For all the debate around whether Airbnbs are better than hotels, there’s one scenario where many seem to assume Airbnb is always superior: group travel.
Airbnbs can keep groups together. Staying under the same roof can simplify meetups. If the whole party starts and ends their days together, it can be easier to account for everyone. And seating the crew around a giant kitchen table might be easier than getting a group dinner reservation.
And a lot of travelers tend to assume that Airbnbs (or vacation rental alternatives like Vrbo or Hipcamp) are cheaper for large groups. But are they? And if so, how much cheaper?
A June 2022 NerdWallet study analyzed 1,000 U.S. Airbnb reservations with check-in dates in 2022 or 2023. Properties encompassed a range of locations and quality — though the study only considered “entire place” properties (as opposed to a single room in a larger home). Those Airbnb prices were then compared against a NerdWallet database of nearly 1,000 U.S. hotel rooms in the same cities, also spread across a range of classes and locations.
At first glance, Airbnbs always appear more expensive. Whereas the median nightly U.S. hotel room was $178, the median Airbnb was $314 (both inclusive of all taxes and fees).
But those two comparisons aren’t exactly fair. After all, a hotel room can likely only accommodate two people, whereas Airbnbs can often accommodate more than that. Thus, when broken down per person, Airbnbs can often be far cheaper — and here’s how much.
Hotels vs. Airbnb: What’s the cost per person?
NerdWallet broke out the price per head to understand whether Airbnbs are really cheaper for groups.
This study assumed two adults per hotel room. That’s because — while some hotels charge the same price whether four adults cozy up across two queen beds in one room — others actually charge more. A separate NerdWallet analysis of U.S. Hilton room rates found that prices tend to average 11% more when the reservation is for four versus two adults.
For Airbnb stays, NerdWallet grouped rentals into two categories: rentals with a max capacity of two adults and rentals with a max of six adults.
In almost every scenario, groups of six save significantly when booking a large Airbnb versus three hotel rooms. But for groups of two, hotels tend to come out cheaper per head. Here’s the cost breakdown per person:
For groups of six, the median nightly price per person to stay in a large Airbnb was about 33% cheaper versus booking three hotel rooms. But a single hotel room turns out to be 29% cheaper than a small Airbnb.
But those are nationwide numbers, and there can sometimes be high variability depending on the location. Here were some standout cities in NerdWallet’s research:
In Chicago and Dallas, the median hotel price was always more expensive than Airbnbs per head, no matter the group size. Meanwhile, the median hotel in Los Angeles and Philadelphia was always cheaper than Airbnb.
Yet in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Akron, Ohio, prices were mixed. Hotels were cheaper than Airbnbs for groups of two, but more expensive for groups of six.
When a hotel still might make sense for large groups
Just because the cost per head is lower doesn’t necessarily mean you should ditch the hotel for your family reunion, bachelorette party or other group trip. In some scenarios, hotels are still superior for groups.
You can earn or redeem loyalty rewards
While there are some backdoor ways to earn or redeem points on Airbnb stays, Airbnb doesn’t have its own loyalty program. Points, which can often be easily attained through hotel credit card sign-up bonuses, can make hotels free or cheap. Hotel loyalty programs also tend to include money-saving benefits like free hotel night certificates and free breakfast.
For a large group heading to Disneyland, the Hyatt Place Anaheim’s free breakfast buffet can be faster than cooking at the Airbnb kitchen, and cheaper than paying for theme park meals. (Photo courtesy of Hyatt)
You’ll maximize the amenities
Speaking of free hotel breakfast, many major hotel chains promise it. Some, like Embassy Suites by Hilton, additionally offer a free evening happy hour including appetizers.
If cooking in the Airbnb is not your jam, then a large group could quickly rack up a big restaurant bill. Keeping the group together at the hotel breakfast buffet might be easier anyway.
Hotels are also more likely to offer amenities and conveniences like an airport shuttle, kid’s club or a crib that you likely won’t find in an Airbnb.
The location is more convenient
While the study evaluated hotels versus Airbnbs in the same cities, it wasn’t able to account for granularity of location. Often, hotels are in the heart of the city near prime tourist attractions. Airbnbs, while cheaper, might be 5 miles away. Staying at an Airbnb, you might need a rental car (and maybe a few) if your group is big.
A well-situated hotel might enable you to walk and ditch the rental car completely. That could be a particular money saver these days, considering May 2022 rental car prices are up 69% versus the same month in 2019, according to Consumer Price Index data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When an Airbnb might still make sense for couples
Yet even if the sticker price is more expensive, you might find Airbnbs makes sense. Here are a few reasons why.
An Airbnb in Sydney, Australia. (Photo courtesy of Airbnb)
You need features like a kitchen or laundry
Even if a kitchen is promised, hotel kitchens tend to be middling (often consisting of a mini fridge, a microwave and a cooktop — if you’re lucky). Laundry almost always costs extra.
While not always the case, most Airbnbs include full kitchens and laundry rooms. According to the USDA, the cost of food in the U.S. for the average adult cooking at home in May 2022 ranged from about $55 and $100 per person, per week, with variations based on amount and quality of food consumed. When exclusively dining out on vacation, it can be easy to spend that much per day.
And while cooking at home can be a money saver for penny pinchers, it could be a lifesaver for those with dietary restrictions. For outdoor trips involving adventures like skiing or fishing, laundry might be necessary.
You’re staying in a remote area
While trips to National Parks or other remote outdoor areas are becoming more popular, the number of hotels accessible to those areas hasn’t caught up. The closest Marriott to Maine’s Acadia National Park is still about an hour away, yet there are dozens of Airbnb listings on Mount Desert Island, where the park is located. Hilton only just opened its first hotel this May in the Yosemite area — the Hampton Inn Oakhurst-Yosemite.
When hotels are sold out, outrageously expensive or nonexistent, vacation rentals might be your only option.
Airbnb once offered a Winnie-the-Pooh-themed “Bearbnb” near London. (Photo courtesy of Airbnb)
You want a unique experience
While some say Airbnb has lost its luster as mom-and-pop vacation rentals give way to corporate property management behemoths, some Airbnbs are still delightfully charming. If you’re seeking to cozy up to the locals, you’ll more likely befriend your Airbnb host who made you breakfast versus the bellhop who brought your bags to your room.
And while you can certainly find unique hotels, you’ll have better luck on Airbnb reserving a geodesic dome on the beach, a treehouse or a one-of-a-kind Hundred Acre Wood replica on Airbnb.
The bottom line
Airbnbs are typically more expensive for parties of two versus traditional hotels. But, they tend to be far cheaper for larger groups seeking a multiroom vacation rental versus booking multiple hotel rooms.
It’s unlikely that six people will all cram into one hotel room together, yet booking three hotel rooms can get pricey. Airbnbs can help you keep the group together and, in most cities, save you money.
In short, large groups should almost always consider Airbnbs if budget is a priority. But do your own comparison shopping before booking, as prices can vary by city.
Sam Kemmis and JT Genter contributed to this piece.