In the past 18 months, I’ve visited Toronto 4 times and stayed in 4 different Airbnbs. The bed-and-breakfast where Rom and I used to stay downtown has permanently closed. Their rate was about 175 CDN including all taxes. Before that, we used to stay at a hotel which also cost 175, but the building and service deteriorated, and the specific neighbourhood wasn’t so safe at night. The current rate to stay there starts at 400!
We go to Toronto to visit our 26-year-old, Link, who has a small apartment with no space for overnight visitors. We make each trip into a vacation with good meals, concerts, plays, art and shopping. If we save on accommodations, we can do more things or visit more often.
Our first Airbnb stay was through necessity. We spent a few days in Toronto helping Link pack and clean prior to their month-end move. Because we were in a time crunch, we wanted to stay in Link’s suburban neighbourhood to eliminate commute time. There were no hotels or bed-and-breakfasts nearby, so I searched on Airbnb for the first time. The previous year, an acquaintance had used home-stays throughout Europe and had a good experience. But he stayed in rooms within people’s homes, sharing kitchens and bathrooms, and (I later heard), was invited into many beds as well!
We found a self-contained basement apartment in Link’s neighbourhood. At first I was alarmed by the payment and cancellation policies. Airbnb asks that you pay half the total amount at the time of booking and the other half a few weeks before travel. The owner decides if they have a strict no-cancellation policy or other terms, which are revealed up-front. I didn’t know what the follow-up would be like if there was a dispute.
As agreed, when we arrived at the local subway station with our luggage, we contacted the host to say we’d be there soon. We made the 20-minute walk to the house, but our host wasn’t there. When I called again, he had become agitated waiting for us because he expected us to arrive immediately by taxi. He had to drive his child to school, so he left the key out for us. We never did end up meeting him.
The apartment had a separate entrance in the back garden – sliding doors that were covered by a locked security grill. Rather than feeling more secure, we were worried. What kind of residential neighbourhood needs its tenants locked in?
The apartment had more space than we needed. We really liked being close to Link’s place and being able to have coffee, meals and snacks in the huge kitchen. There were a few homey touches missing, for example, there were no night stands or dressers where I could put my book and glasses and charge my phone while I slept. But it was within walking distance of a few amenities like restaurants and drugstores.
At bedtime, the owners upstairs were clearly in the midst of a social gathering of some kind. For about two hours, we listened to constant furniture moving (perhaps the dining chairs of dinner guests) and animated, indistinct talking. We thought, oh no, this has all been a big mistake. We called the host the next day and he said there had been a death in his family and he unexpectedly had a crowd. But it was “dead” quiet the remaining two nights of our stay. I don’t think he was telling the truth. But just in case, I decided not to leave him a review at all rather than leave a negative one.
Overall, the place itself was cheap and ideally situated, but it made me aware of the kinds of issues that could arise.
My second Airbnb was in Link’s new neighbourhood at the beginning of last year. Link was recovering from surgery and I was staying in Toronto for a while to help out. Since I am beyond sleeping on an air mattress, I booked a local place to stay. This one was swoon-worthy. It was a room in a private home with its own bathroom (not ensuite) and breakfast was provided. The owner met me at the door and introduced me to her boyfriend and son. She got her son ready for school every day, then returned and made me breakfast! The house was beautiful, the room was huge and the bathroom was luxurious. Everyone was so quiet.
A couple of days into my week-long stay, the host told me she was leaving to visit relatives, and her BF would be the host for the remaining nights. He was a trustworthy guy. He looked after the little boy and took him to school and made my breakfast. It turns out there was another suite upstairs where an international student was living. One evening the two men had drinks together. It suddenly occurred to me there was no lock on my bedroom door.
Nothing happened. I think they would have liked to invite me to join them for drinks but were afraid of seeming improper. I realized how easy it must have been for my friend to bed-hop across Europe, and how unsafe the same situations might be for those of us who are not men.
For Airbnb Stay # 3, we could have stayed in the place above, but it was near Link’s apartment, a 20-minute bus ride from the end of the subway line. To make our trips more vacation-like, we stay downtown and Link meets us there for activities, and we plan together which days to travel out to their place.
We were in need of a splurge so we paid 175 for a luxury Airbnb downtown, rather than seeking out an economical one. It was an immaculate railroad apartment in a posh area, with a gleaming new kitchen and a Victorian bedroom. We saved some money compared to staying in a hotel, we again made our own coffee and breakfasts, there was a wonderful café at the street corner, it was near shopping and restaurants, and the subway station was only a 10-minute walk.
The owner, who didn’t live onsite, was very pleasant. We could hear her extended family who lived upstairs with their toddler and dog as they entered and left the house, but only briefly, and we never saw or heard the student who lived downstairs. So that experience was a 10/10, except for the price. It worked out to 242 a night once you added the taxes and cleaning fee.
For our most recent trip to Toronto, we sought a less expensive place near that one. We found a “garden level” apartment for the stated price of 85 (132 all-inclusive). This one had an even better location, 5 minutes from the subway, and it was on a surprisingly quiet residential street.
At arrival, the host said he would meet us, but sent someone else instead, who seemed to live in another part of the house. We had a separate entrance. The “garden level” turned out to be a basement with no natural light, but it was clean and bright. It had a layout which you wouldn’t want to live in: a tiny kitchen, a dining room, bedroom and ensuite bath, but no living room. To watch TV you had to sit at the dining room table. The host left a generous basket of food, so we didn’t need to buy anything for breakfast for our entire stay.
The best part was the neighbourhood itself, the Annex, a part that is not quite as gentrified as some of the others around it. The house was surrounded by fantastic ethnic restaurants and we had some wonderful authentic meals.
I noted what a huge house it was, and wondered whether any apartments were for rent within it. To my amusement, I found out the entire premises are a bed-and-breakfast! For a little more money we could have stayed in an above-ground room with breakfast and AC. But given the price and amenities for the apartment, we will happily stay there again.
+ Home stays are perfect when you need to stay in an area that has no other accommodations
+ In large urban centres, they are much more affordable than hotels
+ There is a greater range of prices and amenities, from luxury to no-frills. On the lower end, you can go really low – if you dare!
+ You can book a place where you can store and prepare your own food, for even better savings
+ Rom says: this saves time as well as money, because you don’t have to adhere to a set meal schedule, or wait to be served in a restaurant (Uber Eats notwithstanding!)
+ The host wants to maintain a good rating and reputation, so the listings are generally accurate, and the homes are clean and safe. I have had some scary experiences at hotels – like someone walking into my room in the middle of the night because the room was double-booked. I have no reason to believe Airbnbs are any less safe!
+ Some Airbnbs are charming and unique; you never get a generic “chain” experience
+ Airbnb rentals are a source of income for the owners which can make purchasing the home more affordable for them
+ Like at bed-and-breakfasts, there is potential to meet and socialize with other visitors, although we always pay for maximum privacy – no shared bathrooms! (It goes without saying that I would not sleep in the same room with strangers in a hostel)
+ I have never been in a dispute with a host, but it seems Airbnb will step in to help resolve them
– The cleaning fee adds a lot to the stated rate (I think the last place added $75 to the bill for cleaning – although we knew this when we booked)
– You never know if you will meet the host or not, or whether they actually live on the premises, no matter what they tell you at the time of booking
– You should ask what parts of the site are off-limits. A lot of high-rise condos in Toronto do not allow home-stay rentals, but the owners do it anyway. I’ve read they ask their visitors not to use the pool, fitness room, patio, etc. because the residents will report them.
– People are buying up a lot of condos and houses to use as Airbnb units, so the rental vacancy rate plummets for local residents, and rents are driven up
Staying at Airbnbs has (oddly) helped me appreciate what I’m getting when I book a hotel room – privacy, comfort, consistency, safety, onsite services, staff assistance, etc. But at 400 a night… As long as I can use home stays that meet my needs for price, safety, access to a kitchen, and location, I will continue.
I will continue to Google the street address of the building after I book it (the exact street address is not available until the booking is confirmed), ask more questions about whether the host lives there, whether they will be present, who else lives or stays there, and how many units there are.
Have you had any Airbnb adventures? Or do you prefer a non-eventful stay, much like a non-eventful flight?!
Postscript: I didn’t think of this until after the post was published, but a lot of Airbnbs do not allow children or pets, and none of the places we’ve stayed have been wheelchair accessible.