Vacation Rentals Vs. Hotels: Which Is Better For Family Travel?

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We’ve traveled as a family for a total of least 14 months over the past six years. That’s an average of more than 60 nights each year spent in various forms of travel accommodation solutions, mostly hotels, motels and vacation rentals. In this post I’d like to share my insights and thoughts on which is the better option for a traveling family: a rental home/unit or a motel/hotel room.

Vacation Rentals vs. Hotels: Which is better for family travel?

It’s not as straightforward as some websites would have you believe (not surprisingly, most of them are websites which market one of these options). So, let’s review the pros and cons of each option.

The Pros And Cons of Staying At A Vacation Rental

A vacation rental is usually a unit with one or more bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen and a living/dining area. It can be as small as a single-bedroom studio apartment with a tiny kitchen or as large as a 12-bedroom mansion with its own swimming pool. It’s almost always owned by an individual such as yourself, though it can be managed by a local agency.

Vacation Rentals: The Pros

1. A larger living space

Almost by definition, vacation rentals are simply larger than hotel rooms. There are exceptions in both groups, of course, but comparing a standard motel/hotel room with a standard vacation rental, the latter will almost always have a kitchen and a living area, somehow separate from the bedrooms. If you need more than two bedrooms, there is a selection of vacation rentals with pretty much any number of bedrooms you may require.

These units almost always include a shared living area as well. This can be anything from a dining table and a few chairs to a large living room and even additional rooms for games and recreation. Sometimes there’s even a backyard with your own playground or a swimming pool.

Vacation Rentals vs. Hotels: Which is better for family travel? More space in vacation rentals
My step-mother and one of my boys lounging the spacious living area of a vacation rental we shared while traveling the Oregon coast.

2. Your own kitchen.

When traveling as a family, a kitchen can be a godsend. Cooking your own meals helps you keep the menu healthy and saves on costs. It also allows your kids to enjoy their favorite dishes which they know and love. On longer trips, there’s nothing quite like enjoying a homemade meal which includes your own staple dishes. Did I mention it saves on costs? You can shop at the local supermarket and avoid paying through your nose at restaurants.

Vacation Rentals vs. Hotels: Which is better for family travel? You can cook in vacation rentals
My Dad and stepmother with the very healthy meal they prepared for us while sharing a vacation rental.

3. More bang for your buck.

Being larger and offering amenities such as a kitchen and sometimes a washer and drier, vacation rentals almost always offer you better value for money. In my experience, a two-bedroom unit with a kitchen and a small living area usually costs less than a motel room for four in the same destination and time of year.

4. Specific reviews.

I always read reviews before making reservations. Reading a review on TripAdvisor for a hotel that runs 300 rooms can be misleading because you could be getting an entirely different room, on a different floor, with different issues.

With vacation rentals, you can be sure the reviews address the very same unit you are looking at renting. Everything from the creaking chair to the problem with the faulty window handle in the second bedroom on the left or the amazing artwork in the master bedroom, is about the very place you’ll be staying at. Owners almost always respond to the reviews, so you can also assess if the complaints have been addressed, as well as get a general feel of what kind of person you’ll be dealing with.

5. A personal touch.

Vacation rentals are almost always decorated by their owners. More often than not, they are used by their family at least once a year. This means the decor carries the signature of an actual person (for better or worse…) and you can choose a place that suits your own taste. It also means there are often books, games and movie DVD’s available which can provide a nice way to pass an otherwise boring rainy afternoon.

Vacation Rentals vs. Hotels: Which is better for family travel? The beautiful dining room and living room of a 100 years old home in Hurricane, Utah which we rented for four days while exploring Zion National Park.
The beautiful living area of a 100-year-old home in Hurricane, Utah which we rented for four days.

Vacation Rentals: The Cons

1. Having to make reservations in advance.

You can’t just knock at the door of a rental and hope to stay the night. You have to make reservations in advance, including making a considerable down payment. A vacation rental is simply not a last-minute, at-your-whim type of accommodation.

The process of making a reservation can be complicated. Owners usually send you a contract that you have to read through, sign and send them back. The form of payment isn’t as straightforward as pulling out your credit card at the front desk. Some owners prefer Paypal, while others require a check in the mail or a bank transfer. You can almost always work out a method that works for both of you but it can take a few days to arrange the technicalities.

2. Strict cancellation policies.

Cancellation policy varies but it’s almost always stricter than that of the average hotel. It’s extremely rare to find free cancellation up to 48 hours in advance which is the norm with hotel rooms. You need to be fully committed to your vacation plans or be willing to part with a significant chunk of your payment (sometimes all of it).

3. The extra payments.

Vacation rentals usually state a nightly or weekly fee. Scroll down to the “terms and conditions” and you’ll almost always discover a couple of additional items, usually a cleaning fee and a local tax. The cleaning fee is for your entire stay. If you’re only staying for a couple of nights, it can easily add 50% to your total. It’s fine if you know to look for it and calculate it into your overall price. Just be aware that the price stated upfront isn’t always what you’ll have to pay. It also means longer stays are more cost-effective.

4. You make your own beds.

There’s rarely a daily cleaning service in vacation rentals. You’re in charge of making the beds (if you wish to) and generally keeping the place clean while you stay there. Remember that kitchen that’s so great for cooking meals? Yup. You get to wash the dishes and clean up too.

Owners almost always request a minimal level of tidying up when you’re leaving which can include running the dishwasher one last time, taking out the trash and getting the sheets off the beds.

5. You’re on your own.

There will be no huge neon light shouting “hotel” at you. If the place is difficult to find, it could take you a while to locate the property, especially during nighttime. Once you get there, there is usually no reception desk (the exception would be rental units within a managed resort) and more often than not, nobody to greet you. There is usually a lockbox with a code inside which you’ll find the keys. Can’t get the code to work? Let’s hope the owner or his/her representative is indeed available on the phone that very moment.

I will say though that entry almost always goes smoothly. Owners know where the pitfalls of locating the property lie and provide detailed instructions about getting to the place and entering. You do get a list of phone numbers and sometimes there is actually someone to greet you on arrival. That said, there have been a couple of times where we were stranded outside a vacation unit, frantically trying to get an owner on the phone.

The Pros And Cons of Staying At A Hotel/Motel

Staying at Hotels: The Pros

1. No need for reservations

Usually. Hotels can get fully booked and if you’re hitting town on a busy weekend or during a conference, you may not get a lot of choice without making a reservations weeks – sometimes months – in advance.

Generally speaking though, hotels are the kinds of places that welcome walk-ins. You can almost always find a local Motel 6 or Super 8 which offers clean and affordable beds with no need to book anything in advance. Also, even on busier days, if you’re willing to pay for your flexibility, you can almost always find an overpriced room even on short notice.

signed-hotel

2. Flexible cancellation policies

Some hotels may ask you to cancel 24 or even 48 hours in advance for a full refund, but many offer free cancellation up to the same day. If you want to keep your itinerary flexible, you can always book rooms at these motels. Just remember to call them by the allotted hour if you’re not arriving. No-shows do get billed. Make sure you get a cancellation number, preferably by email.

3. There’s almost always someone around.

Larger hotels and motels have someone at the front desk 24/7. Even smaller ones have someone available for emergencies, though you may need to call a certain number (or just bang the counter and hope the night shift receptionist wakes up).

4. You can get a different room.

Don’t like your room? Maybe it smells bad, or feels too crowded for a family of four, or maybe it’s too close/far away from the pool/parking lot. Whatever the reason, most hotels will be happy to put you in a different room that suits your needs better if they have one available.

5. Your room will be freshened on a daily basis.

You can leave your room all messed up in the morning. When you return from your daily adventure, your beds will be made and fresh towels will have magically appeared in the bathroom. As a traveling parent, that’s not something to be taken lightly!

Our room in a small hotel in Rome. Always nice to return to freshly-made beds.
Our room in a small hotel in Rome. Always nice to return to freshly-made beds.

6. Hotel amenities

Larger hotels can have all sorts of perks to offer you. From quiet work environments where you can spend some time connecting with your office, through to gyms, swimming pools and spas. We once stayed at a hotel in Bismarck, North Dakota which offered a nice office space for me and an awesome swimming pool with water slides for the kids and their Dad. We spent a great couple of days there without hardly ever leaving the hotel.

Staying at Hotels: The Cons

1. A single room can be too small for a family.

We have stayed in larger family rooms but generally speaking, a room with beds for four can feel crowded. More often than not, there is no “living area” and the kids just sprawl over the beds watching TV or playing with their phones. It’s “livable” for a night or two but if you need to spend more time in the room, it can get claustrophobic. You can always take two rooms – sometimes even two adjoining rooms – but that would double the price.

A cramped room in a small motel near Mt. Hood, Oregon
A cramped room in a small motel near Mt. Hood, Oregon

2. Lack of privacy

Having your beds made for you is lovely. It also means there’s a stranger entering your room while you’re away. And not every hotel offers a safe. We usually prefer to just carry our valuable with us whenever we leave the room.

3. Noisy neighbors.

Some hotels offer better noise insulation than others but generally speaking, a motel/hotel room is louder than an average home environment. If it’s a busy place, you can often hear cars pulling into the parking lot and people checking in at all hours. Cheaper establishments can have walls thin enough for you to share intimate moments with your next-door neighbors… And yes, we’ve had some less-than-stellar experiences with parties going on in other rooms, sometimes even spilling into the corridors.

4. A place to sleep at – not much more.

The interior design of a hotel room is almost always impersonal. You’ve seen one motel room, you’ve seen them all (ok, most – there are rare exceptions). This, along with the lack of shared living space makes the hotel room less inviting. It can be perfect for spending the night and moving on but it will rarely give you the sense “a home away from home”.

One more dull motel room we've stayed at.
One more dull motel room we’ve stayed at

So, which is the better option for a traveling family?

As with most things, it depends.

If you can plan on staying in a certain place for several days, a vacation rental is almost always the better option.

The extra space (including having your own kitchen and private bedrooms) outweighs the potential hassle of making your reservations well in advance (and sticking to your dates). With the extra cleaning fees spread across several nights, the final nightly rate will most likely be cheaper than that of a hotel room too. Vacation rentals are a great way to spend a slow-paced vacation, enjoying shared homemade meals and family time in the living area.

On the other hand, if your trip is a faster-paced road trip, hotels are the way to go. I always check every destination for availability a few days in advance. If things get busy there due to a local event, I either opt for another town or make sure I book our room in advance. Otherwise, I prefer to wing it and just show up in one of the motels I had researched and found to be compatible with our needs. We check-in, shower, sleep, and move on the following morning.

Where we plan on staying for 2-3 days, it can go either way. That’s when I have to really compare the options. Sometimes a local motel offers a better deal, but other times I can find a local rental unit that gives us a better experience. There certainly have been occasions where I changed our plans to stick around more in a certain place, just to make the most of a vacation rental and lower the overall nightly rate.

Which do you prefer? I’d love to hear about your experiences with either form of accommodation, so don’t be shy and leave me a comment!

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2 comments

  1. Hi, just reading your blog….we have just returned from 20 months travel with our two kids to start school…We were staying at hotels to help save money. Although we still ended up spanning a little out of budget!! We are finding it hard to settle in, after so much family time together…and. Work, school etc taking so much of the precious family time! W hope we can get ourselves financially independent again to start the travels again!

    1. Wow, 20 months of traveling! I wonder why hotels were the cheaper option for you guys? With slow travel you can often stop at the same place for weeks at a time, so a rental usually becomes the better option.

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