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If you must travel during the coronavirus pandemic, is it better to stay in a hotel or a vacation rental, like an Airbnb?
“A lot of people feel — wrongly and rightly — that rentals are safer than hotels,” said Pauline Frommer, co-president of Frommer Media, in a speech to a virtual 2020 Travel and Adventure Show.
While vacation rentals might not require walking through a shared lobby, you may have to meet the host in person to exchange keys, while many hotels have virtual keys through smartphones. A vacation rental might not entail an elevator ride with a stranger, but there’s also no way to really know whether your room was professionally cleaned after the last guests.
Still, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a hotel is riskier than staying in a house or cabin with people from your household. But choosing a hotel over a vacation rental might actually shape up to be a better decision, and here’s why:
1. A more consistent (and generally flexible) cancellation policy
Hotel cancellation policies are typically consistent across the entire company. Whether you book with the St. Regis or the Springhill Suites (both Marriott brands), you can expect the same policy.
When you book with most vacation rental sites, owners set their own cancellation terms, as is the case at Airbnb. That means Airbnb leaves it on you to make sure you book with an owner whose cancellation policy is up to snuff. (You can read up on each cancellation policy on the main page of each listing.)
Airbnb has created a new filter that allows you to weed out tough cancellation policies; ensure you have that filter selected to "flexible" (which allows for a full refund of the nightly rate one day prior to arrival) if there’s a chance you might cancel.
Vacation rental site Vrbo’s cancellation policy is even trickier to navigate than Airbnb’s. Like Airbnb, Vrbo hosts determine the cancellation and refund policies. But unlike Airbnb, which allows hosts to choose from a few preset policies, Vrbo hosts can create “custom” policies. That means you must read the fine print on each listing. That doesn’t necessarily make Vrbo rentals less flexible, but its policies are generally harder to understand.
And, there’s a chance a vacation rental host may cancel on you. If they do, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a full refund; Airbnb says "you may be eligible for a full refund." Not to mention, you could end up stranded with no place to stay.
Meanwhile, most major hotel brands have instituted flexible cancellation policies. At Hyatt, most reservations made after July 1, 2020, for travel through July 31, 2021, can be canceled 24 hours before check-in without incurring a fee.
2. Your hotel room has likely been professionally cleaned
Many major hotel chains have increased cleaning procedures. Hilton partnered with Lysol-maker RB to pledge enhanced sanitation, including the disinfection of frequently touched areas like light switches, thermostats and TV remotes.
NerdWallet reviewed the major hotel chains for their handling of COVID-19, and when it came to cleanliness, Hyatt came out on top, followed by Hilton and Best Western.
For its part, Airbnb introduced a new, five-step cleaning standards process that hosts must commit to, including using chemical disinfectants on high-touch surfaces like doorknobs and TV remotes, but the solo management nature of Airbnb lacks the systems, accountability or standards of quality you can expect from a hotel-wide cleaning procedure.
3. Hotels are cheaper than before
Pre-COVID, vacation rentals were often a cheaper alternative. Why book your family reunion across a few beachfront hotel rooms (and pay those pesky resort fees) when you can book an entire house a few blocks inland for a fraction of the price?
“Because hotels have lost a lot of their convention business, they are suffering,” Frommer said. “In most parts of the U.S., you’ll now pay less for a hotel room than an Airbnb.”
Not only is there less convention business, but there are also fewer sports events, dance competitions and weddings. With a dramatic drop in event demand, hotels have a surplus of rooms and are reducing rates to fill them. Average daily room rates dropped an estimated 21% in 2020, according to a November report from accounting firm PwC, which also suggested average daily rates will remain flat into 2021.
It’s not just room rates dropping. Hotels are also more likely to offer other money-saving promotions, such as Hyatt’s recent dining promotion, which earns you roughly 30% of your bill at many in-hotel restaurants back in the form of World of Hyatt points.
4. Hotels are becoming cheaper for long-term stays, too
As many seize the opportunity to get away while offices and schools are closed anyway, the idea of a "workcation" is gaining traction: Take a longer vacation than usual but continue working from "home."
It might seem that vacation rentals are cheaper for long-term stays. Airbnb even allows hosts to set custom weekly or monthly pricing, charging a smaller daily rate for longer stays.
But more hotels are offering discounts for long-term stays. The Work from Hyatt promotion is available to travelers who stay at least five nights, offering amenities that might entice you to ditch working from your kitchen table in favor of a nice hotel, including complimentary or discounted laundry services, a daily food and beverage credit, and a dedicated workspace that’s sometimes a complimentary second room. And Marriott’s Play Pass includes a business concierge, a private workspace and supervised activities for your kids.
If you prefer the opposite of an extended stay — just one day of fresh scenery — you can get that too. Many hotels have converted rooms into workspaces, offering deals to work there just for the day, and you’ll return to your home for the night.
5. Hotels make it easier to earn (or use) points toward free nights
While it is possible to earn or redeem points and miles on Airbnb stays, it’s not the same (and likely won’t be as lucrative) as paying with a hotel co-branded credit card and participating in a hotel loyalty rewards program.
Credit cards favor hotel award bookings
While there are a few exceptions, most major credit card and frequent traveler programs do not allow you to use points and miles to book directly with vacation rental companies. Instead, you’ll often have to use points to purchase Airbnb gift cards. That’s irritating for two reasons:
1. It’s one more step than just paying with cash.
2. Gift cards typically entail a weaker redemption value than using points or miles to book a specific ticket or room.
Hotels have loyalty programs
You can typically earn points for vacation rentals by paying with certain travel credit cards. A few airlines, such as Delta, also offer miles for Airbnbs when you book through them.
But with hotels, plug in your loyalty number to start racking up points toward free rooms. Plus, many hotels offer extra deals when you pay with points, such as waived resort fees or benefits like fourth night free on points bookings.
Airbnb has hinted at a loyalty program called Superguest for a few years now, but it has not formally launched anything.
The bottom line
Depending on the trip, vacation rentals might make more sense, especially during a pandemic, when limiting contact with others is crucial. A cabin in the woods that has been vacant for at least a few days with a self-check-in feature could very well be safer than a hotel in a city where hundreds of people walk through the same lobby and share elevators.
But don’t assume that a vacation rental is always better than a hotel. As hotels adopt higher cleanliness standards, make cancellation policies even more flexible and slash prices while offering points toward future stays, hotels might actually turn out to be your best bet if you need to travel.
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A previous version of this article referred to Pauline Frommer only as the daughter of Arthur Frommer. It has been updated to reflect her title as co-president of Frommer Media.