If you're looking to save money on your vacation, accommodations are a good place to start. But is staying in an Airbnb really cheaper than a hotel?

Want to lower the price of your next trip? Lodging is the best place to start. After all, it’s the cost you can best control. Sure, you can hunt for the best airfare or use travel rewards programs to save money, but ultimately you’ll find the greatest price variation and number of choices when you look for a place to stay. And while you may assume that Airbnb will beat competing hotels on price every time, the answer is more nuanced. Read on to discover the pros and cons of both options, as well as how much you can save in a variety of situations.

Last-minute stays

Whether it’s an impulsive weekend getaway or a long road trip that you don’t want to plan in advance, a hotel is your best option for short-notice reservations.

Plus, hotels are conveniently located along major highways and you can always walk right in to request a room. Unless there happens to be a popular sports game or other event happening on the day you’re in town, it should be easy to arrange a last-minute stay.

Airbnb has two kinds of reservations: “Instant Booking” and “Request to Book.” Both allow you to view a calendar of current availability, but in the second case you have to wait to hear back from the host. In either case, your ability to make a last-minute reservation will depend on availability. In many Airbnb listings I browsed, there were no open nights for at least a few months.

How much can you save?

Airbnb’s prices are generally stable, though I did see a “Memorial Day Weekend sale” offered for one listing. Whether you book last-minute or well in advance, you’ll pay the same rate. On the other hand, hotel room rates go up or down based on the day of the week and the time of year. If you book a last-minute stay on your computer (instead of just stopping at the first hotel you see), you’ll be able to comparison shop for the best rate.

Family travel

No matter how much of a deal you find on an Airbnb pad, you could end up paying more if your toddler breaks, stains or otherwise disfigures someone’s furniture or family heirloom.

If you have children under 4, you’ll either need a crib or a bed big enough to fit the whole family. Most hotels will provide a free crib upon request (ask in advance to make sure there won’t be a charge), whereas you’ll probably have to bring your own to an Airbnb rental. If you don’t already own a travel crib, you’ll have to purchase one and you may have to pay extra to check it on the plane (strollers and car seats can usually be checked at the gate for free).

Pets are another issue. Many hotels will let your pet stay with you, but it could be harder to find an Airbnb host who doesn’t mind hosting your dog or cat.

On the other hand, hotel rooms are pretty small and could feel claustrophobic for a family, especially for a longer trip. If you rent a whole house or apartment through Airbnb, you could get the same amount of space your family is used to having at home.

How much can you save?

Finding a hotel that will provide a free crib will save you about $100 to purchase a new travel crib (plus mattress and sheet). The checked baggage fee will vary by airline.

Reliability

Hotel chains offer a consistent experience. Whichever brand is your favorite, you know what to expect and the quality is the same every time. If something does go wrong, the person at the front desk will answer your call any time of the day or night.

And however far in advance you reserve your hotel room, you don’t have to worry about losing it right before you’re scheduled to leave. An Airbnb host could cancel your reservation any time for any reason.

How much can you save?

If you choose a hotel over an Airbnb for the sake of reliability, you may end up paying more. However, you could save a lot of time. It’s not easy to browse through Airbnb’s many listings to find one you like that’s actually available when you need it.

Also, if your Airbnb reservation were to get canceled at the last minute, you could end up spending more money to find a substitute. And if you show up and don’t find the Airbnb suitable, you may not get all of your money back.

Rewards programs

If you participate in one or more travel rewards programs, you can redeem your points for a free or discounted hotel stay. And your reservation will help you accumulate more points for future use.

How much can you save?

Depending on how often you travel and how many points you’ve accumulated, you could receive a discounted nightly rate or even a free stay at a hotel.

Airbnb doesn’t have a loyalty or rewards program. You can save money by inviting friends to use the site. For every friend who travels through Airbnb, you’ll receive a $27 credit toward your next reservation. If any of your friends become hosts you’ll get $80. 

Privacy

You’ll pay less for a private room in someone’s house than to have the whole place to yourself, but you’ll lose some privacy. Yes, hotel rooms come with shared walls, too, but you don’t have to share any of the living space. Even in common areas where you might encounter other travelers, you won’t be expected to make small talk or otherwise engage. So if privacy is something you don’t want to compromise on, a hotel room will often be cheaper than renting a whole apartment or house.

How much can you save?

A lot, if you don’t mind sharing living space. My husband once paid $30/night to stay on someone’s sleeping porch in upstate New York. Even the cheapest budget motels don’t have rates that low.

Location

In less desirable (i.e. popular and tourist-y) locations, you’ll probably find the best deal with a hotel.

For example, let’s say I want to visit my friend in Hillsborough, NC. It’s a small town, but still there are two hotels near the downtown: a Holiday Inn where the lowest rate is currently $94/night and a Microtel with the hard-to-beat rate of $64.99/night. Having personally stayed in the Microtel before, I can assure you that while it lacks amenities such as a pool or lobby bar, it’s a perfectly nice place to stay.

An Airbnb search for Hillsborough turns up more options, but only one listing—a studio apartment within a larger house—is cheaper than the Microtel. Alas, the studio has a 7-night minimum stay, so it’s not an option for a shorter visit.

A few studies have been done in the past few years to see whether Airbnb is always cheaper than a hotel room. A study by Priceonomics in 2013 found that it was 21 percent cheaper to rent out a whole apartment on Airbnb than get a hotel room, and 49 percent cheaper to rent out a private room. However, a study in 2016 by busbud had more mixed results: Overall, Airbnb stays were cheaper, but there were several major US cities (like San Diego and Nashville) where a hotel room was significantly cheaper than an Airbnb, or the cost was about even.

How much can you save?

In terms of location, Airbnb can give you a deal on lodging outside the city center. Most hotels are concentrated near airports and within a city’s central neighborhoods. If you’re willing to stay off the beaten path and take public transportation, Airbnb is the best option. For example, on a trip to London I stayed in an Airbnb apartment in a quiet neighborhood outside the central tourist areas. The apartment was cheaper than a hotel room and riding the tube was such a pleasant experience that I didn’t mind the extra travel.

Amenities

Many people cite the use of a kitchen and washer/dryer as reasons to stay in Airbnb lodgings. After all, if you reduce the amount of restaurant dining you do on vacation, you’ll save money. You can also save on checked baggage fees if you only pack a few items of clothing and wash them for free throughout your trip.

My only advice is to ask yourself how much you’ll really use that kitchen. I’ve rented apartments instead of hotel rooms for the same reason, only to discover that I didn’t want to cook on vacation.

How much can you save? 

Buying ingredients to cook at home is at least half the cost of purchasing prepared food or eating in a restaurant. Even if you only eat one meal a day at home, the savings will add up.

Hotel or Airbnb? It comes down to emotion and practicality

While some people want the comforting familiarity of a favorite hotel brand, others crave the charm of a unique home and want to “live like a local” on vacation. Still others are simply looking for the best deal in order to afford their trip. This blend of emotion and practicality will ultimately determine your choice between a hotel and Airbnb. Which option do you prefer—or does it change with each trip?

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About the author

Elizabeth Spencer
Total Articles: 42
Elizabeth Helen Spencer is a personal finance and travel writer based in the Philadelphia area. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and still nurses a secret fiction writing habit on the side. When not writing for work or pleasure, she loves to sweat it out in a hot yoga class and find new books to read. Elizabeth lives with her husband and two children and has reached the conclusion that "having it all" is a myth.