If you haven’t traveled in a while, I have some news for you: In my experience, the hotel experience is now better than the Airbnb experience. In most situations, you’re going to pay less overall, have fewer chores to complete, and get more professional service.
How We Got Here
Airbnb has come a long way since 2008 when it launched as “AirBed & Breakfast.” Originally, the idea was that you would have a good chance of sleeping on an air mattress in someone’s home. Unsurprisingly, the experience was often much less expensive than hotels, albeit with less privacy. Lots of people used Airbnb to rent our rooms in their homes. For example, one person I know once slept on a couch behind a curtain in someone’s living room in a small apartment in those early years. (Of course, it was a bargain.)
In 2023, Airbnb is a totally different thing—for the most part. It’s exploded in popularity, and many Airbnbs are now entire houses or apartments instead of a spare bedroom. Many jurisdictions have rules limiting or banning Airbnb and other short-term rentals. There are a lot of arguments about short-term rentals driving up rents and the cost of housing—but I’m not going to focus on that.
I’m going to argue that Airbnb just isn’t what it used to be.
The Airbnb Experience in 2023
Of course, Airbnb disagrees with most of my argument below. Here’s a statement Airbnb provided to us:
Compared to a hotel, Airbnb often provides more space and amenities: travelers can get an Airbnb with two bedrooms and two bathrooms for approximately the price of one hotel room at a major chain. People use Airbnb because they find great value, whether looking for a private room on a budget or a place to stay for the whole family. We are also building new and improved pricing tools for Hosts to help them set competitive prices and ensure affordability and value for guests.
Now let’s talk about the modern Airbnb experience.
Expect to Pay a Cleaning Fee and Have to Clean Anyway
The vast majority of Airbnb properties have a “cleaning fee” you’ll pay. The cleaning fee seems to be a fixed amount charged to you regardless of the number of nights you stay. This means it can make Airbnb a terrible deal for short stays.
The cleaning fee is up to the person or company renting the Airbnb to you, and you’ll see it when booking the stay. However, Airbnb hides this fee by default. When searching for a property, you might see a property that is $150 per night. You might click through and see that there is a $100+ cleaning fee on top of an additional Airbnb service fee, so a single-night stay might actually cost more like $280 even if Airbnb proudly advertises “$150 per night” while you search. Read the fine print!
Airbnb pointed us at the transparent pricing update it announced in November 2022. Airbnb now has a “Display Total Price” toggle so you can see the total per-night price while searching. As of early March 2023, it wasn’t enabled by default for us when we checked Airbnb’s website. It takes a few clicks to find the more “transparent pricing.”
Worse yet, that cleaning fee doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have to clean. Expect to both pay a cleaning fee and have to clean the place before you leave.
You may have found yourself vacuuming and washing the towels as you were getting ready to leave. From the online discussion around Airbnb i’ve seen, these tasks were surprisingly common throughout 2021 and 2022.
As of the start of 2023, Airbnb is trying to stop this and now restricts the “unreasonable checkout tasks” you can be asked to perform and requires they be disclosed before you get there, so at least that’s improving. In theory, anyway—we’ve seen reports from people who stayed in Airbnbs that some owners are still expecting and requiring these checkout tasks.
Chores and House Rules Galore
We all know, generally, what to expect from a hotel room. But you don’t know what to expect from an Airbnb. You may get a list of various chores you have to complete and house rules you have to follow when you get there. Ridiculous Airbnb chores and rules are a meme at this point, and people love to share them on social media.
Some Airbnb hosts have expected their guests to mow the lawn during their stay. You may be expected to deal with other limitations like “Hot water shuts off after eight minutes” or follow a detailed guide to how exactly you should use the restroom.
While Airbnb announced it is restricting those “unreasonable checkout tasks,” I haven’t seen any announcements about house rules and other chores.
Here’s a story of an Airbnb listing with fees like $50 per minute for a late checkout, $1000 per instance of noise, and $2000 per trash bag if you need more than two trash bags per day. Airbnb told View From the Wing that it “would not enforce” some of these rules but did not say which ones.
You may not know exactly what rules you have to follow and chores you have to perform until you get to the Airbnb. It’s a surprise.
Did You Know Airbnb Allows Cameras? (In Some Rooms)
I’ve never seen a hotel room with a camera in it.
However, Airbnb does allow cameras in common areas if they are clearly disclosed and visible. Your Airbnb’s living room might have a camera in it, and as long as it’s not a secret, that’s allowed. They have to be disclosed in the Airbnb listing’s description, so be sure to read the fine print if you don’t want a camera in your living room.
Of course, disguised cameras as well as any cameras in bathrooms and sleeping areas are not allowed by Airbnb. However, we imagine you’re more likely to run into a hidden camera into an Airbnb than a hotel room, even though Airbnb doesn’t allow them. We’ve just seen more stories of hidden cameras in Airbnbs than in hotel rooms.
Who wants to hunt down hidden cameras on vacation? Checking for bedbugs is annoying enough.
Of course, a hotel might have a camera outside your room in a hallway or common area. That feels a little less surprising than renting an entire house only to not have privacy in the living room.
All the Usual Old Airbnb Problems
And, of course, there are the usual Airbnb problems, which I can attest to from experience:
- You may find yourself staying in a condo where you have to sneak around and pretend to be related to the Airbnb’s owner—and not talk about Airbnb in public areas—as the rental is against the association’s rules. You wouldn’t want to rock the boat and get kicked out. This is probably against Airbnb policy, but I’ve run into it all over the world.
- Rather than having a hotel front desk to call, you may struggle to get in touch with the person renting the place to you. I’ve personally tapped the phone number in the Airbnb app when it wasn’t clear how to access the unit and gotten a “How did you get this number?!” from the host.
- You’re expected to leave a review for your host and your host is expected to review you. It’s like taking an Uber or Lyft—a low review score might cause problems for you when booking in the future. Do you want to be thinking about how you want to earn a five-star review score when tidying up the place?
These problems were all somewhat manageable when an Airbnb was cheaper than a hotel room, and the average Airbnb didn’t seem to be heaping more and more chores and fees on you.
Did We Mention It’s Not Necessarily Cheaper?
Again, these are a lot of problems for something that isn’t necessarily cheaper than a hotel room—in fact, it may be substantially more expensive, especially if you’re one or two people staying for only a night or two and have to pay that entire cleaning fee.
Be sure to compare Airbnb and hotel prices in detail, looking at all the fees associated with the Airbnb, including the cleaning and service fee. If you’re interested in booking an Airbnb, go ahead and take a look at it—just don’t assume it will be the cheapest option.
(Of course, hotel rooms may also have other fees like “resort fees”—that’s a growing problem, with “resort fees” being charged by some hotels you wouldn’t expect to charge them.)
Hotel Rooms: Gloriously Boring
Maybe this all sounds fine to you, paying a cleaning fee only to clean your Airbnb, follow a bunch of rules you don’t know about until you get there, potentially sneak around so the neighbors don’t see you, worry that a loud sneeze might cost you $1000, and not necessarily have the most professional service. Maybe you want to think about how your communications with your host will affect your star rating.
But that sounds exhausting to me. Hotel rooms are often cheaper (run the numbers!), and you know what you’re getting: You know you won’t have to clean the room (though obviously you should throw away your trash and be reasonable), you know the rules you’ll be expected to follow, and you know there will be a front desk so you won’t be wondering how to get in touch with someone.
Really, it’s great. I’ve had great experiences with hotels over the past few years.
Airbnbs Can Still Be Great for Groups
Airbnbs are particularly good in one situation: When you have a large group you want to rent an entire house with, for example. That can be a good deal compared to a large number of hotel rooms and a different experience, too. (It’s worth noting that Airbnb isn’t the only option, however, and you could also try VRBO.)
Airbnb shared with us that “Many popular destinations for families are home to Airbnb listings that averaged less than $50 per night per person in 2022” and highlighted that Airbnbs generally have amenities like kitchens that are harder to get in hotel rooms. That’s certainly a good argument for larger groups to pick an Airbnb. Airbnb has a post on its site about Airbnb’s benefits for family travel.
I also had a few of my coworkers comment that they’ve had some decent recent experiences with Airbnb, finding nice places that were less than the cost of a hotel. So perhaps it depends where you go.
Hey, Book an Airbnb If You Want to
In the end, I’m just trying to equip you to make a good decisions about traveling. For years, I avoided hotels and felt Airbnbs were the superior option. I’m the opposite now—when I travel, I look for hotels and don’t even check Airbnbs.
Maybe you still prefer Airbnbs. That’s fine. If you plan to book an Airbnb, now you’ll know enough to go in with your eyes open.