Airbnb vs. hotels – Which is really better?

Cover: Airbnb in Boulder, Colorado Photo: Kim Hull
Article by Kim Hull


Now that Airbnb has moved beyond finding a place to crash in someone’s spare bedroom (sure, you can still do that, but a large inventory of entire homes or apartments are also available), it has become a more mainstream lodging option for both vacationing and business travelers.
Airbnb website Airbnb website

With houses and condos ranging from simple to luxury, Airbnb, and other home rental services, provide a great option for individuals, couples, and families seeking more than a standard hotel room stay.

The phenomenal growth of Airbnb

Despite the hype that has surrounded Airbnb since they entered and took over the short-term rental market, the concept of renting someone’s home for a short-term stay is nothing new.

We began renting houses and apartments through the VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) not long after it was formed in 1996. From ski condos in Aspen to a large house overlooking Orient Bay in St. Martin, we typically found a VRBO rental more convenient for stays longer than a couple of days.

Numerous other alternative accommodations providers entered the space along the way and, as acquisitions were beginning to shape the market, two guys in San Francisco who needed rent money decided to rent out air mattresses on their floor in 2007. It worked, so they built a website to match hosts with renters. They picked up another founder and some VC and investor money along the way, and by 2014, Airbnb had a $10 billion valuation. Impressive.

Airbnb founders Airbnb founders

During the same period of time, we had migrated back to staying in hotels. We’d never tried out Airbnb, so when we recently spent a week in Boulder, Colorado, we decided to give it a spin.

Airbnb by the numbers Airbnb by the numbers Source: Airbnb website

Our Boulder Airbnb experience

The Airbnb website offers three accommodation types: Entire home/apt, a private room or a shared room. While Airbnb’s roots may be with the shared experience, we tend to value privacy quite a bit and immediately hit the entire home/apt. We were only a few days out from our desired stay dates, but quite a few interesting selections were available.

Browsing for Boulder Airbnb accommodations Browsing for Boulder Airbnb accommodations

One that caught our eye was a well-decorated and obviously well cared for townhouse in Boulder that was walking distance to Pearl Street and rented for $212 per night for our desired four nights (prices vary by booking dates). A quick comparison of hotel rates put it around the same price as a room at the Westin in Westminster, which is about 20 minutes away, or a standard room at the Best Western Plus or the Basecamp, which are both in Boulder.

However, the recently renovated townhouse provided a much-improved living space versus the hotel rooms, with two bedrooms, a full kitchen, 1 1/2 baths, a patio downstairs, an upstairs deck, and a good-sized living room. For a four-night stay, the extra space was undoubtedly a plus. Finally, we wanted to stay within Boulder and the hotel choices in the city are limited and generally more expensive.

The photos were plentiful and good, the description was detailed and, while the “house rules” were somewhat lengthy, we felt they represented a quality standard set by the owner and we viewed that as a good thing. It also had a 5-star rating by over 90 past visitors.

AirBNB Boulder townhouse kitchen Airbnb Boulder townhouse kitchen
Photo: Kim Hull © Chasing Light Media

On our arrival date, the owner and our host, Sandy, met us at the townhouse and gave us an overview of the property. The townhouse was exactly as depicted on the Airbnb website and located in a quiet area near a park and hiking trails.

The entire home was spotless. The kitchen had stainless appliances, high-quality cookware, and dish ware, and was fully stocked, including an assortment of coffee and teas.

Airbnb Boulder townhouse living area Airbnb Boulder townhouse living area
Photo: Kim Hull © Chasing Light Media

The living area was comfortable and good size, with a couch, a couple of chairs, a flat panel TV, and access to a patio facing a wooded open space.

Airbnb Boulder townhouse bedroom Airbnb Boulder townhouse bedroom
Photo: Kim Hull © Chasing Light Media

Upstairs were two bedrooms and an awesome spa-like shower. One of the bedrooms had a balcony and in the bathroom, a cabinet contained “Just in case you forgot something” essentials, ranging from shampoo to toothpaste and more. Our host, Sandy, manages the townhouse extremely professionally and overall our stay was a very good value.

Airbnb Boulder townhouse Airbnb Boulder townhouse “Just in case you forgot something” stash
Photo: Kim Hull © Chasing Light Media

So, which is better? Renting a place on Airbnb or going with the tried and true hotel room?

Just as there are great hotels and horrible ones, there are great Airbnb rentals and others that have resulted in some horror stories. We had a friend traveling in Europe that drove to his Airbnb, looked at it, and never got out of his car, opting to sleep in his vehicle versus even go inside.

We’ve had similar reactions to hotels over the years – especially with photos that may have been enhanced beyond recognition or appear to be of another property or you arrive and discover the neighborhood is on the iffy side.

Which is where reviews are incredibly helpful. Just like hotel reviews, Airbnb reviews are a critical part of the vetting process. A property with numerous reviews praising the host and verifying the accuracy of the listing sets your mind at ease when you hit the book it button.

But, back to the initial question – which is better, an Airbnb or a hotel? Assuming both the Airbnb and the hotel are equal in quality and location, it gets down to needs, desires, and preferences.

The pros of Airbnb

Space. Specifically speaking of renting an entire house or condo, an Airbnb property almost always is more spacious than staying at a hotel – even with a suite. The exception to this is an extended stay hotel or say, a Hyatt House, which generally is apartment-like in most locations.

Kitchen. Even if you are staying somewhere for a few days, it can be nice to warm up the previous night’s dinner’s leftovers in a microwave or oven and to eat from real plates and with silverware versus the plastic takeaway variety. For longer stays, having the option to prepare a meal at home can save time and is a nice break from eating in a restaurant every meal.

Laundry. While the rental described above did not have a washer and dryer, many do. Following our stay with Sandy, we rented another Airbnb and it was great to do the laundry throughout our stay so we didn’t return home with loads of dirty clothes.

Privacy. While the level of privacy obviously differs by location, overall, staying in an Airbnb condo or private home allows for more privacy than found in a hotel.

Live like a local. As most Airbnbs are located in residential areas, a stay provides more of an experience of what life is like in the community.

Price – especially for a group. If two hotel rooms are needed and the group is willing to share the common areas, the price of a two bedroom Airbnb is almost always going to be less than two comparable quality hotel rooms.

The pros of a hotel

Predictability. Sure locations vary somewhat, but a hotel chain is fairly predictable. Within the brand, hotel styles may vary, but the level that can be expected is normally the same and, with a large chain, the description, photos, and amenities described are usually somewhat accurate.

Amenities and services. If you like to visit the spa, take a dip in the pool, head to the bar for a nightcap, or dine in a restaurant without venturing out, a hotel definitely has the advantage for extra services provided.

Less coordination and interaction. There’s a social aspect to Airbnb not present at a hotel – which some love and others may find bothersome. With a hotel, you head to the desk, give them a credit card, get your key and move on to your room. Checking in at an Airbnb typically requires meeting the owner at a specific time to have them explain the property, its rules, and its quirks. It requires coordination with your schedule and interaction with the host.

The cons of an Airbnb

House rules. Each owner sets the rules for their property – some are lengthy, some are brief. Examples include not wearing shoes on the carpet, taking the trash out before you leave, and no parties. The rules are present in the listing before you book, so make sure they are something you can adhere to before renting.

Short stays may not be possible. Most owners have minimum stays of two or three days. Given the entire home must be cleaned after each guest and there isn’t a staff of maids roaming from room to room, it is understandable why owners set minimum stay requirements. Additionally, the meeting and rules process is a bit cumbersome for one night.

Deposits. Some of the listings we considered – and didn’t rent – required security deposits. While it is understandable that an owner wants to protect their property, requiring a high deposit for short stay is also risky for the renter. For example, a nice, not stunning, house in Boulder required a $2000 deposit for a three-night stay where the rent was about $200 per night. What if the owner turned out to be a jerk and makes a claim against the deposit for no reason? Yes, Airbnb mediates, but that’s quite a bit of risk and hassle for a stay – and not one you have at a hotel.

Cleaning and administrative fees. In addition to the nightly rent, most owners charge a cleaning fee, which typically ranges from $100-$250. Obviously, the shorter the stay the more this adds to the per night rate. Additionally, Airbnb charges an administrative or service fee. The amount of the fee is displayed before the reservation is confirmed. According to Airbnb… “guest service fees are typically 6-12% but can be higher or lower depending on the specifics of the reservation. The higher the subtotal, the lower the percentage so you can save money when booking large reservations.”

Staying in someone’s home can be a bit weird. While some Airbnbs are run solely for rental purposes, like Sandy’s described above, most are homes, where the owners live. Their art, décor, photographs, and smells may permeate throughout.

The cons of a hotel

Lack of personality. It goes hand in hand with the first pro listed for the hotel, predictability. With consistency comes an element of routine, cookie cutter and a lack of personality.

No community immersion. If you want to truly understand a community, you have to experience the culture – not pass through it on a walking tour or drive by it on a sightseeing bus. Granted, not everyone needs or wants to really understand a place in-depth. But, if you do, it is difficult to do so while staying in a hotel.


Disclosure: The content & opinions expressed are entirely our own. Reviews are opinion only and Chasing Light Media accepts no responsibility for how the information is used.