Pros and Cons of Airbnb, VRBO, and Other Short-Term Rentals

Advice for travelers on renting via Airbnb or VRBO versus booking an hotel.

By , J.D., USC Gould School of Law

Instead of staying at a hotel, more and more vacationers and travelers are choosing to stay in short-term rentals they find through online rental services like Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO, FlipKey, and many others. Such short-term rentals can be a great alternative to pricey hotels, but they aren't for everybody. Here's a list of the pros and cons using short-term rental services.

Pros of Airbnb and Similar Rental Services

Many people love to rent through an online rental service like Airbnb or VRBO. Here are some of the reasons why.

You Can Save Money, Sometimes a Lot

By far the main reason most people use short-term rental websites like Airbnb is to save money. It can be much cheaper to stay in an apartment or home rented through an online service such as Home Away than a hotel. Not only that, you can often get a lot more room for your money, making these short-term rentals particularly cost effective for families. Plus, you'll ordinarily have access to a kitchen of some type, so you can save money on eating at restaurants during your stay.

Some Hosts Are Wonderful

Many of the people who host short-term rentals go all out to make their guests' stay as comfortable and pleasant as possible. If you're traveling out of the country, a good host can be an excellent resource for learning about a local culture and customs. Stories abound about hosts who become friends with their guests, who return year after year. You ordinarily won't end up becoming friends with a hotel manager.

Some Accommodations Are Fantastic

Rather than stay in a sterile hotel room in a high-rise building downtown, you may find space in a beautifully-furnished Victorian home in a lovely residential area of the city.

Hotels Aren't Always Great

We've all had bad experiences with hotels. They can be noisy, dirty, or crowded and often have very small rooms. Hotels are usually located in downtown or tourist areas—which may not be the ideal place for your vacation or business trip.

Reviews Can Be Helpful

The reviews of both hosts and accommodations posted on short-term hosting websites can help ensure that you get what you want and will have a good experience.

Cons of Airbnb and Similar Rentals

One the flip side, there can be negative aspects of renting a short-term, non-hotel rental.

Ads and Descriptions May Be Misleading

The ads, photographs, and descriptions posted on short-term rental websites can be misleading or downright dishonest. Some hosting services check out the places they list before they allow them on their websites, but not all do so.

Reservations on Short-Term Rentals May Take Time

Renting through an online short-term rental service is not as fast or as easy as booking a hotel room. Most of the listing websites require users to create an online profile; they may also require you to verify your ID and even provide a video. To find a place, you'll have to wade through voluminous listings and, if you're smart, read lots of reviews.

The Listings You Like May Not Be Available on the Dates You Need

You may find the perfect place, but it may be booked when you want stay. This is particularly likely if you're going to a popular destination like Paris or San Francisco during tourist season, and the rental has lots of great reviews. To get a place you like, you may have to book far, far ahead.

Some Hosts Are Not So Wonderful

When you book a short-term rental through a website like Airbnb or VRBO, you're not dealing with a corporate entity like Marriott or Hilton. Every host is an individual, and is different. Some people know what they're doing, but some don't. A rotten host or one who is overly intrusive could turn your vacation into a nightmare.

Short-Term Rentals Are Not Always As Cheap As They Appear

There are often hidden fees you'll have to pay to the listing service, in addition to the rental fee to the host. You'll also usually be required to provide a deposit that the host will have access to in the event you damage the rental unit, and there may be separate cleaning fees.

Your Short-Tern Stay May Not Be Legal

In many places, short-term rentals of apartments and homes are illegal. If you're renting an apartment or home from a host who is a renter, there is a good chance the host's landlord doesn't know about and wouldn't like it if he or she did know of this arrangement. Your host may ask you to keep quiet and be sure not to bother the neighbors. You may end up feeling like a criminal on the run. For more on the topic, see Legal Restrictions to Renting Your Home on Airbnb or Other Rental Services.

Your Rental Place May Not Be Secure

The place you stay may or may not have good locks, but it likely won't be anywhere near as secure as a hotel, which may have professional security personnel on the premises, computerized door entry cards, security cameras, and room safes.

Your Options May Be Limited If Something Goes Wrong

Problems can happen in all kinds of vacation rentals—a place that looks fantastic online may turn out to be filthy, with an uncomfortable bed in a bad neighborhood with noisy neighbors. If something goes wrong with a short-term rental, will the online rental company help you out? Will you get all or part of your money back if you have a bad experience? This varies from company to company and seems to be changing by the day. The short-term hosting companies are basically making this up as they go along.

Reviews Can Be Misleading

People often don't like to post negative reviews, or may be talked out of (or intimidated from) posting them. So the fact that a rental has only good reviews may not always mean much.

Hotel Service or Amenities Are Often Missing

You're not staying in a hotel, so you won't get hotel-type service or amenities, such as room service or a concierge to help you out when you're staying in someone's home. And you won't typically have maid service, although this is available for some rentals. If you're not the self-reliant type, short-term rentals may not be for you. And if you really like your privacy, renting a room in someone's house, with homeowners coming and going, may not be you.

Our Advice: Choose Carefully

Whether you're staying in a large hotel or a room you found on Airbnb, HomeAway, or a similar short-term rental service, do your homework before booking. Check out as much information as you can about the host, the accommodations, neighborhood, amenities, all fees, and cancellation policies.

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