NEW YORK — A weekend in the city with two kids under 7 was to be our first visit with both of them. I had our agenda all laid out, including tickets to the Central Park Zoo, a special exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, endless rides on the subway, thin-crust pizza, cupcakes in the West Village and, of course, hot dogs and salty street pretzels coated in mustard.
But I also needed to be mindful of costs, which is never easy when visiting Manhattan. So I scoured Kayak, Priceline, Orbitz, and Hotels.com in search of a room, only to log off a few hours later bleary-eyed and frustrated.
I could find us an ordinary single room with two beds, maybe a cot, for around $250 or $300. But that meant somehow putting the kids to sleep while my wife and I stayed awake in silence and darkness — or going to sleep when they did. Neither was ideal since we expected them to be unconscious by 8:30 or 9. We wanted a connecting room or suite. And those were running $400 or more per night.
That’s when I decided to explore a world I had read about but could never muster the nerve to pursue. We were going to rent someone’s apartment.
Dozens of websites help with this. Probably the most widely known are vacationrentals.com, homeaway.com, and vrbo.com (Vacation Rentals by Owner). Craigslist is also a big player. I landed on airbnb.com. It was easy to narrow my search by neighborhood, I could read reviews of apartments, see photos, and as I discovered, get quick answers to questions. For a novice like me, that was critical.
There were more than a hundred listings in Manhattan. I was drawn to a place on East 81st Street. It looked like a garden-level one-bedroom, a little artsy. I envisioned letting the kids sleep in the bedroom while my wife and I slept on the pull-out couch in the living room, where we could relax and watch a movie. There was a photo of a silver-haired woman named Sandra who lived in the apartment. I clicked on the button to message her.
She replied immediately. But when I asked why her listing had only two comments from people who had stayed there, while other apartments had dozens, she said she would be happy to e-mail me a list of references. I was dubious. I had no way of verifying if they were legitimate renters.
I agreed to take the list. But then she wrote to say she was having problems with airbnb.com’s payment system and she needed me to pay her directly rather than through the website. Now I was beyond suspicious and about to revisit Priceline.
But first I went to airbnb.com and clicked on “Help,” where I found a link to chat with someone. In seconds I had a live conversation going. I asked my helper, Heidi, if it was odd that this person was making these requests, like sending me references and to pay her directly. Heidi wrote that Sandra’s apartment was no longer available, that she was violating the rules and her listing had been removed.
Sure enough, I checked and it was gone, only a few minutes after I had been one click away from booking it.
Heidi encouraged me to keep looking, insisting that Sandra was a rare rule breaker. Nervously, I went back to the listings and found a place on East 71st Street for $175 a night. It was a small one-bedroom, third-floor walkup with a pull-out couch in the living room.
I had hoped going this route would also save me the city’s steep hotel tax. But that was erased when I saw that most of these listings have cleaning fees, in airbnb’s case $100. Suddenly a bill I thought would be $350 for two nights was $450. Still, that was close to the going rate at a hotel for one night if I wanted a suite, never mind two nights. I booked it.
The minute after I reserved it, this time through a man named Michael who was merely a property manager and not the resident of the apartment, I realized I had forgotten one important question. Hotels let you cancel a room up to 24 hours in advance, even later, with no fee. With my airbnb rental, if I canceled a week before arriving I would get only 50 percent back. If I canceled any later, I lost the entire fee. Ouch.
What if a kid got sick? What if the weather forecast was for rain all weekend? I sweated right up until we were on the Hutchinson River Parkway. Fortunately, everyone stayed healthy and we arrived on Friday for a weekend of glorious weather.
After collecting our key from the management company near Grand Central Station, we trekked uptown. I have never worried about what my hotel room would look like in New York. But as we walked through the metal gate on 71st Street, into a back alley that smelled of restaurant trash, and up a steep, steamy staircase, I was genuinely worried.
When we opened the door, our immediate reaction was that it was smaller than it looked in photos. And pretty quickly we learned the pull-out black leather couch was uncomfortable, the shower didn’t drain well, and the TV didn’t work (good thing we brought the iPad). But it was also clean, neat, and bright. The cabinets were full of cups, plates, bowls, and wine glasses, which my wife and I gratefully used when we opened a bottle of sauvignon blanc that night. And the small bar table worked perfectly for the kids to eat snacks.
If it had been a hotel room, I might have complained. But it wasn’t. This was the bargain I had signed up for. And for 48 hours it was fine, considering that the only time we spent there was to sleep, shower, and dress.
The kids were thrilled as long as they had their toys and books. Their queen bed was plenty big and the air conditioner kept them cool. For them it was like camping — we had even brought their sleeping bags.
The weekend was a blur of playgrounds, subway rides, climbs over giant boulders in Central Park, staring in amazement at the graceful swimming strokes of the enormous polar bear at the zoo, building dinosaur skeletons at the natural history museum, laughing at a juggling street magician, downing pretzels and hot dogs and Magnolia cupcakes and crispy, thin-crust meatball pizza from John’s on Bleecker Street, and gazing up at the bright lights of Times Square.
The airbnb apartment was not a hotel room. But it was half the price of one. And if anything, the accommodations motivated us to get up, get going, and stay out as long as possible. Considering the fun we had, maybe that’s reason enough to try it again.