Hotels are expensive. They don't offer kitchens or washer/dryers. They are downtown or in a city's outskirts, not in hip neighborhoods. You wouldn't want to share a hotel room with other couples. Renting directly from homeowners gives you all of the comforts and privacy of home without the price tag.
In order of awesomeness, these are the best websites for renting from owners:
Couchsurfing (for brave travelers...)
AirBnB offers shared rooms, private rooms, and private homes or apartments. You can spend as little as $20/night for a couch and up to over $1,000 on a mansion or chateau. Right now, AirBnB has a ridiculous offer if you book by January 17th: one free night, valued up to $300. When looking for a place to stay, always check AirBnB first (unless you are looking for a rural cabin in, say, Wisconsin; then, try HomeAway or VRBO).
But it sounds gross, to stay in someone's house. AirBnB's rating system makes it easy to weed out those places:
AirBnB provides so much more than a hotel. Of course, it is more affordable. Also, owners give you tons of insider information not available in the guide book. The accommodations are always unique, creating truly memorable experiences. Surprisingly important, most places have washing machines -- a nice treat!
My Sig-O and I traveled around Europe with AirBnB at a fraction of the cost, and the accommodations we chose really made our trip. For $67/night, we stayed in our own private studio apartment in the hills of Tuscany. The owner picked us up from the train station and even lent us bikes so we could explore the neighboring towns. We enjoyed doing our laundry, cooking dinner in the kitchen, and drinking wine on the porch with views of the countryside.
We shared an upscale apartment in Nice, France for $67/night with one quiet but friendly roommate. The owner of the apartment directed us to her favorite restaurants in town, and, because of her, we had the best meal of our lives in an underground wine cave.
We treated ourselves to a tiny, amazing B&B listed on AirBnB in the Loire Valley for $81/night in the middle of vineyards and fields of yellow flowers, where we got engaged. We loved the giant jacuzzi tub, the deluxe breakfast every morning, and the sweet male owner, who lent us tons of kitchenware for our cheese plate picnics. We were the only people staying at the four room B&B for our few days there.
All in all, we averaged $65/night for two people. Most of our accommodations were private condos in typically expensive areas. Had we stayed in shared dorm rooms in youth hostels, we would have spent the same amount on lodging, but the trip would've been much less private, less clean, and less charming.
We couldn't find a good AirBnB place in Burgundy, France, so we stayed in a cheap hotel. The awful, dank room that barely fit two people, with a flooding shower, reminded us just how lucky we were that AirBnB existed.
Here are some other places we've stayed and recommend:
-Oxford, England: This simple third floor room with private bathroom in a shared house boasts the kindest hosts, a great breakfast, and privacy (considering that it is shared). We stayed here for a friend's wedding, and while our friends paid $200/night and up for hotel rooms, we paid $64/night.
-Amsterdan, Netherlands: We loved this studio apartment in a hip, non-touristic neighborhood in Amsterdam, with an adorable bar (fun Dutch trivia nights!) and a coffee shop right across the street. The owner gave us a good discount after we told him the prices of some other apartments. We paid $80/night, which is well below the cheapest, blandest hotel room's price.
-Paris, France: We liked this apartment less because it was a room in a shared house, and, while most owners give you run of the house, we felt confined to our room a bit here. We did manage to stick our white wine and salami in the fridge. Still, for a well-located Paris room, it was a good deal at $67/night.
-Cinque Terre, Italy: This area proves pricey, and I don't think this private one bedroom apartment was the best deal available. For $98, the location couldn't be beat! However, we saw some small b&bs nearby, and they might've been cheaper (though without a kitchen). Cinque Terre isn't yet saturated with AirBnB options, being a bit rural, so you might do well to search google for local B&Bs for the best deal. We booked another place first and that owner cancelled on us, so AirBnB gave us a credit for one night on our next booking as a courtesy; that made this place a steal.
Because these comanpies' rental process is less streamlined, these sites are best for longer vacations in one place. I use these in particular when I'm looking for a weekend trip in a cabin in the country or when I can't find what I want with AirBnB.
In a few weeks, 10 friends will head up to this HomeAway cabin in Wisconsin. The owners are offering "Stay Two Nights, Get One Night." So, we'll pay $200/night, or $20pp/night, for a remote lakefront cabin with a hot tub and sauna that sleeps ten in actual beds:
Six of us are headed to a busy writing conference in Seattle. By the time we booked our plane tickets, the conference hotels had already been sold out. So, we turned to VRBO to find a downtown condo. We came away with a two bedroom/two bathroom condo with kitchen, free washer/dryer, and gym that sleeps six, located half a mile from the conference (and other downtown attractions, like Pike Place.) The final cost: $200/night or $33pp/night. The local youth hostel charges more per person for a bed in a packed dorm room.
For my Sig-O's birthday, eight of us went to this amazing cabin in Wisconsin with a hot tub and great, big windows. We asked a guy in a snowplow to make us a hockey rink on the lake in front of the cabin and alternated between ice skating and soaking in the 7-8 person hot tub. The total cost per night was $225/night or $28pp/night for 8 people.
Couchsurfing is for the most flexible travelers on a budget. Basically, it is a pay-it-forward system. You stay for free on someone's "couch" and then one day you host someone (not the same person) for free in your house. You'll find a wide variety of accommodations from couches to guest bedrooms. People have a lot of questions when it comes to couchsurfing. Here are some of the common ones answered:
Is it safe? I found it very safe. I always diligently read people's reviews. Couchsurfing verifies members' names and addresses through their credit card information. Besides writing personalized reviews, members can "vouch" for other members they meet in person. Here's a review from my Greek host (and my review of him):
CS's website talks exhaustively about their "vouching" system and I believe, with smarts on the traveler's part, this system is safe. In terms of couchsurfing vs. sex-surfing, I never felt it was like dating website, but I almost always stayed with couples or women.
Is it comfortable? That depends on your luck. "Beggars can't be choosers" is the mantra. It's expected you'll be appreciative of whatever you get; sometimes you'll get a private room in a baller high-rise in Miami with a roof-top hot tub and sometimes a couch that is shorter than you are and a nosy, slightly racist host.
Do I have to host? Not really; if you use the service, it is just good etiquette to host a traveler or two one day. I have, and while I don't love it, it can be fun. You can screen your guests and pick someone with your shared interests.
Do I have to hang out with my hosts? Depends. I've found some hosts say, "Here's the keys, washer/dryer, and your bedroom. Have fun. I'll be in my office working," and then you almost never see them. I've also had hosts who join you for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, until you politely say you'd like to explore on your own; that can be annoying.
Is it really free? Yes. But you might give your host a little gift (wine, food, a souvenir from home) as a show of thanks.
Sig-O Matt and I used "couchsurfing" in Florida, years ago. Our St. Petersburg host was a riot. She invited us to tapas with her friends and made us breakfast. Our two couches were mediocrely comfortable. A super nice Cuban neurosurgeon hosted us in Miami (in a real queen bed!). No hotel could beat his killer Miami high-rise. He greeted us with wine and great conversation before leaving us to explore on our own. We had free reign of the rooftop hot tub. In Key West, I stayed in my first trailer. And, wow, it was beautiful! The double-wide trailer sat on a canal in Key West. We chose to sleep outside on the screened-in porch, listening to the water. The host, though, wasn't our favorite and invited himself on our excursions.
Traveling around Eastern Europe on my own, I used couchsurfing to integrate into local culture. In Athens, Greece, I spent one sterile night at a hostel and wandered the streets on my own, feeling pretty lonely. The next night, I found myself a couch at a photographer's home on the outskirts of town. He and his girlfriend took me to a friend's birthday party (where I ran into another couchsurfer!). I had so much fun seeing what young artists do in Athens, away from the tourists. I enjoyed my guest bedroom and queen mattress as well. In Sarajevo, Bosnia, I stayed with a divorced expat who had his house up on couchsurfing out of a sense of duty to help others. He hosted three of us in his children's room on bunk beds (while the kids stayed at their mother's). The owner was friendly but aloof; he expected us to use his house as a free hostel, coming and going as we pleased. I enjoyed meeting other travelers sharing the house with me. In Belgrade, Serbia, I stayed on a couch and was entertained by hilarious, fun-loving Serbians. They took me on a tour of the local fire station (even let me slide down the pole) and brought me to karaoke and house parties. In Budapest, Hungary, I stayed in a hostel, but used the "meet for coffee" option on couchsurfing and met some great friends.
Because I value privacy more now, and am not as flexible as I was at 24, I haven't used couchsurfing in a few years.
Share your experiences with, or questions about, AirBnB, HomeAway, VRBO, and Couchsurfing below!