From Hotels to Homes

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.

Like this

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?

Kitchen

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.

In conclusion:

+ 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.

44 comments

  1. Margie from Toronto

    I have to admit to a lot of hesitation about AirBnB’s – I just don’t like the idea of being in someone else’s home. I did stay in B&B’s during a road trip through the UK a few years ago and I’d say they were great 80% of the time but the other 20% were not fun. I much prefer hotels – in fact – if I ever win the lottery I’ve often thought that I’d like to live in a hotel! A very fancy one! 🙂

    • I feel like I’ve been lucky so far because I had 2 lovely Airbnbs and 2 functional ones. The only real problem was the one noisy night at the first place. It has been a bit of an education in terms of expectations and privacy. I mentioned I’ve had some bad experiences in hotels, too. Now that so many ratings and reviews are published, I do a lot more research. But at some point you just have to take the plunge. Rom and I have a hotel we stayed at twice in London (UK) and we will probably keep going back there because it’s such a nuisance researching new places and taking chances. I’ll save my sense of adventure for something else! Speaking of which, when we were in Toronto recently, we went to the play Dear Evan Hansen even though it is purportedly about teen mental health and suicide. It was fantastic! And uplifting. Hope to meet up with you again on a future trip to TO.

      • Margie from Toronto

        I am going to see “Evan Hansen” this Friday! And I have to admit that I too was a bit hesitant given the subject matter but everyone I know who has seen it feels the same as you so I am looking forward to it.

        Love to meet up again whenever you are win Toronto. 🙂

  2. Jen

    We hope to go to Toronto this summer. We will do a hotel… any thoughts on the area around CN tower and roundhouse park?

  3. Fiona

    Some of those places you’ve stayed in look so beautiful! And a huge plus being able to cook, along with the generally cheaper overnight rate.

    We’ve stayed in Airbnb’s quite often. Some were independent apartments or an independent floor or outbuilding to a home. I wouldn’t hesitate to do that again. The ‘independent’ ones can be semi-professional, short-stay rentals.

    We’ve also stayed in Airbnbs that are part of people’s residences. I didn’t really enjoy that and wouldn’t repeat it! We found there were issues with other guests, noise, privacy etc. and in London, the owner appeared to be thoroughly ‘over’ guests and even had her wardrobes filled with her old tax returns and junk!

    The review system is great. Although I’ve never left a negative review, I would in future for the sake of other guests.

    Looking forward to some posts on Cuba! 🙂

  4. Jamie

    We’ve stayed in a few AirBnBs over the years. One we’ve stayed in three years running!

    We took the plunge when we did our big overseas trip in 2015. It was a bit of a leap to book a week in London, two separate stints in Paris plus a few nights in Barcelona all at once before we’d ever spent a night in one! I was a bit nervous on our flight over to London, but it all went well in the end.

    Strange/interesting experiences:
    -at the London place (our first!) the owner/cleaner left before we arrived to get the key (despite making plans with us), but left it with the tenant downstairs. A similar thing happened in Brisbane last year, but when we met the cleaner/friend in the lobby and they asked us which way to the apartment! We had no idea! Luckily the owner was always contactable by phone/message.

    -we arrived in Barcelona and called the number to get the key. After our London experience we waited until we had arrived out the front, but when we called to say “we’re here!” they asked “at which one?” Once we sorted that out they arrived quickly and were excellent.

    -the place we’ve stayed at 3 years running has no carpets at all. They’ve pulled up the carpets and painted the cement, but just straight paint, no polishing, etc. It’s a bit flaky, but obviously isn’t enough to put us off! I think it costs us about $140pn for 5 people in a 3brm house, so worth it! I just make sure I pack some indoor socks or slippers.

    -At one of our Paris stays the owner introduced us in the stairwell as “friends from Australia” that he had made when backpacking. Obviously he was keeping his AirBnB on the quiet.

    -at the other Paris booking the owner seemed nice but it got weird when he took us on a tour and said “this is my bed. It’s nice” in an odd sort of way. Not sure if it was a language barrier or what was going on to make it such a creepy exchange, but he really did have a nice bed!

    -the worst experience we’ve had was with an AirBnB that was managed by a real estate. It took days to get a response to any problems/questions. But, the location was perfect, so I would consider staying again.

  5. I usually book with Home Away or VRBO. AirBnB is its own subsidiary and its rules are slightly different. Regardless though, I much prefer having a “full” space (full kitchen, separate living space, one or two bedrooms) to the cramped shared-wall space of a hotel. I have stayed in cabins, condos, and houses — all of which generally work out better financially than staying at a hotel — but never in a shared space or rented room accommodation.

    I’ve pre-booked a place for my summer vacation, a 2-BR condo with a pool, for just over $900. An equivalent stay at a hotel for that week would be over $1,100 and there would be no way to cook/eat in. I know the area we’ll be staying in well, so I don’t have neighborhood concerns. And since we’ll be close to everything we want to do — and will have elbow room when we come ‘home’ each day — I consider it a win! 🙂

    • That sounds like an ideal vacation! One thing I don’t like about hotels is that even if I can’t expect to cook meals, I would still like a fridge for milk and snacks. Mini-bar fridges are not always suitable. As an early riser, I like to make coffee in the room and have milk with it, or some yogurt while waiting to go out for breakfast. Maybe someday hotels will be only for business travellers.

  6. We used AirBnB for our stay in London and most of our trip around France. Like Mrs Fever, we like having the space, our own kitchen to have a leisurely breakfast at our own time and to prepare lunch or dinner from bought ingredients and a separate lounge room so I can stay up late and read. Mr S gets up earlier than me so he uses the lounge room to not disturb me.
    We’ve had no problems. I read lots of the comments. I always look for something nice or interesting and rely in the photos. No way could I afford an equivalent hotel space. I also make sure there’s a washing machine every couple of bookings.

    I wouldn’t share a house. Always book a complete unit.

  7. In the fourth photo, there’s a framed print of “The Sea hath its Pearls”. The original is in the NSW Art Gallery. Mr S loves it. I bought him a cheap shoddy print decades. I so want a better one in a full wooden frame.

  8. Deb

    We haven’t stayed at Air BB but have booked apartments using booking.com in Sicily with good results and no cleaning fees etc.

    • Hi Deb, I am curious whether the apartments you’ve stayed in have been apartment buildings in which every unit is rented out to tourists/visitors, or if some of the buildings had units that the owners lived in. I know some hotel chains operate buildings that are all apartment style (i.e. residence hotels).

      • Deb

        The one in Palermo was an apartment in a regular 6 Plex with regular tenants and the one in Catania was in a hotel with apartments.

        Both worked our great although it was nice to have a front desk clerk that you could ask questions in English…otherwise we were struggling with Italian or French.

      • Great idea; that is something to check for. I stayed at an efficiency apartment once and appreciated the front desk for security and local advice.

  9. An extremely interesting post, I have often wondered what the Airbnb’s are like. I am not sure I would stay in one though – we usually hire apartments abroad or in France a Gite as I like making my own breakfast and meals. I never like having my breakfast in hotels with a dozen other people (I am anti-social in a morning till I come round a bit!). It looks like you didn’t do too badly though in your choice of places to stay.

    • I am happy with our choices so far and I have found the lower-priced places to be a good compromise between value and amenities. The higher priced one was better than a hotel (except it had no pool or fitness centre).

      • We had a brilliant apartment last year in Vicenza overlooking the old square – it was prime position to see Italian life and beautifully decorated and equiped – but we paid for it. I never mind basic if the bed is comfortable and the place clean and the shower not mouldy.

      • It is a glorious feeling to take a chance on a new place and have it work out that well!

  10. Barbie

    I have very mixed feelings about these rentals whether they are through Home Away, AirBNB, or other services even though we’ve never had a truly bad experience. I appreciate having a kitchen and space to spread out but sometimes it feels awkward. We’ve only left one place early…in fact we didn’t stay even one night as the place was just not clean and had a moldy smell. Another that I wouldn’t return to was lovely but it was on the ground floor and we could hear everything that went on in the owner’s unit above to the point that we could identify what TV program she was watching. We’ve also stayed once where the dressers and closets were 85% filled with the owners stuff and it seemed we were staying in their storage unit. On the other hand, we stayed in a beautiful basement apartment in Missoula, Montana that I could live in and we’ve gone back several times. The owner thought of everything, had a minimal style that mirrors my own and even though she lived upstairs, we were barely aware of her presence. My pet peeve is the owners that “decorate” their units so densely that we don’t have a place to put our stuff or we are scared we will break something.

    If it was just me, I’d stay only in nice hotels with their predictability, anonymity and generous cancellation rates. Hubby likes to have access to a kitchen and washer and dryer and have multiple spaces so I go along with him and explore even with my trepidations!

    • Hi Barbie, I have had the opposite experience once – a unit with the bare minimum of furniture, no “comfy” places to sit and nothing in the way of decor. I’m not sure which I would prefer – that or overstuffed! We’ve been really happy with our latest hotel in London UK, but we spend half of our UK time with Rom’s parents where we have access to cooking and laundry, so it is the best of both worlds.

      • Which hotel do you stay at in London? I had really good luck on my last visit at the Crown Plaza on the Gloucester (?) Road – same street as the Natural History Museum – 2 minutes walk, The V&A another 2 minutes and then Harrods – 10 minutes walk from the V&A. There was a tube stn. right across the street that had 3 lines running in and there was a small and very nice mall right across the street.

      • Perfect location! Confession time. Rom has a serious hang-up about getting to the airport really early when we leave London. He used to only be comfortable staying at an airport hotel and commuting in to the city centre every day. Now he has ventured so far as to accept a hotel near Paddington Station because you can get the Heathrow Express directly to the airport. It is the Point A Paddington. On the plus side, it is a very clean, acceptable hotel, but a budget spot with tiny rooms. There is a cute micro-park on the canal nearby, and lots of bakeries. Also shisha bars if you are into that 🙂 It has no restaurants, bars, fitness centres or anything else. And you can hear a rumble from the trains. We are fine with walking or taking the Tube from there to wherever else we need to go in London. We have really come to like it, and it’s a deal at $114 CDN.

  11. Thanks for sharing. I love Toronto, but it is an expensive place to visit. So, any way to help limit that cost is greatly appreciated. Keith

    • I have tried seeking out more free and low cost entertainment and less shopping while in Toronto, but reducing the price of accommodation to balance the cost of activities works best for me!

  12. I’ve used AirBnB quite a number of times, both on my own and with my husband. So far I’ve never had a bad experience, and the ones where I’ve stayed in a room in someone’s house have without fail been exceptional. I choose very carefully, and read reviews thoroughly (including between the lines).
    HOWEVER. I have real reservations about how AirBnB is hollowing out some communities and making it hard for locals to find anywhere affordable to live. So I no longer rent anywhere unless I know that it is the renters actual home (lots of people rent out their home when they’re away working or on holiday, or go to stay with a friend when they have a renter). That way I’m not adding to a housing problem, and I’m helping someone supplement their income.

  13. I have always thought about renting an Air BnB but the opportunity has not yet presented itself. Interesting to see what a range there is in accommodations. The thought of being in a room in a stranger’s house without a lock on the door does leave me unnerved.

    • I wonder if you can usually stay with relatives when you visit them or if you need to book something? I had not stayed in a room in someone’s home before, only a separate unit with its own entrance, so it didn’t occur to me to ask about a lock!

      • I usually stay with family as it is easy and I’m always welcome. That and I claim a room in most of my family homes. Lol
        Your experience will definitely stay in my mind should I ever book an AirBnB.

  14. Very timely post as I jet overseas for the month I of May.

    I’ve used Airbnb a bit: a weekend in Canberra, our sleepy capital city. I’ve booked Naples and Paris both in Airbnb’s. But then Hungary and Croatia I’m in hostels and Santorini I’m in a super expensive hotel. I like the variety. I like Airbnb’s often mean more space if I select a whole apartment and the opportunity to wash and relax. Hostels work when it’s a pricey country (Iceland and Denmark) as I tend to find others are my age. My choices this time were just about balancing my spending on the splurge hotel.

    Hostels are also helpful when I’m travelling alone, for some social contact.

    I’ve not been propositioned in any of my stays, though in Canberra the female host was a little tipsy and annoyingly chatty one night. But nothing too bad and an amazing bfast spread. I don’t mind “room in a home” in those settings, and also did a room in a home in Amsterdam which was a delayed entry. They had a baby so I instantly apologised when they arrived home: their neighbours had invited me in for dinner which was just angelic.

    Ive done a whole apartment a few times and also enjoyed that (Heidelberg with another wedding guest, Sri Lanka with my family, Paris with mum, San Fran with the bf).

    • I like the idea of balancing out cheap stays and splurges! I wouldn’t mind going on a group excursion someday where everyone stays together in a lodge or something like that.

  15. I love a hotel. A big bed, a big tv, bathroom amenities! But I’ve had a lot of interesting times at AirBnB’s, especially in foreign countries. We stayed at a secluded cottage in the Caribbean built by a couple who kept a bunch of parrots and dogs. I’ve stayed at one of the oldest, and tiniest, houses in Bergen, Norway. We stayed at a weird, old mansion in Peru. These are all experiences you can’t get from a hotel. Plus having a kitchen can save a lot of money.

    The problem is that you have to read in between the lines with the reviews. People are very hesitant to criticize when they feel like they know the host personally, so if I see anything less than five stars, it’s a red flag and I start trying to find the reason.

    • So true! Probably anything less than a 5-Star means it’s “just OK.” I definitely like homes with character. But not so much dealing with owners who are “characters”!

  16. What a lovely place to stay during vacations. It looks neat and clean. Thanks for sharing this post.

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