Rental vs. Hotel: When’s an Apartment Smart?


Options for apartment and house rentals run the gamut, from French gîtes to Tuscan villas to big-city apartments. Prices vary depending on the season, size, location, and quality of the accommodation. For stays longer than a few days, you can usually find a rental that’s comparable to — or even cheaper than — a hotel room with similar amenities.

Renting a room in someone’s home is another alternative that can be much more affordable than a hotel, homier than a hostel, and just as comfortable as either. Depending on your host, you might also get to hang out with a local — and maybe even make a new friend.

The rental route isn’t for everyone. First off, you’re generally on your own. While the apartment owner or manager might offer some basic assistance, don’t expect all the services of a hotel reception desk. If you like daily access to a breakfast room, fresh towels, and a sheet change, stay in a hotel. In a rental, breakfast is up to you, and your apartment or room likely won’t be serviced or cleaned during a one-week stay unless you pay extra.

Some rentals, especially rooms in a local’s home, are very casual affairs, without the professionalism (or privacy) you’d expect in a more formal hotel environment. Rentals often require a minimum-night stay and long lead times on cancellations. Choose a hotel instead if there’s a decent chance your plans might change.

Apartments and Houses

Whether in a city or the countryside, renting an apartment, house, or villa can be a fun and cost-effective way to delve into Europe. In general, if you’re staying somewhere for four nights or longer, it can be worth considering an apartment or rental house (many rentals require minimum stays — typically 3–7 nights; anything less than that isn’t worth the hassle of arranging key pickup, buying groceries, etc.). If it works with your itinerary, consider settling in a rental for a full week. This gives you an opportunity to really get to know a town. Renting an apartment can be a particularly good strategy if you’re choosing a home-base city from which to take day trips.

Apartment or house rentals can be especially cost-effective for groups. Two couples traveling together can share a two-bedroom apartment, which often ends up being less expensive than a pair of hotel rooms. Groups of backpackers find that splitting the price of a cheap apartment can cost even less than paying for several bunks at a youth hostel. Having a place to cook can further your savings. Stock your kitchen for breakfast and lunch, taking advantage of the colorful markets that pop up throughout European cities and towns, and save your money for nice dinners out.

For families, an apartment or house is a huge benefit. Kitchens make it easier and cheaper to dine in and feed picky eaters. Laundry machines are especially handy. With more than one room, parents of younger children can hang out and chat while their kids slumber (as opposed to being trapped in a hotel room with the lights out at 8 p.m.).

Single and Shared Rooms

Most people informally renting out rooms are in it to make a few extra bucks, not to run a full-fledged lodging business with the infrastructure and expenses that drive up costs. If you’re willing to accept a very small space, a shared bathroom, or other “inconveniences,” you’ll be able to find remarkably affordable deals through services like Airbnb.

Renting a room in someone’s home is an especially good option for those traveling alone. You’re more likely to find true single rooms — with just one single bed, and a price to match. And if you’re up for sharing a room with fellow guests — whether those you’re traveling with or strangers — you can find a bed for a price that’s lower than the going rate for hostel bunks. Some room-rental arrangements also include use of the house’s kitchen and laundry facilities.

Some places allow you to book for a single night. And since you’re often staying in someone’s house when they’re home too, you won’t need to pick up a key. Just arrive at the appointed time and knock on the door. If you’re staying for several nights, you can buy groceries just as you would in a rental house, or you can rely on restaurants, treating the room like a hotel room.

While you can’t expect your host to also be your tour guide — or even to provide you with much info — some may be interested in getting to know the travelers who come through their home. It will likely be clear from the listing whether the hosts might be up for some socializing. (If you’re interested in staying less as an anonymous lodger and more in the spirit of cultural exchange, see my tips for bunking with locals.)

Rural Rentals

Having an entire farmhouse, countryside cottage, or villa to yourself is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in rural Europe. Often the owners have renovated an original rambling farmhouse or medieval estate into a series of well-constructed apartments with private kitchens, bathrooms, living areas, and individual outdoor terraces. They usually share a common pool and other amenities, and breakfast may be included.

Many of these vacation properties (casas rurales in Spain, Ferienhäuser in Germany, gîtes in France) are available only for a traditional Saturday-to-Saturday rental. Especially for stays in July and especially August, when much of Europe is on vacation, it may be difficult to rent a place for a shorter time. Europeans often reserve their favorite spot a year in advance, so you may have to hunt around to find an opening. (Fortunately for Americans, the British are some of the most avid seekers of weekly rental property in Europe, so there’s usually plenty of English-language info.) It’s wise to book several months in advance for high season (late April to mid-October).

Although a week might seem like a long time, one of the joys of staying that long in one location is il dolce far niente (the “sweetness of doing nothing”). Settling in one spot gives you the chance to let the days unwind without a plan. A walk at sunrise may find you in the company of the local farmer as he trims his grape vines, or the neighboring grandmother who is lovingly tending her small garden. In the evening, breathe in the fresh air as you sip your wine, and perk your ears and nostrils to the sounds and scents of the countryside. This is your chance to slow down and enjoy.

Should You Stay in a Hotel, AirBnB or Hostel on Your Next Trip?

You have to decide if you prefer comfortable flights or budget-friendly flights. Whether you want to see tourist attractions or venture off the beaten path. Which airline you should fly. When you should buy your flight tickets. What day you should fly. The list goes on and on…

Furthering the confusion is the decision of where to stay. Should you go for a nice hotel? Will it look like the photos you see online? Will choosing a budget-friendly hotel mean you’ll be sleeping with bed bugs? Should you even stay at a hotel at all?

Fortunately, travelers have more options than ever before. And the more you know, the better you can plan your optimal travel experience!

Remember that if your flight is delayed and you miss a night or two in your perfect hotel, AirBnB or hostel, you can claim compensation for delayed flight.

Where to Stay: Hotel, AirBnB or Hostel?

One of the most important choices a traveler can make when planning their trip is deciding where to stay. This decision is one that can make or break your trip, so consider it carefully.

The beauty is that you don’t need to have the same answer every time. For a work trip you might prefer a hotel; for a personal trip you might prefer a hostel or AirBnB. Or you might change your mind based on the destination. Rather than declaring loyalty to one for the rest of time, ask yourself these questions before you plan every trip:

  1. How important are amenities such as a fitness room, free breakfast, and having your bed made and towels cleaned every day?
  2. Do you want to feel like a traveler or like a local? Do you want to meet other travelers?
  3. What level of risk are you comfortable with taking in regards to your belongings and your safety?
  4. Is saving money or optimizing comfort your top priority?
  5. Is this trip for work or play?
  6. Is this trip solo or with a group?
  7. What parts of town are each of these options located in — and does that line up with where you want to explore?

Once you know what your priorities are for your particular trip, you’ll be ready to decide where to stay. But first, let’s talk about what you can expect from staying at a hotel versus a hostel versus an AirBnB.

What to Expect from Staying at a Hotel

For the sake of simplicity, I’m grouping hotels with inns and bed and breakfasts. While they differ from each other, they share a common denominator of being more traditional places that allow you to be catered to by staff.

Here’s what you can expect from most hotels:

  • A staff working to serve you
  • Some form of restaurant, bar, coffee shop, or store onsite
  • Someone to make your bed and launder your towels daily
  • Room service and maybe even a mini fridge stocked with items you can buy
  • Sometimes there’s free breakfast, a desk in the room, and a coffee maker
  • Sometimes there’s a fitness room, a conference room, and a room you can work in and print or fax things, etc.
  • A safe and secure premises, reliable room locks

If you stay at a bed and breakfast or an inn, you likely won’t get many of the amenities above. But amenities you can expect include:

  • One or two staff members on the premises to assist you
  • Homemade breakfast with coffee and tea
  • Sometimes there’s an early evening mingling event with wine and cheese
  • Often the room will be more cozy than modern and there will be common areas in which you can mingle with the other guests

What to Expect from Staying at an AirBnB

The question of what to expect when staying at an AirBnB is a little more complex. An AirBnB is when someone rents out their apartment or home and lists it on the AirBnB website. Travelers can then search by specifications of price, size, location, and more. When you get to your room, the owner/renter will stay somewhere else so you have the place to yourself.

Here’s what to expect when you stay at an AirBnB:

  • A private home or apartment, giving you a more authentic experience of the place you’re visiting
  • A price (most likely) somewhere in between that of a hotel and a hostel
  • The owner or renter will often meet you when you arrive to give you a tour. If they don’t, they might leave their keys under the mat or at a local business and leave a note about what you need to know.
  • There will be no amenities unless they come with the building you’re staying in. That means you’ll have to wash the sheets and towels yourself if you so choose.
  • You will be staying in a place for which someone else (the owner or renter) has a key, so there could be a safety concern.

Making the Choice

There are many pros and cons to each of these and your decision will likely vary based on your budget, where you’re going, and why you’re going. To help you summarize how to make this decision, consider this:

Hotels (or inns and bed and breakfasts) are a good choice if your budget is flexible and/or you’re optimizing for comfort and being catered to by staff.

Hostels are a good choice if you’re really focused on saving money and/or you’d like to meet and engage with other travelers.

AirBnBs are a good choice if you want to save money but still want a private place to stay and/or if you want to experience the place you’re visiting the same way a local does.

So what about you? Have you tried any of the above — or even all three? Let us know how your experience was in the comments below!

WHY ARE HOTEL BEDS SO COMFORTABLE?

Opinion on what makes hotel beds so comfortable varies from person to person. Typically, the quality of hotel beds tends to go down to the type of mattress you prefer. But the main factor that makes hotel beds so comfortable usually seems low for the quality of the hotel you are staying in.

Many hotel rooms do not tend to focus on the quality of their beds as they seek to keep costs down and profits reasonably high. This is why it is best to avoid cheap B&B or hotels that have a star rating of less than three, especially if you are looking to get a comfortable night’s sleep.

If you pay to visit a high quality hotel chain, you should expect one of the most comfortable beds you will ever sleep in your life. This is because luxury hotels won’t mind spending large amounts of money on top quality beds, because they want their customers to be totally satisfied with their hotel experience.

People will have mixed experiences with their hotel beds, they love or hate them. But for those who are finding hotel beds to be much more comfortable than their own bed, it may be a sign that you should consider changing your mattress to a similar one that is used in hotels. Your stay in a hotel bed may show that your mattress may be too firm or that you may want to go with a different type of mattress.

Overall, depending on the type of hotel you stay in, it will have an influence on the level of comfort you experience. So if you are paying a high price for a luxury hotel room then you should be expecting a high level of comfort from your hotel bed.