December 17 2014

Hotel vs. Vacation Apartment Rental – Pros and Cons

Posts from this trip:

Unless I’m visiting family or staying with friends, when I travel hotels are my lodging of choice.

Every choice has its pros and cons, but I’m not a B&B person and I’m too old for hostels (and, truthfully, adept enough at finding deals and earning points that I can stay in nice hotels for less than most people pay for hostels).

However, for my recent two-month stay in Buenos Aires I decided to be brave. After staying in a hotel the first month, I rented a furnished apartment for the second.

All photos in this post are of the actual unit I rented.

Pano

In the end it was an okay experience, but there are definitely differences between hotels and short-term apartment rentals.

 

The case for apartments

Probably the most salient difference is apartments afford more space. Instead of a mere hotel room, most apartments – even small studio units – have at least a kitchenette, a dining area, and distinct living and sleeping areas.

If you’re traveling solo or with just your significant other that might not be a big deal. But when you’re an entire family or a group of friends, you’d normally need multiple hotel rooms to achieve the same level of comfort space-wise. And splitting into multiple rooms might not even be practical with young children.

The unit I rented was a studio in a great location (Recoleta) and priced at $65 on a nightly basis, $395 weekly, or $1,000 monthly. Since I rented for a month my per-night cost worked out to about $33. That’s cheaper than a comparable-quality hotel yet gave me double the amount of space.

Even the $65 nightly rate is still decent, albeit not a significant savings over a hotel of similar caliber. (Hotels in Buenos Aires are not expensive.)

If you like to cook when you travel then the kitchen would be another big plus. Though I only cooked there once (and even that one time was unnecessary), I definitely appreciated the refrigerator and microwave.

Also, apartments usually have a washer and dryer, or at least a common laundry facility. Very convenient if you’re traveling with kids or for a long time.

 

The case for hotels

A common complaint about hotel chains is that properties are large and impersonal. But in my view that’s not all bad.

Having a large property affords economies of scale that allow for certain amenities smaller operations can’t cost-efficiently provide: room service, 24-hour maintenance, on-call housekeeping, etc.

Even though I was only in the Buenos Aires apartment for four weeks, I had several unpleasant incidents. In a hotel they would’ve been minor inconveniences (if not totally benign), but since they occurred in an apartment they were moderate to major headaches.

First, I got locked out of the safe. One day the batteries simply died and the door wouldn’t open (why do they design these things with the battery cage inside the door?).

Safe
The offending safe

Of course with my impeccable timing it happened on the Friday night before a big national holiday on Monday. That meant the maintenance person was off until Tuesday.

Problem was, I did not have enough cash to last until Tuesday. I only carry what I need when I’m out and about, so I only had enough cash on me for a day or two. The rest of my cash and all but one of my credit cards were in the safe. I would not have starved as I had the one credit card, but in Argentina when you pay by credit card things can cost literally 50% more (which is another post for another day).

The rental agency did send someone to try and open the safe on Saturday – actually they sent two different people at two different times. Neither succeeded, and they told me they’d need to locate the person who held the physical key to the box…and they didn’t think they could reach him until Tuesday. I argued vociferously against waiting that long, but in the end they could only do what they could do.

I mean, only one guy has a key? And they can’t reach him for three days? What do they do if the guy gets hit by a bus, or up and quits in a disgruntled manner, or simply misplaces the key?

Or…you know…a renter gets locked out of the safe over a holiday weekend…

Safes can die in hotels too, but in a reputable hotel with on-site maintenance the issue would not have dragged on for days. It likely would have been resolved on the spot.

As is, the incident was a moderate headache. I not only feared running out of cash, but was stuck at the apartment for most of that Saturday awaiting two different people at two different times. I was not about to let random maintenance people access the contents of the safe without me present. (Visitors to Argentina use a lot of cash as, again, it’s not economical to use credit or ATM cards there. Among other valuables, I had a significant amount of cash in the safe.)

But it could have been much worse. If it happened the day before I was scheduled to go home, I would have missed my flight since my passport was in the safe (along with everything else I would not have wanted to leave behind: my phone, tablet, cash, credit cards, and some jewelry). Since it took days for this to resolve, I might have been delayed several days – potentially missing business meetings or other important engagements on the other end.

And it would’ve been excruciating if my laptop had been in the safe (as it normally is when I leave for dinner). It was a fluke that I’d left the laptop out that night. With my phone and tablet already locked up, it would’ve been intolerable having none of my communication devices – not only to stay in touch with friends and family (and the outside world in general), but to deal with the owners and rental agency on the matter.

Bath

Then there is the time the electricity went out…and stayed out for six solid hours. It started in the afternoon (which greatly disrupted my work day) and continued into the evening (when there isn’t natural light to compensate). If I hadn’t had a flashlight on me, it would’ve been unsafe to even leave the apartment. Being on the seventh floor, leaving required navigating as many flights of stairs each way – in darkness as the elevator was out.

It was not the owner’s fault (the blackout was building-wide) but I believe a decent hotel would have (1) worked with greater urgency to fix the problem, (2) provided at least minimal emergency lighting, and/or (3) somehow compensated guests for the inconvenience.

Here are a few other negatives gleaned from this experience. I relay them not to be petty, but to illustrate the point of this post.

  • There was no smoke detector (that I could see) in the apartment. I realize I was not in the US and different countries have different codes, but I believe in a reputable hotel this would not have been absent.
  • There was no dead bolt on the door – something I have never seen a hotel room lack. While the building had seemingly good security, you still want a latch in the unit to prevent getting walked in on – by maintenance or the housekeeper or whatever – when you’re there. Even if they knock first you might not hear the knock if you’re in the shower or otherwise indisposed (which is the worst time to be intruded upon in the first place). In my case this wasn’t a big deal as I just bought a rubber door stop for a few dollars, but (1) a dead bolt would’ve been standard in a hotel, and (2) most people don’t want to spend precious vacation time hunting down a store that sells door stops.
  • The hair dryer died one day and I had to wait until the next day for another. Although this didn’t kill me, in a hotel I would’ve received a replacement in minutes and would not have had to go to bed with damp hair.
  • I am not sure if it was just my particular rental, but they only provided a few days’ worth of toiletries and paper products even though I paid for a month-long stay. Again, this was not a big deal for me in practice (there was a grocery store nearby and I just bought supplies during my grocery runs), but if I were only staying a few days and didn’t plan on grocery shopping I would’ve been annoyed having to spend precious vacation time hunting down basic supplies a hotel would have provided.

Finally, the rental agency required a security deposit equal to two weeks rent. Although I did not consider that unreasonable, it was another negative versus hotels. Hotels may hold your credit card number for damage, but they don’t actually charge you unless there is damage. And even if they did charge your card without a valid case, you could dispute the transaction with your credit card company.

In contrast, I had to pay the apartment rental agency a security deposit in real money upfront – and simply hope they’d return it at the end. Few rental agencies in Buenos Aires accept credit cards, and those that do charge significant fees for the privilege (again, the “blue rate” issue). Most agencies require the deposit by wire transfer, but the one I worked with at least accepted PayPal. While PayPal does offer dispute resolution services, I believe they are not nearly as robust as the consumer protections of a credit card.

If the agency did not refund my security deposit, for whatever reason, I did not see much practical recourse. I mean, I am not going to spend time and resources returning to Argentina to sue them in small claims court (or whatever it’s called there, assuming they even have it) and attempt to present a case in my third language. I doubt it would succeed, and even if it did I’m certain the cost and effort of pursuing the refund would exceed the refund amount itself.

The rental agency I used stated on its website that security deposits are refunded “at checkout.” Well, the person who came to check me out said she knew nothing about security deposits as they’re handled at the main office. Several days after checkout I still had not received my refund and had to e-mail them to request it.

Now, I am anal retentive and had made a note to follow up if my deposit weren’t returned. But not everyone is as obsessive. Many people, on returning from vacation, go right back to work and are immediately swamped trying to catch up on everything that piled up in their absence. I can totally see how someone might lose their deposit because they simply forgot to follow up.

I had a good experience with this rental agency overall, so I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it was an oversight rather than an intentionally dishonest act. At this writing I am still awaiting my refund, but they assure me it has been processed and should arrive in 48 hours. If it doesn’t, I will update this post. [Update: refund received!]

 

The verdict

None of the “cons” of an apartment was horrible (though the safe box situation had the potential to be). But I did not think the “pros” outweighed them either.

In the final analysis, it comes down to a matter of personal preferences and trip circumstances. For me personally, I’m unlikely to consider an apartment again unless I were staying at least three weeks, or with a big enough group, or could realize significant cost savings. There were just too many annoying inconveniences.

I think problems such as these are not isolated to this particular apartment. Rather, I believe they represent a systematic difference between hotels and apartments. I think that because:

  • I did not rent some dump in the ghetto. It was a nice unit in a modern building with a 24-hour doorman located in one of the most desirable parts of down. Yet it still had all these problems.
  • The rental agency I worked with was good overall (the only issue I ever had with them was the security deposit, as described above). In some cases, I felt they went above and beyond to provide good service. Yet I still ended up with a seemingly-endless string of issues.

 

Tips

I rented this apartment directly from a local rental agency, but I also considered Airbnb (and similar services HomeAway and FlipKey). While Airbnb has other disadvantages, I do like that it doesn’t require an upfront security deposit (like a hotel, it only charges your card if there is damage at checkout). Airbnb also does not release the rent to your host until 24 hours after check-in, whereas through a traditional agency you typically have to pay the full amount directly at check-in.

Remember, when you rent through a traditional agency, the agent does not work for you – it works for the owner. When you book through Airbnb or the like, at least the service is (supposedly) impartial.

Bedroom

Also, unlike a hotel where you can cancel your reservation without penalty (assuming you booked a refundable rate), most apartment rentals require a deposit to hold the unit (which you forfeit if you cancel). In my case the deposit was substantial. I did not intend to cancel, but sometimes life derails your plans. If I had gotten sick or had a family emergency or faced some other situation what prevented the trip, I would have lost the deposit.

My way around that was to add trip cancellation coverage to my travel insurance policy. If my trip were canceled, I could file an insurance claim to recover prepaid lodging expenses. The claim would only be valid if I canceled for a covered reason, but that is better than no coverage at all.

If you are facing the hotel-or-apartment debate, I hope my experience provides a useful data point. If you have questions feel free to leave a comment or shoot me a note!

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Posted December 17, 2014 by Admin in category "Popular", "Tips", "Uncategorized

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