen or bathroom. While there are certainly shared spaces in hotels, there’s also on-site monitoring and security in those shared spaces that Airbnbs don’t have, so for some travelers a partial-space rental may feel too insecure to be relaxing. Airbnbs do not generally have safes available for the guests to use, and the unknown access to the property means that guests will want to keep closer track of their valuables, because there’s no recourse if something is lost or appears to have been stolen other than filing a police report.

Another significant factor: Local laws vary on the legality of security cameras inside an Airbnb. Some areas allow cameras in the gathering spaces of the home but restrict their use in bedrooms and bathrooms. Other areas have no laws governing cameras at all. Airbnb’s policy allows cameras in common or gathering spaces but not private spaces, and it also prohibits them in common spaces that may be used as a sleeping space, such as a living room with a sofa bed. The policy also specifies that no cameras can be concealed in any way—any camera must be on display and disclosed. But this possibility is something that many renters may find disquieting.

Guests staying at an Airbnb will want to familiarize themselves with their potential hosts prior to making a reservation. They can read the reviews left by previous guests about the responsiveness and accessibility of the hosts or their proxies (if they’re using one of the best Airbnb management companies) to make sure they’ll be available in the event of a problem or question during a stay. They may also want to consider communicating with the host before reserving to make sure the communication lines are open. This is especially important for international rentals, where language or customs may be a barrier, because once the reservation is made and the guests are in residence, there isn’t a 24-hour front desk to call. Airbnb does have guest emergency lines in case of a true safety emergency, but that’s not an ideal solution. By making contact and building a communication foundation with the host, guests can plan ahead to avoid some of the problems that can be unsettling when renting from an individual rather than an established hotel.

Verdict: Hotels typically offer 24/7 front-desk services, so guests can easily reach someone if they have a safety or security-related question or concern. Airbnb hosts, however, are usually not reachable at all hours, so guests may need to wait to explain their safety concerns, or, in the event of an emergency, rely on local government service.

Winner: Hotel

Airbnb vs. Hotel: Location and Convenience

Before making a reservation, guests will want to determine where they want to stay. Do they prefer to be in the heart of a downtown or tourist area with lots of shops, sights, and restaurants close at hand? Or is a quiet, sleepy neighborhood away from the hustle and bustle of the target location more suitable? Perhaps the idea is to blend in and feel as though it’s not a vacation—just an opportunity to live, for a short time, somewhere else. For long-term renters, experiencing life in a new neighborhood or town may be the goal. The answers to these questions will determine whether a hotel or an Airbnb will be in the ideal location for travel.

Hotels need to fill their rooms, which means they’re usually located close to attractions, business centers, transportation hubs, and anywhere tourists will travel or businesses will hold conferences. This makes them ideal for travelers who plan to see some sights, have some great meals, and get away from their everyday lives—or who need a quick in and out for a business stay. These locations also often make hotels ideal for travelers who are flying in and don’t plan to rent a car, especially because hotels often provide shuttle service to and from airports or train stations.

On the other hand, travelers who are excited about blending into the local culture and want to integrate into the “real” neighborhoods of an area will find that Airbnb meets those preferences more completely. Rather than being set apart in a busier area with other travelers and tourists, Airbnbs are often tucked into regular neighborhoods among people simply living in their homes. As a result, guests at an Airbnb have the opportunity to walk through the area, visit local shops and eateries that are off the tourist track, and find out where the locals go for really good seafood or the best handmade gifts instead of relying on guidebooks and websites. Longer-term guests will be able to truly integrate into the area and meet area residents to experience the locale in a deeper way.

The best option for each individual traveling party, then, will depend largely on what kind of travel is ideal for them: Both Airbnb and hotels have great locations and opportunities depending on what guests are seeking.

Verdict: Hotels are often found in central locations, while Airbnb listings tend to be within neighborhoods. This can make hotels ideal for vacationers who want to see the sights, and Airbnbs better for those who want to experience local neighborhoods and aren’t as concerned about proximity to tourist attractions. 

Winner: Tie

Airbnb vs. Hotel: Amenities

One of the benefits of a hotel is that guests can be fairly certain of what they’ll find when they arrive. Hotels follow a predesigned plan, and most hotels within the same chain are consistent with one another, providing access to everything a traveler will need. Hotels exist solely to serve travelers, and extra sheets, blankets, toiletries, hair dryers, cable, and a 24-hour front-desk service are standard options at a hotel with no additional. Most travelers who choose to stay at a hotel are stepping away from the regular responsibilities of home and are happy to let housekeeping make the bed and wipe down the bathroom. Exercise facilities, luxury spas, and an in-house bar are fairly standard amenities as well, and at many locations a continental or buffet breakfast is also included in the price. Many hotels provide room service for the weary traveler who is too tired to go out (at an extra cost, of course), and some also offer in-room massage, spa treatments, and other extras. Business facilities including computers, conference rooms, and workspaces are also standard.

The hotel industry is aimed at streamlining travel and making a guest’s stay predictable and trustworthy. Airbnb, on the other hand, aims at making a guest’s stay unique, warm, and homelike, and in theory, less costly than a hotel stay. Therefore, an Airbnb’s amenities are intended to make the accommodation feel less institutional and more personal. Family rooms with big, comfy couches and televisions with big screens and streaming services, as well as kitchens with breakfast bars equipped with all the accoutrements of a professional kitchen are all options when guests are selecting an Airbnb. Families can choose a property with playrooms full of themed toys and a big, private backyard pool for the kids to enjoy while the parents get a little rest on a chaise. While it’s true that the beds might not get made by housekeeping, cooking and dining in is much less expensive than eating out and allows guests to choose exactly what they want to eat. And guests with furry friends can even choose a pet-friendly Airbnb.

These types of features are excellent for travelers who want this kind of vacation, but they’re features as opposed to actual services and amenities that make things easier. Airbnbs provide comfortable and homelike accommodation, while hotels provide service.

Verdict: Hotel amenities often include swimming pools, spas, gyms, room service, and breakfast buffets, making them a good match for travelers who truly want a vacation from home life. Airbnbs, however, can include amenities such as fully equipped kitchens and laundry facilities, which can help travelers save on additional expenses.

Winner: Hotel

Airbnb vs. Hotel

Photo: istockphoto.com

Airbnb vs. Hotel: Privacy

When booking a hotel room, travelers generally know what they’re getting: a private bedroom (possibly with a sitting area), a private bathroom, and public hallways and lobby or restaurant spaces. The guarantee of privacy within the private space is pretty solid, as long as the guest employs the “Do Not Disturb” sign and the bolt on the door. Because hotels are designed to house large numbers of people in as small a footprint as possible, however, there’s very rarely a true sense of privacy and solitude. If a guest can hear their neighbor’s television, the neighbors can hear that guest’s television as well. Other guests will hustle past the room in the hallway, sometimes talking too loudly or clumping around, often late at night or early in the morning. And why is it that the guests upstairs always sound as if they’re rollerblading? Housekeeping may knock on the door to see if guests are in the room so they can get to work. The space is private in that nobody can physically enter, but unless it’s a very high-end hotel with deeply insulated walls and ceilings, it doesn’t feel particularly private. In most cases, guests are very much aware that there are other guests very close by.

In an Airbnb, the privacy question depends on the type of rental. If a guest has reserved a room or floor that is private but shares a bathroom or a kitchen, it can feel less private than a hotel. A whole-house Airbnb, however, is as private as home. Nobody else will be in the space (as long as the doors have appropriate security features), and the yard can be as private as the renter chooses; looking at the online photos will allow guests to select a home that’s tucked away from the street and enclosed by greenery or one that is open to a neighborhood or beach depending on their preference. It’s also a good idea for travelers to check out the window coverings in those photos. While the host might love it when the sunrise bursts through a picture window in the bedroom, a guest might prefer blinds that allow them to sleep a little longer.

Verdict: Hotel rooms and Airbnbs both offer a private space for travelers to stay while away from home. While whole-home Airbnb listings tend to offer complete privacy, hotel rooms can feel less private due to constant foot traffic moving through hallways.

Winner: Airbnb

Airbnb vs. Hotel: Flexibility

Corporate entities are ultimately bound by the policies of the corporation. Hotels, as a rule, have their cancellation policies indicated very clearly on their websites, and some hotel booking sites supersede those policies with even more generous policies, suggesting free cancellation up until the day of the reservation. Company policies may offer free cancellation with a full refund in exchange for a higher rate and offer a discounted rate for rooms that won’t be refunded unless the reservation is canceled a certain number of days in advance. The local branch of a hotel chain cannot change the policy or offer exceptions, because the policy must be applied across the board to be fair.

As individual service providers, Airbnb hosts can set whatever policies for cancellation and rescheduling they choose, though they are required to post them clearly on the listing. And they have leeway: If there’s an unusual circumstance, they can choose to make an exception and not charge for a late cancellation or a change of date, especially if the Airbnb wasn’t booked for the new dates already. The company also has its own policy that can take the place of a host’s policy: The Airbnb cancellation policy is in place to protect both hosts and guests. If a guest contacts Airbnb to declare that the premises are unclean or unsafe, or if they cannot reach the host, Airbnb will override the host’s cancellation policy and either help the guest find another similar Airbnb accommodation or provide a refund. In addition, Airbnb will force cancellation as a result of certain extenuating circumstances including natural disasters, military action, government travel restrictions, declared emergencies, health emergencies or epidemics, and unexpected changes to government travel requirements.

Generally speaking, the range of policies offered by Airbnb hosts offers travelers the opportunity to find a cancellation policy that will work with their level of risk tolerance, and in the event of a true disaster there’s a person on the other side of the screen or on the phone with whom to negotiate, rather than a corporate chain where exceptions are tougher to come by.

Verdict: When booking a stay in a hotel or an Airbnb, travelers will find policies spelled out at the time of booking. Some hotels may offer full refunds if the reservation is canceled a certain amount of time before the stay. Airbnb hosts set their own cancellation policies, and Airbnb has its own cancellation policies if a traveler has to cancel due to extenuating circumstances.

Winner: Airbnb

Verdict: The choice between staying in an Airbnb and a hotel ultimately comes down to the traveler’s preference. Those looking for a central spot from which to explore will likely appreciate the convenience of a hotel—not to mention the amenities they can take advantage of. Travelers who are planning a longer stay or who want to book for a large group will likely prefer to stay in an Airbnb, which can feel more like a home away from home.

In the end, Airbnb and hotel lodgings offer two different types of accommodations for travelers. There are specific advantages to each: Travelers who are leaving their home hoping to escape the day-to-day tasks of laundry, cooking, and cleanup, and who don’t want to waste their travel time on cleaning before they depart, will find that hotels offer those advantages. Also, because hotels tend to be located in central areas, guests who are traveling to see specific sites or locations may find that the proximity of hotels to their intended location will be convenient and helpful, perhaps negating the need for a rental car or a parking fee. Large parties will find that an Airbnb is almost always more cost-effective than renting several hotel rooms and that their group will have more space to spend time together and spread out. Travelers planning a longer trip will also find that Airbnb’s longer-term deals and the ability to cook and do laundry will save significantly on costs—but on the other hand, many travelers have concerns about security in an Airbnb or the potential inability to reach the host if there’s a problem. There’s a reason Airbnb is considered one of the best vacation rental sites out there, and it often comes out on top when customers are comparing Airbnb vs. Vrbo or a similar competitor.

Travel can be stressful, even when it’s a vacation. Knowing that there are wonderful options at both hotels and the wide range of Airbnb rentals can remove some of the stress from the planning process and provide guests with options that exactly suit their travel and budgetary needs.