One of the most important decisions you will make when you visit Washington, DC is where to stay. DC has a lot of great hotel options, and we at Trip Hacks DC have a ton of resources about picking a good hotel and getting a great deal on your DC hotel. But people still ask about Airbnb all the time. If you’re considering this option, here are some pros and cons of Airbnb that you should consider.

There are a lot of appealing things about picking an Airbnb for your trip, but it’s also really important to do your homework and pick the right one. For the purposes of this article, when I say Airbnb I’m referring to “entire apartment” rentals. You can also rent a single room in someone’s house through Airbnb, but there are a whole host of other tips for that. For an in-depth discussion on this topic, check out the podcast episode we recorded with Wolters World.

There are a host of pros and cons to Airbnb. Let’s start with the pros:

1. Airbnb might be cheaper than a hotel.

Hotel rates in Washington, DC vary dramatically. The rate you get depends heavily on the dates that you’re visiting. If you’re coming during a time when there are big conferences and conventions in town (like October), hotel rates will be high. If you come at a time of year when not very many business travelers are here, they will be much more affordable.

Business travelers tend not to stay at an Airbnb. So especially if it’s a business-heavy time of year, you might be able to find an Airbnb for less than the price of a hotel.

2. Airbnb lets you stay in unique places.

At the end of the day, most hotel rooms look generally the same, but apartments can really be unique places. For example, with Airbnb you could have an entire row house to yourself.

In one of our previous Airbnb recommendation articles, we also included a houseboat that you can rent on the platform. I mean seriously, how often do you get to stay on a boat during your vacation?! 

3. Airbnb gives you a chance to stay in a less-touristy neighborhood.

One of the most common reasons I hear people say they like Airbnb is that they get to “live like a local.” In my opinion, it’s not entirely possible to live like a local when you’re on vacation. But it is true that hotels tend to be in central downtown locations. Airbnb can really be in any neighborhood, so you can stay in more off-the-beaten-path locations. 

4. Airbnbs may have a host that can help you during your stay.

Some of the better hosts do helpful things—like write a guide that they leave for their guests. It might have how-to tips on how to get around or recommendations for nearby restaurants and bars. If you pick an Airbnb that’s in the basement apartment of someone’s house, the host might actually live right upstairs. 

If they’re willing, they can be a helpful resource. Or—if mayhem strikes—a valuable contact if you get lost, sick, or have some other emergency on your trip.

But there are both pros and cons of Airbnb. Here are some of the down sides:

1. Beware the hidden fees of Airbnb.

Unfortunately, the first price you see on Airbnb is usually much lower than what you eventually pay. As of 2020, Airbnb travelers will pay a service fee, tax, a cleaning fee (which most hosts add), and sometimes even additional fees.

For example, you might see a listing advertised at $92 per night. But after taking into account all the taxes and fees, you’ll actually spend $147 per night for a two-night stay. That’s a 60% premium over the advertised price! 

So depending on these hidden fees and which dates you travel, Airbnb may wind up being no cheaper than a hotel. 

2. Variety isn’t always a good thing.

When you stay at a Hilton Garden Inn—whether it’s in Washington, DC; Orlando, FL; or Lincoln, NE—you pretty much know what to expect.

When you stay at an Airbnb, you really have no idea what you’re getting into until you’re there. You don’t know what the room is going to look like. You don’t know how the mattress is going to feel. 

Yes, sure, there are pictures, but don’t be fooled. A skilled photographer can make any space look really nice. Showing up to an Airbnb that’s shabbier than it looked in the pictures can put a damper on your whole trip.

3. Just because you can stay in a neighborhood doesn’t mean you should

Hotels are generally in areas that are safe, comfortable, and close to the sites (or public transportation to the sites). Your Airbnb, on the other hand, could be miles from the stuff you want to see—and a long walk to transportation to get there. 

When people ask Trip Hacks DC about safety, we tell them that if you pick a downtown hotel and stick to the beaten bath, you probably won’t have to worry much about it. 

But with Airbnb you have to do extra research to make sure you’ll feel comfortable in the area you pick. Or that you don’t have to spend a small fortune on Ubers and cabs to get around.

4. An illegal Airbnb could ruin your trip to DC.

Now, when I say “illegal” I don’t mean you’re at risk of going to jail over it. An “illegal” Airbnb means the host is violating their apartment lease or their condo association’s bylaws. Most renters in the DC metro can tell you that any lease we’ve ever signed prohibits sublets or short-term leases. Anyone staying in the apartment (other than the person on the lease) requires the landlord’s permission.

Many apartment buildings will take it even further—not just banning subleases, but specifically banning Airbnb and a number of similar websites by name. And guess what? People still will put their apartments on Airbnb. Maybe they don’t realize it’s against their lease, maybe they’re trying to sneak one past their landlords. Either way, when management finds out, they shut them down.

This is why it’s risky to rent an Airbnb. Imagine you booked a place months in advance, paid for your flight, mapped out all your activities. Then a week before the trip, your host gets busted by their landlord and has to cancel all their upcoming stays. That’s going to put you in a sticky situation. 

And it happens. Not all the time, but it happens. 

If you are considering an Airbnb, I would recommend this podcast on the good, the bad, and the ugly of Airbnb to help you choose the most reputable option.

Which is better—hotel or Airbnb?

So, the big question is: Which is better—hotel or Airbnb?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. For most travelers, a hotel will be better simply because it’s easier. It’s easier to book, you know what you’re getting, and it’s easier to check in and navigate once you’re here.

For more experienced travelers or those willing to research the pros and cons of Airbnb, it could be a great option. But make sure to do your research. Is the neighborhood safe? Is it close to where you want to go (or to public transportation)? Does their post raise any red flags?

If everything checks out, you might find a unique accommodation and possibly save a little money.