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Travel Tips: Good-Bye, Hotels!

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.

Catherine Newman and family in Paris

  • Are on a budget (i.e., everyone)
  • May want to prepare some of their meals
  • Might crave some of the comforts of home
  • Want a more local experience
  • Like (or can tolerate) a little quirkiness

And less ideal for travelers who...

  • Are going for only a night, since you may pay a one-time cleaning fee
  • Are looking for a hotel complete with maid service, room service, fresh towels every day, and the like
  • Can't tolerate a little quirkiness

What to watch out for:

  • Whether you're renting the whole house or apartment, or a room (or rooms) in a shared space.
  • Potential charges for cleaning or for extra people. These are not "hidden" charges— they're listed—but you want to be sure you understand them all before you book.
  • Misleading ads. These are not a big risk because your transaction is guaranteed and protected by the site. But we tried to rent a Paris houseboat and discovered it was not what we thought. No money changed hands, and it was resolved long before our trip, but our kids were a little disappointed.

When they're not standing in front of the Eiffel Tower (sigh), contributor Catherine Newman, her husband, Michael, and kids Ben, age 13, and Birdy, 9, live in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Originally published in November 2012 issue of FamilyFun