AirBnB vs Hostels vs Hotels vs Couchsurfing

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When it comes time to plan a trip, accommodation is more often than not a necessary evil. You’re probably not super excited about choosing your accommodation, but you know it’s a vital part of ensuring your holiday goes off without a hitch.

Short of destination hotels like the luxurious Four Seasons Serengeti, your accommodation is usually little more than a place to store your belongings and rest your head after a long day of exploring your destination.

four seasons serengeti infinity pool
The infinity pool at the Four Seasons Serengeti is a destination all of its own.

Choosing a place to act as your base is hardly the most exciting aspect of your trip, but there’s no shortage of options to cover all tastes.

From traditional hotels and lodges to the cheap and dirty option of crashing on a stranger’s couch, there’s an abundance of options available to the discerning traveler.

Partnering with FlightHub, I thought I’d ask the question:

Hostels or hotels? Couchsurfing or AirBnB? Which of these options best suits you?

Hotels

For the longest time, traditional hotels and lodges were the only option available to travelers who wanted a modicum or privacy.

From unremarkable chain establishments to lavish destination hotels, this range of accommodation arguably still boasts the greatest variety and the broadest footprint. You’ll be hard pressed to find a destination without a few hotels.

Sites like Booking.com and Wotif have made it easier than ever to research and select a hotel, but cross-checking reviews between these sites and more trusted review sites like TripAdvisor is a must.

For those wanting stress-free privacy, the hotel remains the best option. You’re guaranteed to have your own space, you have a broad variety of locations to choose from, and the standards have been pretty well established for better (most hotels have regularly cleaned rooms) or worse (hotel breakfasts are almost universally underwhelming).

nik's garden koh lanta storm
A view of Nik’s Garden in Koh Lanta from out in the ocean.

Where you lose out in a hotel is in that personal touch.

A lot of hotels tend to be homogenized, soulless establishments. They’re all store bought art, flavourless white paint, and false sincerity.

If you’re looking for an organic, genuine experience, you’re not likely to find it in a hotel.

More and more hotels and guest houses are springing up in defiance of this stereotype, so it certainly does help to do your research.

Some of my favourite hotels around the world are below. All of these have personalities of their own that make them mould-breaking.

  • Cambridge Hotel (Sydney, Australia) Fantastic, central location. Trendy decor. Lovely staff. Stunning city views.
  • Four Seasons Serengeti (Serengeti, Tanzania) The definition of luxury. An infinity pool overlooking an active waterhole. Massive suites. Delicious food.
  • Holiday Inn Express (Phuket, Thailand) Surprisingly upmarket for a chain. Ridiculously comfortable bed. Close to Patong while still being quiet.
  • Nik’s Garden (Koh Lanta, Thailand) Cool beach-side vibe. Delicious Thai food at good prices. Close to everything.
  • Opum Guesthouse (Chiang Mai, Thailand) Luxurious, but affordable. On-site gym and pool. Fantastic staff.
  • Flame Tree Village (Kigali, Rwanda) Great views of Kigali. Lovely poolside bar. Great food.
  • Chameleon Hill Lodge (Bwindi, Uganda) One of the most beautiful lodges I’ve ever visited. Brightly coloured, stunning views, and amazing locally made food.
  • Zenji Hotel (Zanzibar, Tanzania) Cheap and charming. Great staff and a central location in Stone Town.
chameleon hill lodge uganda
Hands down the most beautiful hotel I’ve ever stayed in, the Chameleon Hills Lodge manages to be both a destination and accommodation.

Hostels

At the other end of the spectrum is the humble hostel – a form of accommodation that has become syonymous with loud backpackers looking to find themselves at the bottom of the communal toilet.

It’s perhaps an unfair stereotype for hostels to have attracted, as there are a great many family-friendly hostels and more upmarket ‘flashpacker’ establishments bucking the trend.

If you’re traveling alone and wanting a great way to meet like-minded travelers, you can’t do much better than a hostel. Even if you spring for a private room (if not a private bathroom), you’ll still find ample opportunities for social interactions in the communal areas if you are so inclined.

MNL Boracay
Making new friends in the groovy common room at MNL Boracay Beach.

Hostels tend to be cheaper (assuming you don’t want a private room) and have a more youthful, intimate vibe than a traditional hotel. Communal breakfasts, weekend party opportunities, and fun little features like book exchanges and rooftop cinemas lend a really fun atmosphere to a good hostel.

In exchange for this, you tend to sacrifice some of the mod-cons. Few and far between are hostels with pools, room service, and polite if impersonal customer service.

A few of my favourite hostels around the world include:

  • MNL Boracay Beach Hostel (Boracay, Philippines) Great location near White Beach. Rooftop cinema. Good WiFi. Relatively private capsule style dorm beds.
  • Mango Bay Resort (Fiji) A resort with all of the creature features. Large, fan cooled dorm has a fun, beachy vibe.
  • Globe Trott Inns (London, United Kingdom) Terrific location near Upton Park Station. Cheap. Good communal breakfast area. Across the road from the best Full English I’ve ever had.
  • Verandahs Backpacker Lodge (Auckland, New Zealand) Quaint family style hostel in the heart of Auckland. 
  • Regent Flashpackers (Rotorua, New Zealand) A bit more up-market than the usual hostel. Comfortable rooms and on-site spa facilities.
  • YHA Franz Josef Glacier (Franz Josef, New Zealand) Loved the vibe of this chill, cosy little hostel. Great book and board game exchange.
  • Lazy Paddles (Tea Gardens, Australia) My favourite hostel. Small, intimate, and peaceful.
  • Pedro’s House (Gwangju, South Korea) Run by a talkative, worldly local with a love for his country. Trendy decor, rooftop hammocks, and a great location.
  • Mr. Panda’s Guesthouse (Chengdu, China) Free dumpling night is responsible for my worst ever hangover. Great little on-site cafe and bar.
  • The Drum (Beijing, China) Centrally located capsule hostel with a fun bar and restaurant. Close to most of the big Imperial sites.

AirBnB

In 2008, a small company in San Francisco saw a need to facilitate the process of folks trying to find, list and rent lodging in their neighborhood. This startup has since grown into a $20 billion dollar company with a global reach, and rocked the travel industry at its core. This company was called AirBnb.

AirBnB is great in that – whether you’re a property lister or a guest – it provides you with a safe, convenient and cheap alternative to booking expensive hotels in major cities. On my recent trip to Bangkok, I was able to save a few hundred dollars and still have a spacious, private room thanks to AirBnB.

airbnb yosemite
Nomadic American and I posing for our lovely host, Ginger at our Yosemite AirBnB in 2012.

The business model also allows those who travel frequently the peace of mind that their homes are not only taken care of, but being paid for during their absence. I’ve got a number of friends who are able to fund their travels by renting out their own home on AirBnB while they’re away.

In their research on the subject, FlightHub Review revealed: One of the major problems FlightHub found with AirBnb was their inability to ensure the standardized quality for their listings. On the same page you may have hosts who are great and take pride in offering their homes up for short-term rentals to travelers, while others may have more than one listing as a way to make money off of broke tourists.

I have certainly been caught out a time or two (in Shanghai and Miami) by dodgy hotels listing their substandard rooms as AirBnB properties. Better research on my part would have prevented this.

What makes AirBnB great in my eyes is that it gives you the comforts of a traditional hotel while also giving you access to a local who is usually only too happy to provide travel tips. Some AirBnB’s go that extra mile with things like welcome baskets, invitations to family dinners, and access to great facilities such as pools and spas.

The trade-off is that there’s usually an obligation to make a little small-talk upon arrival and, if you’re sharing a living space, you’re missing out on some of the privacy you might have had in a hotel. In my eyes, it’s a pretty small price to pay for accommodation that combines the best of hostels and hotels.

A few of my favourite AirBnB properties include:

  • Bangkok Highrise (Bangkok, Thailand) Great central location. Access to pool and rooftop garden. Comfortable room.
  • Master Room in French Concession (Shanghai, China) The host, Polly was really warm and accommodating. She knew all there was to know about Shanghai and was happy to leave us to our own devices in her large apartment.
  • Courtyard Room (Yosemite, USA) Ginger’s lovely little flat was a perfect base to launch our assaults on Yosemite back in 2012. She cooked us dinner, showed us the sights, and was a great lady to have a chat with over drinks.

I had a bunch of other favourites, but sadly their owners have since taken them off the market.

Couchsurfing

Really only an option for the solo traveler looking to save a buck, Couchsurfing is a popular way to meet locals while not spending a cent.

I’ve hosted and surfed as a Couchsurfer, and have found the experience to be largely pleasant. You’re not getting a whole lot of comforts, but the trade off is that you’re not spending any money and you’re getting access to a local who (generally) is quite interested in getting to know you and show you around.

During my visit to Shanghai in 2012, I had two great hosts who not only helped me exchange money and get to the airport, but also took me out for a boozy night with their friends. It was a really fun way to introduce myself to Shanghai.

There is a bit of a darker side to Couchsurfing, of course. I recently read a great article entitled The Ungrateful Bitch that highlights the pressures that female travelers are sometimes exposed to when Couchsurfing.

Still, if you’re looking to save money and do your research, Couchsurfing can be the absolute best way to travel. It’s a fun way to meet people and experience the city as a local, rather than a visitor.

Overall

I’ve availed myself of all of the above at some time or another.

Traveling as a couple? AirBnB properties offer a great mix of hotel privacy with the personal touch that comes from a small business.

Traveling alone or with a large group? A hostel is the perfect place for those wanting more opportunities for socialising or who want to save some money.

Traveling alone and in need of privacy? A hotel is still the best option for those not wanting to deal with the hassle of locating their AirBnB property and making awkward small-talk with the owner.

Desperate to save a few dollars and/or want to meet a local? Couchsurfing is a great way to see a different side of a destination.

Sometimes, I just don’t want to wear pants, ok?

Readers Say

I posed this question to my readers on Facebook and Twitter and got a fairly resoundingly pro AirBnB consensus. Here are a few of their thoughts:

Nicole M said:

“We love AirBnB since it’s the two of us I wouldn’t be keen on couch surfing.. Airbnb you can stay wherever you want and the owners often give you tips on what to do and see and where to eat in the area you’re staying in. Also it’s handy having a kitchen and laundry when you travel.”

Clarissa F said:

“Been using ajrbnb a lot this year – mostly very good experiences and significantly cheaper. also often in convenient locations where there may be no other types of accommodation available. having a kitchen is also really good”

There was also a bit of love for the humble hostel.

 

Twitter user, @tea_n_toasted said:

“tent? Failing that a bothy or a shack. If I have to be in a city then it’s a hostel, mostly because I don’t like people”

Your Say

Where do you stand in the great debate? I’d love your thoughts and recommendations!

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