Where should I stay?
Well, it’s complicated.
The options for housing when traveling have multiplied over the last ten years, from short term rentals to boutique hotel chains to group housing. There are great options at every budget level and for every type of stay. I’ve found it helpful to work out a mental map for which types of housing make sense for different types of travel.
For many travelers, “short-term rentals” is synonymous with Airbnb. While Airbnb is definitely the dominant brand in the space, services like VRBO and specialized services in different countries offer diverse inventory. The latest addition to this space making waves is Sonder, which offers an Airbnb-like experience and aesthetic, but using housing that they directly own. (Out of scope for this article, but Sonder’s business is capital intensive and dependent on access to cheap money. So uhh, spare a thought for them.)
There was a period, circa 2014, when Airbnb was perceived as the only acceptable choice for “real” travelers – those who talk in effusive language about connecting with the locals, having authentic experience, etc. (I type this with a mix of sarcasm and familiarity) As Airbnb has matured (in both age and actions), its position in the market has shifted a bit. Nowadays, most Airbnbs (especially in cities) are operated by management companies who maintain an array of facilities. It’s increasingly rare to rent from a “real” person – someone living in the other half of a duplex or renting out their mother-in-law suite. Airbnb has also largely cast off its “YOLO” attitude, and works with municipalities to comply with local laws, collect taxes, and implement schemes designed to keep short term rentals from driving up long term rents.
So, back to the question at hand – when should you look at a short-term rental? Short-term rentals offer two key benefits. For longer stays, you’ll be able to settle into a space, enjoy a kitchen and perhaps laundry. If you’re going to be spending more than a few days in a city, that can be pretty nice. Another benefit of a short-term rental is a much broader set of options in terms of location. Hotels are often clustered in one part of a city, catering primarily to business travelers. Short-term rentals can offer a chance to stay in a residential neighborhood, or to stay in a rural setting.
There was a time when short-term rentals were also a cost-conscious choice. That’s increasingly untrue. Airbnb now provides their hosts with tools to better price their inventory, and third party services help hosts identify ways to maximize their revenue. The need to actually comply with local laws and collect taxes has also reduced the gap between short-term rentals and traditional hotels – who’d have thought?
Many of the things that people initially fell in love with about short-term rental have made their way back into the hotel industry with a new generation of boutique hotels. Cool aesthetics, local food, funky settings, great internet – all of these are available from any number of small boutique hotels in most major cities. In addition, you get all the benefits of a hotel – a knowledgeable staff, predictable quality, and (often) increased flexibility.
For a short stay (less than 3 or 4 days) in a city, I find that staying in a boutique hotel can be a great option. I’m particularly enamored of CitizenM, a new chain with a handful of hotels around the world which operates as a hybrid of a boutique, a traditional chain, and the closest thing westerners will tolerate to a capsule hotel. Their model is built around very small but functional rooms. They operate in fun parts of world cities, with an excellent staff, great public spaces, and quality food and beverage options.
There are dedicated sites for browsing boutique hotels like MyBoutiqueHotel.com. They’re also easy to spot when scrolling through listings on sites like Booking.com – they’re all going to have some piece of graffiti-ish art in the lobby to juice their Instagramability.
The reality is that, for the budget conscious traveler seeking a private room, the most affordable option is almost always a traditional chain hotel. If you’re heading to a city for a specific purpose (a conference, a concert, a wedding), don’t spend the money and mental energy sorting through short-term rentals and boutiques – enter your location, pick a chain hotel with a reasonable nightly rate, and move on.
Obviously there are of course ultra-lux chains as well, but I don’t know anything about that experience. And if you’re booking your own travel, I’m guessing you don’t either.
If you’re an extrovert traveling on a budget, a third option is to use services like Couchsurfing to find informal housing at low- or no-cost. I’ve got friends who swear by this kind of travel. These are also the kinds of friends who tell stories with phrases like “So I just jumped in his van said ‘let’s go to burning man!’”.
As an introvert with a pretty low tolerance for waking up in a bathtub full of ice missing a kidney, this is not my kind of travel. But if that’s you, go for it!