Travel Tips: Good-Bye, Hotels!

The author and her family try out a web-based home-renting service and discover a new (cheap!) way to travel
traveling with kids

What if we get there and the place is a total dump? Or what if it doesn't even exist? My husband, Michael, and I were thrilled to be taking our kids to Paris (my brother's family lives in Europe), but adding hotel charges to airfare was a math problem that could not be solved by our bank account.

I'd read about Airbnb, and it had sounded fantastic: an online business (airbnb.com) that helps connect people who are looking for accommodations with those who are looking to rent out their places. Given that we're fairly flexible about lodgings, we thought it might be right up our alley. And it was. But after we scanned the listings, chose our simple little Paris apartment (for $115 a night), and plunked down our deposit? It seemed so lovely, inexpensive, and ideally located that I became convinced it was a scam. I pictured myself whacking cockroaches with a baguette. I saw our kids, Ben and Birdy, jet-lagged and weeping on the sidewalk in front of a nonexistent address. I heard someone cackling with a wad of our cash in his hands. But guess what? The apartment was spotless, gorgeous, and actually there.

I shouldn't have worried. Airbnb uses an elaborate system of checks and balances to ensure a positive experience. The listings are delightfully thorough, with loads of interior and exterior photographs, area maps, comprehensive lists of amenities, and in some cases, a 360-degree street-level view (my favorite part). There are helpful reviews from previous guests—all legit, since the site won't let you review a place you haven't visited. When you book your stay, you pay using a credit card or Paypal, but Airbnb doesn't process the transaction until a day after you check in, so you have time to notify them if something's not kosher.

Why bother with Airbnb when you could just get a normal hotel room? For the savings, certainly. But also because the houses and apartments can be far roomier than hotels, which is great for families. And many of the places balance the novelty of awayness with the familiar comforts and conveniences of home, from big things (a kitchen, say, that lets you save money by eating meals at home) to smaller things (a washer and dryer, a nightlight, or a shelf of children's books).

As it happens, the three times we've used the service we've selected places that have more of a hotel feel: these were designated rentals, not people's homes. But you can go as homey or as pristine as you like, so if your children's dream vacation features somebody else's temporarily abandoned toys and games, you're in luck. One last perk: a host (whom you may or may not meet in person, depending on your arrangement) will likely respond to your queries about the neighborhood with an outpouring of insider advice. In Paris, this led us to the crustiest baguettes, the nicest park, and the most magnificent Ethiopian food.

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