Do you love visiting New York City, but hate the sky-high hotel prices? Here’s an alternative: Rent a privately owned room from a city resident. Several online services have recently sprung up to facilitate this, most notably Airbnb, which launched in 2008.

Log on to Airbnb.com to view approximately over 50,000 listings for New York City and the surrounding boroughs. Filters help narrow your search by type of accommodation (shared, private room, or entire place), price, and location. You can view photos and read descriptions and user reviews.

Once you’ve created your profile, you book through the site and wait for the host to confirm your reservation. Your payment goes to Airbnb (via a major credit card or PayPal) and is forwarded to the host (minus the service fee) 24 hours after you check-in.

Most of the time (and especially in New York), an Airbnb room costs considerably less than a hotel room. However, it means you’re staying in somebody else’s apartment. Whether the owner is home or you’re taking over the whole place, there are pluses and minuses, and we’ll get to that. But first, let’s look at some options.

Key Takeaways

  • Hotels can be costly in New York City. However, the amenities offered by a hotel are not typically provided by Airbnb hosts. 
  • There are 50,000 plus listings on Airbnb for New York City.  
  • Renting a room for a few days in someone's home via Airbnb is cheaper than renting out the whole apartment, but renting an entire apartment is often less expensive than New York City-based luxury hotels. 
  • In New York City and elsewhere, some Airbnb listings may be illegal under local laws. 

The following examples compare hotel rooms with Airbnb rentals in three New York City neighborhoods. We looked at a room for two on a three-day weekend from March 13 to 16, 2020. 

Midtown Manhattan

Hotel

The Chatwal. ​A glamorous 76-room hotel on West 44th Street, in the middle of the theater district, set in a restored 1905 Beaux-Arts building. Guests enjoy 400-thread-count Frette linens. The hotel's restaurant, The Lambs Club, is run by celeb chef Geoffrey Zakarian. What you pay: A queen room starts at $535 per night. (For all NYC hotel listings, expect to add as much as 14.75% or more in room taxes.) 

Airbnb:

"Gorgeous Room. Close to Time Square". This "gorgeous room in a luxury building" with a double bed is just "minutes to Times Square" and offers shared amenities like a shared balcony space. What you pay: $135 per night, a $79 service fee for the three-night stay, and a $75 cleaning fee.

Many Airbnb listings in New York City are one-room rentals within an apartment, meaning you may be sharing common spaces, including a bathroom with the lease-holder or homeowner.

SoHo Neighborhood

Hotel

Crosby Street Hotel. An 86-room property in a warehouse-style building. Decorator Kit Kemp, known for his colorful, contemporary take on the classic English look, has filled the place with antiques and surprising art. What you pay: A “luxury” room starts at $755 per night.

Airbnb

'Heart of Soho. Cute studio with clean finishes." Studio apartment in the heart of Soho has a "comfortable queen bed with a 50" smart TV on the wall," and "linens and towels provided." What you pay: $225 per night (for whole studio apartment), plus a $123 service fee and $75 cleaning fee.

Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Hotel

The Wythe Hotel. As befits the hipster neighborhood, this boutique property manages to look vintage without being retro. Some rooms have full views of the Manhattan skyline, as does the rooftop bar. What you pay: A queen room starts at $272.

Airbnb

"Sunny room in Williamsburg". A bedroom in a top-floor corner loft apartment with "views of Manhattan" in South Williamsburg with "air conditioning" and a "laptop-friendly workspace." What you pay: $70 per night, plus a $39 service fee and a $25 cleaning fee.

So What’s the Catch?

In most cases, the tradeoff is pretty apparent. But saving money isn't the only reason to consider Airbnb. Here are some of the pros and cons.

Less flexibility: Most Airbnb hosts require a minimum stay of two or three nights. And check-in times might be inconvenient for late arrivals, unlike at a typical hotel, but that can be negotiated with your host.

Fewer—or more—amenities: Business travelers tend to prefer speedy check-in and no surprises, and they may need a business center, hotel bar, or restaurant. But Airbnb renters are often invited to use the kitchen, which could come stocked with breakfast goodies. And Wi-Fi is usually free.

Personal contact: Through Airbnb, you get to meet a local who’ll likely be happy to point you to the best neighborhood delis, bars, and restaurants – and the nearest train station. In fact, your host might hang out with you. Or, in one case, “He baked us one of the best carrot cakes I have ever had.”

Is trust an issue? According to Airbnb, “Guests and hosts verify their IDs by connecting to their social networks and scanning their official ID.” Both hosts and renters establish an online reputation since everyone can see how others rate them. And you can use the site’s messaging system to get more info from hosts or other guests.

The Airbnb Backlash

For the last few years, home-rental companies, including Airbnb, have been struggling with regulations in major cities like New York. Airbnb critics have often raised alarms that instead of individuals renting out rooms or homes for personal income, commercial outfitters have bought up large swaths of apartments in cities and used them as illegal hotels for visitors.

According to a 2019 New York Times article: "New York City is Airbnb’s largest domestic market, with more than 50,000 apartment rental listings. But under state law, it is illegal in most buildings for an apartment to be rented out for less than 30 days unless the permanent tenant is residing in the apartment at the same time."

Some New Yorkers object to Airbnb, claiming that it’s illegal to rent out rooms in your apartment and that many hosts are commercial operators. (When the owner/renter continues to occupy the space, short-term rentals are not illegal, although some buildings/leases may not allow them.) 

The real fear is that landlords will seek to cash in on Airbnb by converting affordable rental apartments to hotel rooms, thus diminishing the city’s already tight housing market. Airbnb insists that both hosts and guests benefit, with approximately 62% or more of New York hosts using the service to help cover their rent, according to Airbnb.

The Bottom Line

Airbnb offers (mostly) affordable rates for travelers, especially in expensive cities like New York. Airbnb hosts can be quirkier than hotel staff, but they also can be friendlier and make your visit to a city more personal.

On the other hand, the standardized services found in hotels can be appealing to business travelers and others who look for the predictability of those services. (For more savings tips for New York City, read Which Are Most Expensive U.S. Cities For Tourists?)