Hotels: Forgo and Forget

The Skinny: Holiday apartments often offer much better value for money than hotel rooms. Even for short weekend getaways, families would do well to look into booking flats. On longer holidays, it’s no contest.

We’re pretty much a hotel-free family these days. A hotel room is doable for the infant stage, but when your kids hit toddlerhood or when you have more than one pup, holiday apartments become the way to go. While lots of people look into holiday homes or apartments for extended vacations, few people seem to think of them for city breaks or shorter getaways. You should.

First of all, holiday apartments cost generally the same or even less than a hotel room. Secondly, you can put your kids to bed for the night and you don’t have that problem of where to go and what to do. You know the scenario. You put the little one to bed at eight, then, since he won’t go to sleep with you in the room, wait outside the door until you’re sure he’s asleep and won’t come looking for you. Then you go to the hotel bar and worry, going up every ten minutes or so to listen outside the door. It’s not much fun. Thirdly, in a flat you have a full kitchen so you can pick up some food at the supermarket and have breakfast at home, make sandwiches for a picnic lunch, even make yourself some dinner if you don’t feel like going out. Fourthly, your kids have plenty of room to play. Pulling out those toys and puzzles in a room composed mostly of beds and a thin sliver of floor just doesn’t work, and the only thing for the kids to do is jump on the beds, which you think they probably really shouldn’t do. Lastly, you can have sex.

I’ll give you a recent example from our own experience. (Not of sex, of booking holiday apartments). My wife was in Zagreb, Croatia, on business, and our boys and I drove down to join her for the weekend. The average hotel room in Zagreb runs about 110 Euro, with nicer places in the city center fetching upwards of 150€. For that you get anywhere from 350-400 square feet (32-37 m2) of living space. Instead, we booked this flat right in the heart of the city for 125€ – 120 square meters (1292 square feet) of luxury living with two bedrooms and two bathrooms.  The boys and I stayed only one night, but it was a great space.

The Zagreb flat’s dining area, with the living room in the background

We’ve done short house and apartment rentals all over Europe, and always been extremely pleased. Okay, you’re saying, sure, this kind of thing might be de rigueur in Europe, but what about in the States? Well, let’s take a look.

My family of four hypothetically wants to have a weekend in our nation’s capital, from let’s say Friday July 20 – Sunday July 22, 2012. I go to booking.com searching for hotels, and since we want to be close to the major sights, I look for places near the National Mall. (That name is sadly stereotypical for America – Paris has the Champs-Elysées, London has Trafalgar Square, Tokyo has the Imperial Palace, we have a mall.)

Anyway, a double room at the Willard InterContinental is $684 for those two nights. The Washington Court Hotel, $418. The Hyatt Regency sets you back $438. The Hilton Garden Inn is pretty cheap, at $338. The old standby Holiday Inn is a bit more – $399. A comparison of 15 hotel rooms within a ten-block radius of the Mall yields an average rate of $487 for the nights in question. Eliminate the four most expensive options, and you’re still left with the average hotel room running you $421.

Taking a look at Tripadvisor for two-bedroom apartments (because everyone sleeps better with separate rooms), I come up with a houseboat (could be interesting, but at $700 for those two nights it’s over budget), and a few more places in the $500-600 range, still more than we’re looking to spend.

Over to airbnb.com. If you’ve never used it, this website offers shared rooms, private rooms in shared apartments, or entire properties to yourself. Since with two kids in tow we’re not looking to share space with strangers, we’ll limit our search to ‘entire home/apt.’ There are several possibilities, but  I soon come across this one, nice neighborhood, close to sights, clean, contemporary design, and it’s $320 for the dates we want – considerably less than the average hotel room.

Typical double room at the Marriott at Metro Center

So to review, we could get a double room (315 sqft/28 sqm) at the Washington Marriott at Metro Center for $318 (non-refundable only – if we want the option of cancelling it’s $558), or choose one of the available flats. Let’s look at a place that’s comparably-priced, so we’ll choose the last one I saw on airbnb.com, the two-bedroom (1250 sqft/ 138 sqm) apartment that’s going for $320 for our dates.  It’s no contest. It’s not even close. It’s true, the apartment is a bit farther away from the Mall than the Marriott, but not much, and in every other way it simply blows it away.

Kitchen of two-bedroom apartment

Now, there are many other sites for finding holiday rentals, some better than others. The best ones allow you to refine your search with the most parameters, so you needn’t wade through long lists of places that don’t meet your needs. Homeaway.com is an excellent site, but is generally geared toward stays of 3 days or longer – better for a longer vacation. Another good source is vrbo.com, which we’ve used many times. Keep in mind that our hypothetical DC getaway was for only two nights, so our search ruled out a broad swathe of great places to stay that require a 3-night minimum. Take that Monday off and you’re spoiled for choice. You’d be surprised at how many really spectacular vacation properties are available for short-term stays, so say you’re looking to escape for a long weekend in coastal Maine, you might do better to book a cottage for three nights than to get a hotel room.

If you’re taking off on a romantic (or dirty) weekend with the spouse, then by all means look into hotels. But if you’re bringing the kids along, your first stop when researching accommodations should be holiday apartments, cottages or homes. Free your mind. Forgo the hotel.

3 thoughts on “Hotels: Forgo and Forget

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