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. A number of online services have recently sprung up to facilitate this, most notably Airbnb, which launched in 2008.
Log on to Airbnb.com to view more than 1,000 listings for New York City alone. 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.
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, 2015.
In 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 restaurant, the Lamb’s Club, is run by celeb chef Geoffrey Zakarian.
What you pay: A queen room starts at $588 per night. (For all NYC hotel listings, expect to add as much as 18% in taxes.)
Airbnb: “Special Price Times Square”
This "large clean sunny room" with a queen bed is just "steps to Broadway" and has a view of a small public park across the street.
What you pay: $190 per night, a $73 service fee for the three-night stay, and a $40 cleaning fee.
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 $625 per night.
Airbnb: “Bedroom in SoHo Loft”
A comfortably cluttered, high-ceilinged room in a space that’s “brimming with light and art – a very relaxing environment.”
What you pay: $179 per night, plus a $69 service fee and $35 cleaning fee.
In 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 $395.
Airbnb: “Cozy bedroom in My Loft in New York“
The loft has Manhattan skyline views, but this bedroom is an interior room with “a skylight you can open and a big window looking into the loft.”
What you pay: $102 per night, plus a $42 service fee and $40 cleaning fee.
So What’s the Catch?
In most cases, the tradeoff is pretty obvious. 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: Some New Yorkers object to Airbnb, claiming that it’s illegal to rent out rooms in your apartment, and that many hosts are actually 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.
The controversy was explored in a September article in New York magazine, snidely titled “The Dumbest Person in Your Building Is Passing Out Keys to Your Front Door!” – taken from graffiti scrawled on an Airbnb subway ad. Airbnb insists that both hosts and guests benefit, with 62% of New York hosts using the service to help cover their rent.
The Bottom Line
Airbnb offers great 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 predictability. (For more savings tips for New York City, read Which Are Most Expensive U.S. Cities For Tourists?)