Sep 1, 2020

Airbnb or hotel? Making the right choice when COVID cabin fever strikes


Our Airbnb on the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State.
 Our Airbnb on Washington's Long Beach peninsula 

Airbnb or hotel? It's a question that pops up when COVID cabin fever sets in, and a string of late-summer sunny days calls for a short getaway.

My husband and I booked two four-day trips recently, both within Washington State or a short distance across the border to Oregon in keeping with health experts' suggestions to stay close to home in Seattle. 

Airbnbs were our first choice, mainly because by booking self-contained units such as mother-in-law apartments or backyard cottages, we could cut the risks associated with indoor lobbies, elevators, hallways etc. used by many people at the same time.

The four units I booked averaged out at around $125 per night, including taxes and fees. All had private entrances, small kitchens and private bathrooms. 

At the Writer's Hearth on Washington's Long Beach Peninsula, our host Christine, left a dozen fresh eggs on our door stop laid by her hens that morning. We relaxed on her deck overlooking the clear Walapa Bay, snacking on the fruit and cheese platter she left in the fridge. The room was small, but had everything we needed, including a private entrance, sparking private bathroom, coffee and a coffee maker.  

Dinner on the deck

In Port Townsend, on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, we rented an entire house with water views and a full kitchen where we were able to invite friends for dinner and eat together on the outdoor patio.

Hotels may have the advantage when it comes to professional cleaning protocols, but most Airbnb hosts know how to clean. Most adhere to Airbnb’s enhanced cleaning protocol—a set of standards developed by Airbnb with health and hospitality experts for COVID-19 times and beyond. 

That said, picking the right Airbnb - one that fits your budget, location preferences, cancellation requirements etc. - requires some research. Airbnb listings contain detailed information about the units themselves, the hosts and the locations. The challenge is knowing to follow links labeled "Read More" or "Details."

Here are a few tips to help avoid surprises. 

Starting your search:

Assuming you've registered and set up a profile, start your search with your exact location of your destination, then use the filters to avoid having to comb through listings that don't suit your needs.

For example, under "Type of Place," indicate if you want a whole unit or house to yourself, or if you want a private room with shared spaces (usually someone's home) or a hotel room. This is important because Airbnb listings now include some commercial hotel rooms or condos owned by real estate investors. 

You can also filter for price, number of bedrooms, bathrooms, air conditioning etc.

Look for units with outdoor spaces if you're planning on having guests 

Next, start looking at listings that fit your criteria, taking special note of the location (visible on the map at right and also on map on the listing itself). Owners provide the exact address only after a reservation is made, but I've found most are willing to supply cross streets or other more specific location information via e-mail before booking. 

Beware that your search might turn up places in nearby towns. This could be confusing if you're unfamiliar with the area. A search for places to stay in Ashford, Washington, near Mount Rainier, for instance, turned up units for rent in Eatonville, Packwood and Morton, all too far away. 


Airbnb has recently become more transparent about its pricing, but is still not as up-front as it could be in terms of showing the bottom-line rate in initial searches.

When you look at a listing, you'll first see the nightly rate in bold, followed by a higher, "Total" rate in fine print below. Click on "Total" to see a price break-down that includes the Airbnb fee and the cleaning fee but not taxes.

Example: Airbnb lists a one-bedroom guest house in Portland, Oregon's Mount Tabor neighborhood at $100 a night. The "total" jumps to $171 when a $50 cleaning fee and a $21 service fee are included. Opening the listing to book discloses an additional $29 in local taxes, for a real total of $200 per night.

Not all hosts charge a cleaning fee, and for those that do, $50 is on the high side. Most charge between $25-$40.

I suspect that Airbnb encourages owners to tack on "cleaning fees" as a way to increase revenue without having the higher price show up in bold print. Most owners clean the rooms themselves. Given COVID protocols, a small cleaning fee probably is in order.


To find out everything that's provided or not included in your unit, open the listing and click "Read more" under what starts out as a brief description of the property. 

The Writer's Hearth where we stayed in Long Beach, points out that the host supplies bottled water,  chocolate, coffee, tea, snacks, and seasonal fruit. And...important during these times..."You are welcome to bring your home-cooked or take-out meals and heat them in the room's kitchen niche."

Our Port Townsend house mentions a equipped kitchen with "all the accessories you need to cook and dine at home: gas range, refrigerator, microwave, toaster, french press and coffee pot, all cookware, dishes and utensils including outdoor propane BBQ grill."

A list of 10 standard amenities (parking, kitchen, TV etc.) shows up on each listing page. For a full list of what the unit has or doesn't have, click on "Show all amenities." 

Airbnbs normally don't include breakfast, but some hosts supply the fixings for a light morning meal such as oatmeal or yogurt. Many units have coffee and a coffee maker, and most include a small fridge and microwave. 

Cancellation policies

Cancellation policies vary with the unit, but don't assume COVID-19 worries will be accepted as a reason to cancel. 

Airbnb policies call for hosts to refund the entire cost, including the Airbnb fee, within the first 48 hours of booking. After that, it's up to the hosts to set their own refund policies. Some ask for partial or full pre-payment in advance, while others allow full refunds, minus the Airbnb fee, within 48 hours of arrival. To read the fine print on cancellations, click on "Get details" under the cancellation information, then "Full details" to find out more about Airbnb's general policy and COVID-19 updates.

Payment is transferred through credit card info guests supply when they register with Airbnb. No money exchanges hands. 

Read the reviews

Guests rate their Airbnb stays according to cleanliness, communication, check-in, accuracy, location and value. Check on the timelines of reviews, especially given COVID-19 changes after March or April.

Airbnb asks both owners and guests to review each other right after the stay. Both have 14 days to write a review. Comments are posted only after both parties have completed their reviews, or when the 14-day period has expired. 

I've had only one bad experience in many years of using Airbnb. The owner of our London rental left town, and the person she left in charge didn't show up to let us in. We spent several hours on the phone with Airbnb to resolve the problem. Communication was swift, and eventually we were able to gain access by using a code Airbnb had on file.

Contacting the hosts

It's always a good idea to get your questions answered before you book. Click on "Contact host" on the listing page, and send an e-mail. Make a note of your host's contact information, including cell phone number for texts, before you leave. Most send check-in instructions and directions in an e-mail a day or two in advance.  


  1. Important cautions and guidelines, Carol. Our experience with Airbnb has been good, but it does take some diligence. Some rental owners turn the management chores over to companies, which adds another layer of rules and procedures. Not sure if that's an Airbnb thing -- maybe VRBO? Anyhow nice writeup.

  2. Carol, thanks for the tips! I agree with you that Airbnbs feel safer during covid than hotels. I’m an Airbnb host myself and in my experience, reviews DO get posted even if one party declines. Airbnb waits 2 weeks for both parties to review, then will post even if only one party reviews. I have recent examples of this both as a host and a guest.