Welcome to AFARguments, a series where editors go head to head about divisive travel issues.
In early summer, as states began to emerge from coronavirus lockdown, many AFAR staffers began to slowly tiptoe back out into the world. And what we quickly realized was that our tiptoeing really differed from one person to the next. Some were quick to jump in their car and head on camping trips as a form of socially distanced escape. Some of us were eager to get on domestic flights to see friends or family, while others said “no way” to flying for the time being.
For AFAR’s digital content director Laura Dannen Redman, driving-distance getaways to trustworthy hotel and resort properties were among the first travel experiences she felt ready to embrace post-lockdown. For AFAR’s travel news editor Michelle Baran, equally eager to get out on the road as soon as it felt safe, vacation rentals felt like a less risky way to do so. Here, the two editors break down their thought process on hotels versus vacation rentals in the era of COVID.
Laura Dannen Redman: To kick off the debate, why don’t we start with a fundamental question: What makes vacation rentals feel more “comfortable” to you right now?
Michelle Baran: For me, it’s pretty simple. People freak me out more than surfaces.
LDR: Ha! In life? Or during COVID?
MB: Pre-COVID, I loved a great hotel stay as much as a vacation rental and often alternated between the two. Actually, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was more concerned about surfaces and thought I would maybe lean more towards hotel stays once I was able to emerge back out into the world, because hotels were all coming out with these great cleaning measures that were really impressive. But then the research started to show the risks are more about person-to-person transmission and less about issues of the virus lingering on surfaces (though I still do a thorough wipe down of everything). Vacation rentals kind of emerged as my preferred option for maintaining a “safer at home” lifestyle on the road.
What about you? Why do you feel more comfortable at a hotel?
LDR: I’ve always felt like a hotel was a much cleaner place than my own home. Not that I live in filth—I’m kind of a neat freak—but because great hotels make guests feel as comfortable as they do at home, if not more so. They help them escape. Bathtubs have to shine; sheets have to be pristine. You could eat off the floor (I have toddlers, it happens). It’s one definition of luxury in the hospitality industry. A vacation means the freedom to not have to worry about day-to-day stressors. I would still feel those in a vacation rental right now in a major way.
MB: Ha. I’m not a bath person. But anyways, here’s my thing. I feel you on the cleanliness. But what about all the people at the hotel?
LDR: We did a lot of research before we chose hotels or resorts, making sure that the towns we were visiting followed the same COVID safety rules we were accustomed to. Masks had to be worn indoors in public places and outdoors in crowds. Social distancing, six feet of separation. Believe that this virus actually exists. As for the staff at the hotel, I didn’t see them as the threat—I saw us as the threat. It was a privilege to go to this hotel. They were working hard and wearing masks and eager to have business back; our job was to be respectful guests and be sure everyone’s safety was being considered.
MB: What I think is really interesting about this and the pandemic in general is how much it has changed our behaviors and perceptions, because this is such a new reality for us all. Like here we are two people who have traveled extensively previously and now we fall very squarely into two different “comfort camps”—if that’s even a term.
LDR: I would like to go to a comfort camp. Do they have a spa?
MB: OMG. Did you go to a spa? I can’t even.
LDR: I’m going to get travel-shame mail for this but I have been to two spas, and gotten two massages, both at hotels. Both spas were completely empty at the time—I was the only person in the relaxation room, the bathrooms, the hallways. (They staggered all the appointments to keep us separate and have time to clean.) We wore masks throughout, except for when I was face down during the massage. In one instance, they had rigged a face covering that I breathed into.
So to bring it back to our original conversation, I’m choosing hotels because of their amenities, too. For our family trip, we only sought out places with pools. A vacation rental doesn’t always afford the same luxuries—and my husband and I usually end up defaulting to daily norms and chores when we stay in one. At hotels, we’re trying to find freedom from anxiety and day-to-day rhythms.
Do you feel like you got to relax sufficiently at a vacation rental?
MB: Yes. I got to relax at my rentals because I felt safe. One thing I have found with COVID is that if I push my boundaries into an arena where I don’t feel safe, then it actually defeats the purpose. Now I’m all nervous nelly and not enjoying myself. For instance, we haven’t eaten out at a restaurant since March and I’m totally OK with that. We have two small kids, which is a nightmare anyway, and we just do takeout. And I feel more at ease. Same with a vacation rental. It’s a nice change of scenery, we’re still in a new place. We go to new coffee shops, restaurants (for takeout), we go on hikes, we go to the beach, we see new things, we don’t work, we take a break to really be with the kids not in that crazy work-from-home-and-everything-is-chaos kind of way. So yes, it’s still a totally legitimate break to me.
LDR: That’s all totally fair. The idea of a trip or vacation is different right now than pre-COVID and we have to respect boundaries, limits. Can I ask you to define what “safer to me” means? You said initially that people freak you out. What’s your biggest concern on the road?
MB: Everything I do these days (save for having my son at preschool) is to limit my exposure to others. So while on the road, I like to mimic that behavior and have very minimal contact with others.
LDR: Follow-up: Do you live in a city, suburb, rural area?
MB: We live in a suburban neighborhood outside of San Francisco. Cases here are pretty high at the moment. Not sure why that matters, but for context I guess.
LDR: I asked because I live in Brooklyn and to minimize contact means we’d have to stay inside all the time. The case count has been steady, or dropping. So my general approach to being around crowds might be different—I expect to be near lots of people most of the time, so my next step is to figure out how to coexist as safely as possible. Same theory applied on vacation.
The vacation rental, to me, is less of a sure safe bet—you don’t know much about the owners, their cleanliness standards, their daily habits, or even how many people have stayed there. Or do you? Hotels are very transparent about how they function and when I ask, they tell me what capacity they’re booked. Guests in hotels feel like a more predictable set. I can avoid them if I choose; though part of being on a trip is to engage with new people, and I think we can still do that during COVID.
MB: So, I actually have a confession that my very first vacation rental experience right out the gates post-lockdown was not ideal. The listing said it was “sanitized” and it could best be described as “bleh.” I made other mistakes, too. I booked into an area near my parents’ home (I was trying to be good and socially distance to protect them!) that is typically a “party nabe,” but I didn’t think that it would be that way during COVID. Don’t these people know there’s a pandemic going on?! Not only did they act as though they did not know or care about the pandemic, they were almost hostile to us for wearing masks. Suddenly I felt like I was putting my folks more at risk by staying at this vacation rental than just staying in their home. But after a little added cleaning and vigilant mask wearing at all times to protect us from the, I’m sorry, but idiots who weren’t wearing masks and partying and playing 10-person basketball games, I was able to chill and enjoy the rest of the vacation.
MB: After that I learned to be much more cautious about the type of vacation rental I choose, which is why I recently wrote about Homes and Villas by Marriott International, a vacation rental company with more oversight and better vetting. I think this is really important during COVID. All this being said, I am actually planning my first hotel stay for the end of September! Ha! It’s a remote property with individual cabins so it feels like a perfect in-between of vacation rentals and hotels, and I’ll admit, I’m really excited. And even though I prefer vacation rentals right now, I can’t wait to do more hotels and resorts in the near future. But don’t take that as you having convinced me!
LDR: I was about to say . . . so I won? Final takeaways: A hotel, though inevitably more crowded, has cleaning and social distancing standards well laid out in advance so you can feel better prepared about your stay. The main variable is, as you said, other people behaving well. No 10-person maskless basketball games. But if you can find a happy middle point—a remote resort booked to 30 percent capacity, or a vacation rental that’s well maintained and run by a superhost on, say, Airbnb or a company like Marriott, you may have fewer variables as well.
MB: Ultimately, we’re all learning to live with COVID, and we should all be vigilant for ourselves and others no matter where we are and what we are doing, whether that’s at a hotel or a vacation rental or anywhere.