Which is best? Camping? A hotel? Or an Airbnb? Little more than 10 years ago, there weren’t as many options for accommodation while traveling We had motels, hotels, KOAs, and other campgrounds, and that was about it! It’s now a little bit more complicated with Airbnb and Couchsurfing entering the arena as new options.
This post will strive to analyze the different options, so you can find out which is best for you.
Camping vs. Hotel vs. Airbnb: Which is best? To make a comparison, we’ll look at the following categories to determine which is best for each category.
- Cost: Which Lodging is Most Economical?
- Airbnbs vs. Hotels Cost
- Comfort: Which Type Of Lodging Is Most Comfortable?
- Adventure: Which Lodging Has the Most Adventure?
- Convenience: Which Lodging Is the Most Convenient?
- Time: Which Lodging Is the Most Time-Efficient?
Really, having a successful trip is deciding on your trip intentions. Are you only trying to get from point A to point B? Are you wanting to save as much money as possible so you can focus on a particular activity? Are you wanting an adventure? Figuring out the answer to this question will make the answer much clearer to you along with the discussion in this article.
Cost: Which Lodging is Most Economical?
From my research, I found in 13 major cities in the U.S. that the following price trend held true generally (with a few exceptions). From least to most:
- State Park Camping
- KOA campgrounds
This price range is true for 2 adults, with a 1 night stay.
This is stuff you probably already know, right? Hotels are more expensive than camping in a tent–no big shock.
The Hidden Costs of Camping
What is surprising is how expensive camping really can be.
If you’re looking to save money, camping can be appealing since you know that a campsite reservation is anywhere from $10-$50, which depending on the area is almost always cheaper than any other lodging.
Generally, state park camping has an additional daily fee on top of your camping reservation. This daily fee varies with the popularity of the state park. From research on state parks all over the U.S., the daily fee varied from free to $7 per person per day. This isn’t a huge amount of money, seemingly, but the costs do add up.
For example, if you are eyeing a campsite with a reservation fee of $20, and you have 2 adults than with a $7 daily fee, your $20 campsite cost jumps up to $48 for the single night, and two days.
$48? This is about the price you can expect to camp at a KOA. KOA campgrounds are generally much more accessible than state parks. Many state parks are anywhere from 15-75 miles from a city center (with some exceptions), while a KOA is usually within or just outside city limits.
This means that state park camping or a KOA is at or just below the price for an inexpensive motel.
Lastly, and perhaps most surprising, is that car camping gear can cost anywhere from $300 to over $1600 depending on how much camp-specific gear you buy! To see how camping gear can cost that much, I did an in-depth research post showing the true costs of camping you can see here.
Bottom line: If you have state park passes to bypass daily fees and all of your gear, you can save the most money by camping. There are other camping locations as well that require some more research and knowledge to get to that are free, or more inexpensive. However, this requires that you already have the gear and some practice. Don’t expect camping to be cheaper at the beginning.
Airbnb’s vs. Hotels Cost
As you can see very quickly, the prices for hotels and Airbnbs vary widely depending on quality, location, and popularity. Airbnbs are more popular than they were 5 years ago, and hotels are also trying to compete with them–thus, the price difference between Airbnbs and hotels from city to city is not as steep as it used to be–often they are neck and neck.
Don’t stop reading though, hotels and Airbnbs offer very different experiences that will appeal to different people, so keep reading to find out why there are other reasons you’d choose one over the other.
What About The Cost of Motels?
Motels vary anywhere from $25 to $100 a night, across the US. They are lower in price than a standard hotel because they are offering less service in favor of more affordable accommodation.
Motels also have the benefit of being on the road, so you don’t have to drive extra distances to stay there, which saves some gas. It turns out that this can be the most affordable way to lodge during travel if you do not have camping gear.
What About The Cost of RV Camping?
Pro RVers know that bringing your house with you on the road doesn’t mean that lodging is free. There are lots of needs such as dumping, electricity, and water hookups that RVs have which means you should expect to spend money on your long road trip.
The cost varies from location to location across the U.S. too. There are free places to camp as well, but again it requires some research and know-how to get to them.
wand’rly magazine made an excellent post showing the average cost of a private RV park per night at $38.50 (source) and also shows regional price and opportunity differences.
What are the Exceptions?
This is where it gets complicated.
Airbnbs are like snowflakes, they are all different with several similarities. While hotels have a standard set of services they offer, Airbnbs can be remarkably different from one another.
Airbnb hosts often rent out entire living units which can house 4 people. While a standard hotel room can house 2 people. Therefore, Airbnbs can often be significantly less expensive per person if you find a unit that can house more than 2 people.
Camping is the same way. Many camping locations you have to pay for additional vehicles, but if your vehicle is a 15 passenger van, then you can potentially fit 15 people in a single $20 campsite. In other words, you can save boatloads of cash if you are camping with a large group and you have a good sized vehicle.
However, you can easily lose those cost savings if you have to buy a new big tent to fit more people or multiple smaller tents to fit smaller groups.
Furthermore, you can expect to pay $20-$50 across the U.S. for a campsite that has water and electricity. If you do primitive camping which doesn’t have these, you can pay from $5-$20 depending on the location.
Summary: Who Wins In Cost?
Camping can be the least expensive, but only with good planning and the gear already purchased. If you don’t have camping gear, then a motel comes in at 2nd place for the price category.
Again check out my post on the true costs of camping to show other related costs and ways you can save money.
Comfort: Which Type Of Lodging Is Most Comfortable?
In order of comfort:
- State Park Camping
- KOA Campgrounds
Look familiar? This almost looks like the reverse of the cost comparison list!
So, camping may be the cheapest (can be the cheapest), but you are sleeping in a tent! This is not an acceptable trade-off for many people. The discussion is not over, though, there’s much to be learned here.
Airbnbs vs. Hotels in Comfort
Hotels and Airbnbs can compete very fairly in comfort.
Hotels, especially the more high-end hotels specialize in creating a very comfortable atmosphere with very nice beds and bedding, and a nice bathroom with those little soap dishes.
This all, however, depends on the quality of the hotel. I’m sure you’ve had experiences sleeping in a hotel where something was off about the bed, or the AC didn’t work, etc. Lower quality hotels are generally cheaper (although not always), and sacrifice in room quality, sometimes.
Airbnbs, the comfort level depends completely on the host. Some hosts outdo themselves and give an incredibly comfortable experience with a very nice bed and sparkly clean bathrooms. I remember one Airbnb I stayed at where the bathroom had a heat lamp, which was so luxurious to come out of the shower without feeling cold.
Other Airbnbs, if rated well, are merely adequate in the comfort department. In fact, you’ll be more satisfied with your Airbnb experience if you don’t have the expectation of an extremely comfy bed, as it just varies with the tastes of the host.
To sum up this section, hotels generally win in this arena since they have a lot more resources to draw from, but Airbnbs can deliver an equally comfortable experience. The comfort level in an Airbnb varies more than it will from hotel to hotel.
Motels in Comfort
Motels are competing on price and convenience, and thus creating an award-winning comfort experience is not their exact forte. That being said, for many motels I’ve stayed in, I’ve not had very many complaints. A decent motel offers bedding to suit most people’s needs without you having to spend a fortune.
Camping and Comfort: Impossible?
When you stay at a hotel, an Airbnb or a motel, you have an assurance of having some basic necessities: A bed, a shower, and some privacy.
With camping, you may have your tent for privacy if it’s not too small to get dressed in, and some campgrounds offer showers while others do not. Even if showers are offered, they are sometimes coin-operated, which isn’t super glamorous or convenient. Furthermore, you are protected only by a booth that may offer consistent hot water, or it may not.
This isn’t the end, though. Camping can be surprisingly comfortable, with a shift in expectations. If you say to yourself you don’t need to shower as often, and that privacy isn’t as big a deal as people say it is, then it’s not so bad. Comparing camping to a hotel in comfort is a bit of an unfair comparison since you are at a hotel for a different reason than you are camping. The rest of this post will explain what the reasons and differences in experience are between camping and other lodgings.
Often the biggest complaint people have is sleeping on the ground in a tent. With some creativity or some money, sleeping in your tent can be very comfortable. See our post for an example of how to make a DIY comfortable bed for camping.
KOA camping vs. State Park Camping
I only have personal experiences to draw on here, but my own experiences with KOA camping has been that you’re camping in an open lot with little to no tree cover. It makes sense because KOAs are made to bring a more affordable lodging solution with convenient access to civilization.
KOAs generally have more amenities but they generally don’t have the beautiful landscape that state parks have, which kind of reduces the feeling of getting away from it all and the calm that comes with that.
Summary: Who Wins in Comfort?
Hotels and Airbnbs are first and second place, as you pay a premium for higher comfort. Good quality motels are not too distant, though, if room service isn’t a big deal to you.
Adventure: Which Lodging Has the Most Adventure?
In order of most adventurous to least:
- State Park Camping
- KOA Camping
You can definitely experience adventure on any trip, it doesn’t matter so much what lodging you have. But if you want your lodging to be a part of your adventure, then camping is the way to go!
Camping as an Adventure
There’s a lot of “mights” with camping.
You might find a campsite with an amazing view of a lake just adjacent:
You might go a on a day hike the next morning and find a beautiful river with gorgeous bald cypresses growing majestically from the banks.
You might wake up and see the pier and the ocean right outside your tent:
Camping is full of “mights”. You could experience cold, rain, and fire-burnt potatoes. No great experience is guaranteed, but sometimes taking the chance can pay off in a huge way.
There’s just no comparison having access to nature that you do while camping. You can wake up, and just go and explore and experience the planet.
There’s a ton of research on how being outdoors helps us emotionally and can help prevent depression. I did a lot of research on the subject and shared the results here in my post.
If adventure is your goal, than camping is the thing for you!
Airbnb and Adventure
In two of our long road trips, one on the west coast of the U.S., and another on the North Island of New Zealand, we did a combination of campgrounds and Airbnbs.
These Airbnbs were a welcome reprieve from the lack of comfort of camping but still delivered amazingly on the adventure front. Many Airbnbs are just regular people’s houses in fantastic locations. Locations either not reasonable for a hotel, or prohibitively expensive.
In New Zealand, we stayed at a little Ranchette Airbnb in Whangarei. The area was so beautiful, and all we had to do was wake up to see it. Just opening the windows we were in the middle of the gorgeous countryside.
Although the price was comparable to a cheap hotel or a motel, the experience of being directly in the countryside and able to see the sunrise and sunset in such an amazing place was priceless.
Another aspect of adventure with Airbnbs is that you don’t know what you are going to get. Some locations and hosts are eclectic and even sometimes eccentric. We’ve not had a bad experience yet, but some have criticized Airbnb for its lack of consistency. Reading the ratings carefully is extremely important. Just because a bed looks comfortable doesn’t mean the rest of the experience will be positive, so the ratings really help out there.
Lastly, we’ve had some amazing experiences and conversations with our hosts! We’ve stayed in several Airbnbs where we stayed in or in a house directly adjacent to the host’s house. We’ve had several great conversations with these mini-entrepreneurs, and adds to the adventure.
Sometimes when we travel, we don’t want social interaction–it just depends on our mood. That’s why it’s important to look for self-check-in and private entrances for Airbnbs give you a better chance at privacy if you are not looking to socialize with your hosts.
Not All Camping is Full of Adventure
In fact, sometimes you feel like you are sleeping in a glorified parking lot. State parks good bets because usually they are protecting some aspect of nature that is worth seeing and experiencing. City campgrounds like KOA campgrounds are not always an amazing sight and are more about saving money than experiencing nature.
This really depends on the area and the campground. They vary so much that some are going to be a really good experience, while others are more of a meh experience.
Hotels and Motels: Not So Much Adventure
Hotels and motels certainly have their own aspects of adventure in them– you never know if you’re going to get the hotel or motel that you can share stories about later.
If you’re into city life, then hotels give you immediate access to the nightlife as well as any city attractions. Again, the lodging itself isn’t the adventure as much as the destination.
Motels rarely spark a sense of adventure, their forte, again, is more about convenience than experiencing nature.
Convenience: Which Lodging Is the Most Convenient?
In order of convenience:
- KOA Campground
- State Park Camping
Convenience: Planning a Place To Stay
This is where hotels really shine. Unless there’s a huge convention in town, you can almost always find a place to stay, even last minute. It’s always a good idea to plan ahead for travel, but if you’re not the best planner than hotels are a great fallback.
The same applies to motels. On a road-trip, you often don’t have to plan ahead for what motel you want to stay at–you can just pull over onto the side of the road at a Super-8 or a Red Roof Inn, and again, unless you happen to be trying to find a room during a huge gathering like the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, or SXSW or something like that.
While most of the time you’ll be okay, you can be unfortunate enough to time your trip along with a big event.
Planning Airbnb Trips: Don’t be Late!
In contrast, if you are more than a month out for an Airbnb, you may not get the house on the lake shore that you were wanting. To get an ideal location and price, Airbnb requires that you plan ahead. This is because Airbnb locations are unique, and the supply of great location great quality Airbnbs is limited. Unlike a hotel where they have hundreds of rooms of more or less the same quality, an Airbnb is a one-of-a-kind.
This is less convenient, though, in regards to trip planning. You have to plan months in advance sometimes to get the location you want.
Minimum Night Stay
Airbnb hosts have to turn a profit by getting tenants that visit for an ideal period of time. The most work is the tenants that are only staying overnight, and the more ideal tenants are those that stay at least a few days.
This can make it more complicated to plan, since you are limited to Airbnbs that do not have minimum night stays, or you have to plan your trip around multiple nights as needed.
Planning Camping Trips: Don’t Be Forced Into The Expensive Sites
The same principles that apply to Airbnb are true for campsites. There have been many times where we thought a few weeks out for a particular campsite would be plenty of time, only to find that the campground is booked every weekend for the next 6 months.
To get around this, you can either camp in less popular campgrounds, but usually campgrounds are popular for a reason. In our area, particularly, the parks with water features (lakes and rivers) are very popular during the summer as they are great places to swim.
Another solution is to take off work on Monday and Tuesday so you can go camping during a less popular time. This is our favorite solution as we get to avoid camping crowds.
Sometimes there are spots left, but they are the more expensive sites made for RVs with full hookups. If you plan early, you can snag the more desirable campsites that are less expensive.
Convenience For Families
One way that hotels and motels are more convenient, is that they are not as fragile.
Airbnbs sometimes have hosts with eclectic tastes, which is really fun to experience! However, with a family, those fragile decorations can be a little scary with kids. One easy solution is to take a picture and put the fragile decorations in a box right when you arrive, and then put it back when you’re done.
Summary: Who Wins in Convenience?
Hotels and motels take the thought and planning out of the equation–you just arrive and stay for as little or as long as you need to. They are also in more convenient locations in the city, and don’t require crawling through windy residential areas, or traversing through the countryside.
Airbnbs are fairly convenient, although they require more planning, and some of them require a bit more work for a family.
Time: Which Lodging Is the Most Time-Efficient?
In order of the most time efficient:
- KOA Campground
- State Park Parking
Hotels and Motels Are The Most Time Efficient
If you don’t want to fuss with lodging and spending time with where you are staying, then hotels and motels take the least amount of time. They are generally very accessible, and you can get in and out easily and simply.
Airbnbs sometimes are not as convenient, for example, needing to park around the corner (depending on the situation), and they are usually in residential areas, and depending on what your destination is, may be more out of the way.
Camping Options Take More Time
Camping can take more time… the primary time taken is reaching the camping destination. If your destinations are around civilization, then many camping options are outside the city. For example, many state parks are 5-50 miles away from city centers.
A KOA campground or an in-city campground is an exception to this as you can be in the middle of the city and still be close to everything.
If you’re cooking dinner over a campfire or even with a gas stove, it takes a bit more time than it would with a kitchenette at an inn, and there is a lot more walking back and forth to campground restrooms.
Also, you have to take the time into consideration of setting up a tent and your sleeping situation.
Summary: Who Wins in Time-Efficiency?
Hotels and motels win for time efficiency! Camping is the least time-efficient, and the only way to get better at it is practice.
So, Which Lodging Type Wins?
The answer goes back to the beginning of this article: What is your intention for your trip? If you want adventure, then camping is an incredible way to travel, and Airbnbs is an amazing supplement to experience it all.
If your goal is comfort and not worrying about lodging, then hotels are a great option.
If your goal is to save money, then motels are a great option, and camping can be an even lower cost with proper planning.
Hopefully, this discussion helps you in your decision making and trip planning!