Hotel vs. apartment: where to stay?

Apartments near the Pantheon in Rome. (Photo: black2sugars / Flickr)

The first lesson of adulthood is that you can’t have it all, and even on vacation, one has to give up things to get things. Do you really need room service? A concierge? A pool? Or is local flavor more important?

In terms of choosing the right kind of travel accommodations—hotel vs. apartment—the key is being able to distinguish what you need from what you want.

The Top Apartment Sites

I’ve used and perused VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner), VacationRentals.com, Airbnb, and HomeAway, and the first thing you need to know is that their listings aren’t exclusive: you’ll see many of the same apartments on different sites, so don’t drive yourself crazy spending hours on each one. (VRBO, VacationRentals.com, and HomeAway all fall under the HomeAway brand.) Choose two of these three and you should be covered.

VRBO offers a helpful chart that compares various cities’ vacation rentals with hotel rooms in terms of average price, square footage, variety of lodging types, and other variables. Naturally, vacation rentals come out ahead in every category. At the moment, the five-year-old Airbnb, which boasts 250,000 apartments in more than 192 countries and 40,000 cities, has the most buzz. Aston Kutcher is an investor, but don’t expect him to deliver your breakfast in Paris in his Speedo.

How They Work

Owners of private homes, villas, castles, igloos, whatever, create online profiles of their properties, including flattering photos of both the vacation rental and the location (if they’re smart). The renter fills out fields (locale, price, dates, etc.) to narrow the search … and let the shopping begin. The process (how contact is made between owner and renter, how keys and funds change hands, etc.) varies from site to site, but is typically straightforward and user-friendly.

Why Stay in a Private Home?

Two primary reasons: authenticity and cost. Even if you’re only slightly adventurous, or just in love with a particular location, living like a local is seductive. No hotel staff to make small talk with; no maid’s cart; no check-in counter; no Do Not Disturb nonsense; no contrived, controlled, or corporate environment.

On the other hand, there’s usually little or no service or safety net (the owner may not be in another unit onsite, or may not even be in town). Regarding cost: the savings are substantial. VRBO cites average savings of up to $130/night in such cities as New York, Miami, Whistler, and Rome. In Rome, my dad found a two-bedroom apartment for $1,700 a week, through VRBO; in Positano, a four-bedroom for under $3,000/week. In either place, it can be difficult to score a hotel bed in a decent location for less than $300/night. The online vacation rental market has exerted such downward pressure on rental rates that I could fetch only $250/night for my two-bedroom, oceanfront apartment in Southern California on Airbnb (and it has underground parking and a pool). For comparable accommodations in my town, we’re talking a pair of $500/night hotel rooms.

Hidden Costs

Owners often require a cleaning fee at their discretion; they don’t want pre- or post-guest housekeeping costs to eat into the rates they charge. Sometimes the cleaning fee is imbedded into the rate. When I rented out my SoCal digs, I tacked on a modest cleaning charge that was transparent to potential renters. If you’re thinking of renting your home, just know that the vacation sites extract a minimal fee for their services, and that whatever you make is considered taxable income.

The Three Tiers of Private Homes: Part 1

Whether you’re renting a villa or apartment directly, through a villa agency such as Elite Vacation Property, or through one of the above-mentioned sites, there are three general types: independent, in a villa complex, or in a hotel/resort setting. An independent villa can be a studio apartment or a seven-bedroom estate, but what these share is an inconspicuous quality; the apartment or house is indistinguishable from the other apartments and houses on the street. To many, this setup affords the most authentic experience.

My dad’s two-bedroom rental in Rome, unbeknown to all of us (until we arrived), turned out to be positioned in the totally charming, untouristy neighborhood of Monti. The street boasted a grocery store, an Internet café, a takeaway pizza place (the pizza came out of the oven in big sheets), a cobbler, a subway stop, and the type of trattorias and boutiques that draw neighborhood locals. The flat was within walking distance of the Colosseum. It was awesome! As for the apartment itself, it was ample, comfortable, and had plenty of character. And when we couldn’t get the TV to work, the owner came by to offer Italian-inflected instruction.

The Three Tiers of Private Homes: Part 2

One of my most memorable stays was in a whitewashed ocean-view villa in Mykonos. The two-story house—which had its own infinity pool and was within a five-minute walk of the gorgeous, secluded Kapari Beach—was called Okyroe. It sat in a landscaped complex, Villas Parenthesis, with 13 other named villas of different sizes—some detached, others semi-detached. In such a situation, you can usually expect stocking service: the kitchen was filled with cheeses, meats, eggs, fruits, and vegetables, to my pre-arrival specifications. Maid service and chef service are typically available.

Naturally, a villa compound with centralized management is going to feel more luxurious and less idiosyncratic (and is typically pricier) than someone’s home. But what I lost in quirky authenticity I gained in pampering and a reassuring sense of being less on my own.

The Three Tiers of Private Homes: Part 3

Recognizing the demand for a discreet experience, some high-end hotels and resorts have come to offer freestanding homes on their properties. Guests can take advantage of all the facilities of a resort (spa, gym, dining), and then drive home to their private hideaways. The Four Seasons in Nevis is a great example of this arrangement; I moved from a guest room to a little house on the edge of the 18-hole, Robert Trent Jones II-designed golf course, to sample the difference. And it must be said that there are exclusive (ultra-expensive) resorts around the world that are composed entirely (or almost entirely) of freestanding villa-style accommodations, from Amandari in Bali and Trisara in Phuket, Thailand; to Calistoga Ranch in California’s Napa Valley and Big Sur’s Post Ranch Inn.

The Final Word

The online vacation rental sites probably will save you money, but you must be discerning in order to get a comparable or better experience than a hotel stay would provide. For example, over a May weekend in San Francisco, $250 will deliver a couple and their child a (cramped) room in a perfectly fine, well-located high-rise hotel off Union Square, like the Hilton or the Grand Hyatt. Or, you can take that $250 and spread out in an expansive Noe Valley apartment with a yard, hardwood floors, and personal touches—via Airbnb and owned by “Steve & Debbie.” Which is a more worthwhile experience is highly subjective. But once you add more guests to the mix, a rental’s real savings start to kick in; two more couples and their kids will triple the hotel bill, but not so the Airbnb cost. Just forget the Noe Valley place and book the four-bedroom Russian Hill home listed for $469/night.

But beware of rates that look too good to be true: read the fine print, or that $80/night rate could land you in a dreaded “private room,” or on the foldout couch in the parlor—with the owner sleeping soundly in the bedroom. That’s enough to send anyone fleeing back to the nearest, suddenly desirable Motel 6.

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