In the ten years since I've become a parent, I have rented nearly two dozen vacation homes. There is no way I would be able to take my daughter and son to all the amazing places we have been (Hawaii, the Dominican Republic, England, Nova Scotia, and more) if we would have stayed at resorts or even regular hotels. Nor would the experiences have been as memorable. Here's why I continue to avoid resorts and instead rent directly from owners. If you have never rented a vacation home via Airbnb or HomeAway, the two biggest home rental companies, you should consider doing so for your next trip:
Last winter when my Facebook feed was flooded with friends vacationing at all-inclusive resorts in Florida and the Caribbean, my family of four rented an entire house to ourselves on a cliff overlooking the ocean in the Dominican Republic. It cost $150 a night and we had three bedrooms, a pool shared with a handful of other families, and a giant Spanish-tiled kitchen with expansive views.
(Sure, there were geckos that ran across the floor and the drive up the cliff was a nail-biter, but guess what the kids remember the most?) By comparison, I also recently had the good fortune of visiting a family-friendly, all-inclusive resort in Mexico. The bare-bones rate for a family of four was $500 a night. While there, I got to tour the property with other media guests and learned that many of the rooms available were actually privately owned condos. I did a quick check on HomeAway and Airbnb—the resort rate was three times the cost of renting directly from the owner. So before you book a room via the resort, google it with "vacation rental" first. You might find a deal; some owners even let you add an all-inclusive package if you want to (and it can still be cheaper than the resort's rate).
When you're at a resort, it's like being at camp. You rise at the same time as the rest of the guests to claim your pool chair, take part in the activities when everyone else does, and go on tours and excursions organized by the resort. I guess for many people that's the appeal: You don't have to think or plan. For one, I'm just too damn cheap for that. (It's almost always more expensive to go with the resort's excursion than the one you find on Trip Advisor.) But also, I like the freedom of exploring a new place on our own without gaggles of tourists elbowing me for the salad bar. In Nova Scotia this summer, the most memorable part of our vacation was wandering down the road to the local inlet to stumble upon dozens of oysters—and then come back to eat them in our sweet cottage overlooking the Atlantic. (This place was $229 a night, btw.)
I have never understood classic hotel rooms that come with one bath and two double beds, which incredibly are still the standard at family resorts. Who are they designed for? Certainly not families with little kids. Maybe your kids can share a bed without waking with elbowed eyes, kicked shins, and screaming fits of "he's not on his side!", but mine can't. And I don't want to share a room with them either—it's my vacation, after all. I want to enjoy a glass of wine and enjoy my husband (ahem) which I can't do if lights out is at 8 p.m. (In the early days before we discovered Airbnb we used to shove the pack n play in the bathroom. But getting to the toilet was tricky.)
Most hotels are pretty much the same. But vacation homes vary as much as the people who rent them out. Over Fourth of July this year, we stayed in an old church built in the 1700s. It was practically falling apart but it was cool as hell. The owner was an artist who had gutted the place, added two loft rooms, and decked the place out in an eclectic mix of funky furniture and his own sculptures.
And this fall we stayed on the Big Island of Hawaii in a remarkably designed home built on top of a lava field that has been featured in countless magazines and even on the front page of the New York Times for its design. The kids got an entire floor to themselves (with their own giant bathroom) while my husband and I stayed in the free-standing all-glass walled master bedroom with views of the lava field on one side (lit up at night, natch) and the infinity pool on the other. "OMG: Where are you staying?!" was the most-liked comment on the top photo above.
For you resort goers, I can already hear your protests: "But I don't want to cook! I don't want to clean up after everyone!" And I get it. It's not a vacation if you are doing the same thing you do at home, just in a different location. (BTW: if you haven't read this Onion post, now's the time). But many vacation rentals now come with maid service, cooks, even in-room massages if you want them. When we stayed in the Dominican Republic last year, the owner arranged for dinner to be waiting when arrived after our long journey. And if we wanted it, a cook could go grocery shopping and make us dinner. (I said no because my favorite part of traveling in a foreign country is grocery shopping!) And when we stayed in Hawaii, we had a housekeeper who came by when were out to scrub the pan from the local fish we cooked up the night before, unload the dishwasher, and do our laundry. Now that's a vacation!
Chandra Turner is the Executive Editor of Parents.