Which is safer: Airbnb or hotels? Here's what doctors say

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  • As travelers look to get back on the road, they're weighing options based on safety and the potential for risk — with disinfecting and distancing top of mind.
  • Airbnbs and hotels are continuing to reopen and eagerly courting new travel business while implementing and publicizing stringent new cleaning and protocols. 
  • So which option is safer: Airbnb vs. hotels? We asked doctors for their expert opinions — and which lodging solution they'd be willing to book themselves.
  • Read more: Is travel safe? We interviewed experts on risks associated with flying, booking hotels or Airbnbs, renting cars, and more, plus ideas on safe vacations during COVID-19
  • What are the risks involved with hotels, Airbnbs, or other lodgings?
  • How can I mitigate my risks?
  • So, which is safer overall: hotels vs. Airbnbs?
  • For more reporting on whether it's safe to travel right now, click a link below to jump directly to related coverage.

With restrictions continuing to lift around most parts of the country, many travelers are getting back on the road. But the pandemic continues, and until there is a vaccine, safety will remain a top priority. When it comes to lodging, travelers have many choices, and just about all of them are actively courting their business with ambitious new policies and protocols.

Many large hotel chains have announced sweeping changes to their cleaning policies, often in combination with high-profile experts. But travelers who long valued hotels for on-demand housekeeping, room service, and other staff-backed services may now view those same person-to-person interactions as liabilities.

On the flip side, Airbnbs appealed to the type of traveler who valued a more private, residential-like, and DIY experience. But will travelers continue to trust their health in the homes of unknown strangers?

To help answer these questions and determine the safest lodging for travelers while the novel coronavirus threat continues, we spoke with a pair of doctors — whose conclusions represented a consensus.

However, it's important to remember that this is an evolving situation. It's crucial to follow guidelines and advice set forth by organizations such as the CDC and WHO, and practice safety measures no matter where you go, including wearing a mask, washing your hands, and maintaining social distancing.

What are the risks involved with hotels, Airbnbs, or other lodgings?

When you're making arrangements for overnight lodging — as with any other decision you make when leaving your house in this pandemic — consider that the most significant risk you can encounter is direct contact with other people.

And when you're traveling, you're likely to encounter not only other humans but those who come from backgrounds and locations unfamiliar to you.

"The first thing that potentially opens up risk is running into other people that you have no idea what their infectious status is. We know now that there's a lot of people who get the coronavirus who have no symptoms at all who could potentially transmit it," explains Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo. "Therefore you have to assume that anyone you encounter that you don't know could be potentially infectious."

As for pools, beach chairs, and other amenities found at Airbnbs and hotels, "other bodies are the main concern," Dr. Russo says, not the water in the pool. So your safest leisure-time bet would be a chaise completely away from the crowd, a bike for a solo ride, or a swim in the chlorinated pool of a private Airbnb with no other guests present. To help with that, we rounded up some of the best Airbnbs in the US with private pools.

For dining, the safest option in a hotel would be no-contact room service or other delivery. In an Airbnb, you can prepare your own food, which is both safer and cost-saving, although remember with this style of lodging you can expect an additional cleaning fee. Increased fees post-pandemic have been in the range of $250, and that's just for cleaning, in addition to service fees and the like.

Again, no matter what lodging you pick, the main thing you'll want to consider is the likelihood you'll encounter other people and the number and length of such encounters. Plus, factor in the location, and if possible, avoid regions with high rates of infection.

"When booking any type of lodging, consider how many people you'll be surrounded by, when was the last time someone stayed in that accommodation, and how is the state or city doing in regards to flattening the curve," said Dr. Neil Brown, K Health's chief diagnosis officer. 

How can I mitigate my risks?

Whether you choose an Airbnb or a hotel, be aware of high-touch areas that might facilitate virus transmission. which are therefore good places to target for an extra cleaning pass you do yourself on check-in.

In both Airbnbs and hotels, these might include light switches, phones, TV remotes, doorknobs, sinks, bathroom faucets, and toilet handles. Additionally, look out for flat surfaces like bedside tables. "If someone was sick in the room and coughing, [those are among] flat surfaces it could settle onto," Dr. Russo notes.

If you're going to use kitchen items in Airbnbs, Dr. Russo suggests running them through the dishwasher just in case, an action that would neutralize the virus.

The virus is likely to settle out of the air quickly — about one to three hours under experimental conditions, and possibly much less in the real world — Dr. Russo notes. So that means the air quality is not likely to be a major concern in either a hotel room or an Airbnb if you are the only one in it. Nevertheless, you can mitigate your risk in both by insisting upon a margin of time passing since the last guest was in the space. 

As part of its Enhanced Cleaning Initiative launched in May, Airbnb implemented a multi-tier system that included levels hosts could choose to adhere to with overhauled cleaning protocols. The new policies were developed with guidance from experts in hospitality and medical hygiene, including former US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, which earned the Safe Travel stamp from the World Tourism and Travel Council (WTTC) for meeting their guidelines.

While more than 1.5 million listings joined in the Enhanced Clean program, Airbnb has recently gone a step further and expanded its policies to require that all hosts and guests commit to following Airbnb's basic COVID-19 safety practices. This includes wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and, for hosts and their teams, abiding by a five-step enhanced cleaning process. All hosts must now commit to implementing Airbnb's five-step enhanced cleaning process by November 20.

However, hosts still have the option to offer even more stringent policies like added sanitation measures or adding a "booking buffer" and manually blocking off days between stays. At the most rigorous option, hosts undergo and enroll in an education and certification program known as the Cleaning Protocol. In addition to the cleaning mandates, listings in this program are required to maintain a 24-waiting period after a guest checks out before entering to clean, ensuring no property is flipped in the same day. 

Listings that go the extra mile and commit to the most stringent policies display an Enhanced Clean badge so that travelers may easily identify them.  

Without explicitly stated buffers, hotels may indeed turn guest rooms around faster than Airbnbs that earn these tags. But if you were to check into a room in which an infected person stayed right before you arrived, and the housekeeping crew did clean and sanitize everything according to guidelines, you would "probably" escape risk, Dr. Russo said, "but that's not an ideal scenario." 

You may further mitigate risk by specifically requesting a room that's been vacant for a day or more. As vacancy rates remain low for the foreseeable future, hotels are not likely to struggle to accommodate your explicit request.

Overall, most large hotel chains have announced sweeping new cleaning and distancing policies and procedures. But even with these in mind, Dr. Brown points to the main concern: the probability of direct contact with people.

"I think it's great that hotels are taking initiative and hiring these experts to help them implement better cleaning protocols," he said. "But my biggest concern is the amount of traffic going through these hotels."

Plus, there is the matter that stated policies ideally will be executed in good faith by every member of the hotel staff, and every Airbnb host or cleaner, in every instance. But that cannot be guaranteed by each individual arriving guest. 

"At the end of the day, the only people we can trust to protect us are ourselves," Dr. Brown said. "So if there is no need to travel at the moment, I would recommend everyone to continue staying home."

So, which is safer overall: hotels vs. Airbnbs?

The doctors we spoke with agreed that one lodging option is safer than the other as a general rule because the main risk in coronavirus transmission is directly from person to person. And you are more likely to have person-to-person encounters in hotels compared with private Airbnbs. So the safer option is Airbnbs.

"While there is no question hotels are working diligently to keep their hotels clean and sanitized, Airbnb has a huge advantage given that the renter is generally the only one occupying the property," said Dr. Brown. "With Airbnb's new Enhanced Cleaning Initiative, the company provides a better option than public hotel spaces. Airbnb homes are more private, so there is a lesser chance of being exposed to the coronavirus."

Dr. Brown does suggest confirming your listing meets Airbnb's new cleaning protocol even though it is now a requirement for all hosts. "I would double-check to see if the host is participating in the policies," he said.

Dr. Russo "absolutely agree[s]" that staying in a private Airbnb, especially one that allows no-contact check-in, such as through a lockbox, is the safer option now, given the probability of fewer person-to-person encounters.

Whatever lodging option you choose — if you choose to travel — both doctors recommend undertaking a serious consideration of the risks versus rewards. 

Dr. Russo said he would stay in an Airbnb, and as for staying in a hotel, said, "I think so." But if he'd have the potential to encounter anybody in person at any point in his travels, he'd definitely wear a mask and would weigh the importance of the trip to his quality of life before deciding to undertake it.

"If it's a trip that is important and necessary, I feel relatively safe using the proper protective measures like wearing a mask, distancing, disinfecting, and hand hygiene," he said, noting that individuals will have to weigh their own individual risk tolerance, risk factors, and risk-reward potential.

Dr. Brown voiced a somewhat more conservative view. "Personally, I would do my best to avoid traveling altogether, but if it is necessary, I would feel more comfortable staying at an Airbnb after doing my own disinfecting upon arrival."

For more reporting on whether it's safe to travel right now, click a link below to jump directly to related coverage.

  • Is travel safe? We interviewed experts on risks associated with flying, booking hotels or Airbnbs, renting cars, and more, plus ideas on safe vacations during COVID-19
  • Is flying safe right now? Experts break down the risks associated with boarding a flight during COVID-19.
  • Are Airbnbs safe? We spoke to experts, a company representative, and an Airbnb host to share everything you should know before booking someone's home.
  • Airbnb announced vigorous new cleaning protocols for hosts in response to COVID-19. Here's how to know if the listing you're considering is participating — or not.
  • Is it safe to stay in a hotel right now? An infectious disease doctor, a cleaning expert, and hotel reps all share what you should know before you check-in.
  • Are rental cars safe to drive right now? We talked to 3 leading experts to find out.
  • Is it safe to travel by train during a pandemic? Doctors and cleaning experts weigh in, plus details on new protocols from Amtrak to minimize risks.
  • Staying in a hotel will be very different post-pandemic — here are new safety and cleaning plans and precautions being implemented by every major hotel brand
  • 6 safer, expert-backed ways to take a vacation during the pandemic, from road trips to private vacation homes and remote campsites

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