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Even as U.S. vaccination rates increase and COVID-19 case rates drop, many Americans aren’t ready to stay in a hotel quite yet.
As travel picks up, some remain concerned about hotel safety, especially since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still considers hotels to be "less safe" than many lodging alternatives, such as staying with a fully vaccinated family member or staying in a vacation rental with fully vaccinated people.
Even those who feel safe in a hotel are opting out for another reason: service and amenities.
Cutbacks at hotels
Hotels experienced a roughly 70% reduction in business from April 2020 to March 2021 compared with the same period in the prior year, according to American Customer Satisfaction Index data. Lower revenue led to slashed budgets, in turn leading to reductions in staff and amenities.
The ACSI, which uses interview data from roughly 500,000 customers annually to generate customer satisfaction models, asked travelers to rate their hotel experiences. Customer satisfaction scores dropped by every single metric in 2021 versus 2020, with an overall decrease of 3.9% in 2021 from 2020.
It turns out, people are unhappy that hotels canceled breakfast buffets, and many never brought them back. Throw in closed pools and fitness centers — some of which are still shut down — and a hotel might not be all it’s cracked up to be in 2021.
Vacation rentals were able to avoid many such issues. While the hotel pool might be closed, private homes with backyard pools likely remain open. A hotel might have cut off access to board games in the lobby, but those amenities typically are still available at vacation rentals.
What's more, vacation rentals likely don’t have plastic shields and separate clean/dirty pen jars to remind you of the pandemic during your getaway.
Whether it’s cost-cutting measures or the fear of getting sick, you might be more inclined to book a vacation rental this year. Here’s how to have a safer experience.
How to have a safer visit at a vacation rental
1. Know the local rules
States have widely varied mask mandates, so it can be confusing to know what the rules are. Drilling down even further, rules can vary by county within the state, and not all have aligned with federal guidance when it comes to masking (which is often based on local case rates and vaccination numbers). A big hotel chain likely has a sign with mask rules on the pool deck, but a vacation rental likely won’t.
If you’re staying in a vacation rental with shared facilities like bathrooms and kitchens, it can be tricky to know if you need to don a mask for a walk down the hallway to the toilet. What about the restaurants around the corner? Are they open for dining or takeout only? Are masks required?
Do your research before booking accommodations in unfamiliar areas. The online listing page might make it clear, or ask the rental host before booking. If all else fails, do an online search to find the local rules.
2. Book a place all to yourself
Avoid the awkward masked walk from bedroom to bathroom by booking your own place. Even if you're fully vaccinated, the CDC recommends avoiding shared spaces with many people or sharing bathroom facilities. These are common in some bed and breakfasts as well as in dormitory-style hostels.
Many vacation rental sites allow you to book a room in a shared home or an entire place to yourself. Sites like Airbnb allow you to filter by “type of place.” Select the boxes for “entire place” and be sure to uncheck "private room" or "shared room" if you’re concerned about meeting the CDC guidelines — or if you just don’t want to feel like you need to put on your mask between bites at breakfast.
» Learn more: Airbnb vs. Vrbo: Which is better for travelers?
3. Open the windows and doors upon arrival
It might be impossible to know when the last guest was in the same building you’ve rented out and what germs they’re carrying. Scientists generally agree that the largest droplets of respiratory fluids carrying infectious viruses settle out of the air rapidly (within seconds to minutes). But the smallest, very fine droplets may remain suspended in the air for minutes to hours.
Dr. Rajiv Sahay, the director of the environmental diagnostics laboratory at indoor air quality firm Pure Air Control Services, suggests an easy solution: Open the windows.
"That enhances the ventilation and brings in fresh, outdoor air," he says. "Open the doors, too, if you can. Even opening them slightly can help."
4. Turn on the air conditioning (maybe)
Sahay said that most viruses and bacteria are more likely to grow in hot, humid areas. To prevent growth, turn on the air conditioning — in most properties.
Window and wall air conditioning units can enhance ventilation and help reduce viral particle concentration. But if the only cooling system available is a ceiling or wall fan, skip it.
“A fan that recirculates the air should not be used,” Sahay says. “You run the risk of spreading particles around.”
5. Don’t worry about surfaces
You probably don’t need to pack bleach and scrubbing bubbles to do your own deep clean before touching the utensils in the vacation rental’s kitchen.
While there’s nothing wrong with good hand hygiene and cleaning practices — COVID-19 or not — you don’t really need to panic about getting the coronavirus from germs on the TV remote.
"Current evidence strongly suggests transmission from contaminated surfaces does not contribute substantially to new infections," according to the CDC.
Take your vacation rental safety seriously
There are still plenty of reasons why a hotel beats a vacation rental. But aside from COVID-19 concerns, many people think hotels have gone downhill — and current guidance from the CDC hasn’t done the hotel industry any favors.
A vacation rental might be safer than a hotel for many reasons, including fewer shared spaces and overall fewer bodies in the building. Plus, as your posse congregates to make up for last year’s missed family reunion or birthday celebrations, it might be financially and logistically wiser to rent a vacation home anyway.
How to maximize your rewards
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No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
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Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card