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Even though I'm a travel writer, I've spent most of the last four months at home with my family — like many Americans — amid the pandemic. As frustrating as it's been to be cooped up, I have not viewed this as the time to take risks with health and safety. We live in Los Angeles where cases plateaued at best, before spiking again this summer.
But July is historically a favorite time for vacation in our household since it's the time of both mine and my twins' birthdays. And with our summer travel plans to Tahiti off the table this year, we needed something — desperately.
We opted for a long weekend to Palm Springs, our happy place, which is just about 120 miles from home. This, of course, dovetails with trends across the country seeing most travelers opting for post-lockdown trips to regional destinations within 200 miles of their homes.
And while my husband and I are very much hotel people, preferring amenity-rich hotel experiences to home-share environments, I viewed all hotels as off the table, right off the bat. I'd spoken to experts over and over again in reporting travel safety stories for Business Insider over these last few months, and understand that the greatest virus transmission risk comes from direct encounters between people. That meant a private vacation rental was the only way we were willing to travel.
In the first few months of the pandemic, Palm Springs banned short-term rentals, but this restriction lifted in June, which is when I started searching for lodging, aiming for a date in late July. Surprisingly, many of the options suiting my needs were already booked for the summer weekends.
I would have preferred a refundable option given the uncertainty of these times, but those options were limited too, especially for what I wanted: a property in the range of $300 per night (or approximately under $1,400 all in with taxes and fees) with at least two bedrooms and a private pool.
Ultimately, I selected this "Spacious Desert Oasis Mid Century Home" and made my booking. Here's how it went.
Keep reading to see how I decided on a Palm Springs Airbnb for my vacation during COVID-19.
As a travel writer, I've covered Airbnb in the time of coronavirus extensively. So I was well aware of the platform's new three-tiered options for enhanced cleaning during the pandemic.
The first and most stringent option is Cleaning Protocol, in which hosts enroll and participate in a learning and certification program and also maintain a 24-waiting period after a guest checks out before entering to clean a listing.
The second option is the Booking Buffer program, which is less rigorous on the cleaning side, but requires a longer time cushion between guests: 72 hours. Hosts have a third option: to participate in neither of these new standards and instead continue their existing procedures. Each Airbnb listing reflects the host's choice with a badge up top (or a lack of one).
The listing I selected bore no new badge, indicating it did not participate in the new programs. I might have preferred to see that badge, but given limited inventory, I felt comfortable without it because I understand from public health professionals that the main risk of virus transmission comes from people-to-people interactions and not from surfaces. So, I felt that any environment, inhabited at a given time by my family alone, was an acceptably safe choice.
Additionally, at the time of my booking, the home had a perfect 5.0 score from reviewers across all categories including cleanliness. By the time of my visit, it had dipped to 4.97 from 30 reviewers but still received a 5.0 for cleanliness. "This property is so clean," one reviewer noted, adding, "well appointed, cozy, and charming!"
Plus, it was in our budget: Our final booking broke down approximately like this: $295 nightly for three nights ($885), plus $185 cleaning fee, plus $151 service fee, plus $123 occupancy and taxes. Grand total: $1,344.
This is substantially more than we would have paid for one of our favorite desert hotels — such as the Avalon Palm Springs — but again, we didn't consider a hotel an option at this time. However, the fees can greatly inflate what seems like an otherwise affordable price.
I did also reach out to the property manager by way of the Airbnb platform to confirm that the property would be vacant for a minimum of 24 hours between guests, which he confirmed was the case.
Although our host did not commit to Airbnb's enhanced cleaning policies, confirming this buffer helped me feel that our risk could be reasonably considered negligible. The virus is known to settle out of the air quickly, within hours or less.
I also asked whether the 24-hour buffer would render an early check-in or late check-out impossible, and he was quite accommodating. "Yes, we are required to have a 24-hour vacancy in between each guest. With that restriction, along with the rule for the cleaners not to enter until three hours after each checkout, it makes it difficult for late checkouts," he wrote.
But he added a generous accommodation to offer us two hours early on the arrival date and two hours later on the departure date, which helped make our planning feel more relaxed and less rushed.
The kitchen was also well-stocked with all the comforts of home including drawers filled with cooking essentials (olive oil, spices), conveniences (ziplock bags, foil), and fun or functional extras (tropical cocktail stirring sticks, waterproof band-aids, scotch tape).
Also on the kitchen counter? A balloon tied to a box of four cupcakes, since I had mentioned in my initial contact that we'd be celebrating three family birthdays on this trip. A nice touch!
We'd brought our own pillows from home as a precaution — or at least for peace of mind — and swapped them with the existing bed pillows. We also brought our own disinfecting wipes and took a pass over the remote controls in each room and some other high-touch points like light switches.
In general, I didn't feel too disquieted about any of these details, and the feeling further dissipated over our stay.
Other than visiting the grocery store (conveniently located nearby the property), which I did alone, my family stayed in the home for the duration of our stay. This worked out well because the pool was as sparkling and comfortable with plenty of floaties included. My kids spent most of the time happily in the water. And, frankly, it's not unlike how we would have spent our time pre-coronavirus on a Palm Springs summertime trip when temps can and do easily soar well over 110.
We also made s'mores at one of two backyard fire pits and there was a Weber barbecue that my husband used to grill dinner.
The sleep quality was excellent, with comfortable beds in each bedroom outfitted with soft linens. We also used some of the provided throw blankets for lounging on the couch that were remarkably soft and still bore tags indicating Parachute brand.
In all, the property was not wholly unlike a hotel. It appeared clean and inspired our confidence that it was indeed fully disinfected as promised. And while we had no contact with the host, the property manager was highly reachable and responsive by text message, lending the sense that our stay was staffed for our needs, but from a safe, off-site position.
Upon leaving, we took our trash bags out to the bins, loaded and started the dishwasher, and placed the keys back in the lockbox, as per our instructions. We couldn't just slip out as we would in a hotel, and we still had to tackle these tasks despite paying cleaning and service fees.
Who stays here: This two-bedroom home is just right for small groups of up to four. It worked well for our young twins to share the full-sized bed in the second room, but it's best for a couple, small kids, or extremely cozy friends. Partiers shouldn't stay here — not just because of COVID, but because it's a quiet street with restrictions on amplified noise outdoors.
We like: The pool and expansive backyard are among this home's standout features and were necessary for the summer heat. The front yard landscaping was also stunning.
We love: As a tentative Airbnb person, I felt very reassured by the spa-like bathrooms, which were all gleaming, sleek, and posh with fancy multiway shower heads.
We think you should know: Families with babies and young kids need to be mindful of any Airbnb with a pool. Ours was was not surrounded by a fence, and of course, there will be no lifeguard on duty.
We'd do this differently next time: We sure got our money's worth by staying exclusively in the home to mitigate our risk exposure. But next time I return to Palm Springs, I hope it's safe to venture out more to experience the city's wonderful restaurants, people watching, and shopping.
All other things being equal, my husband and I still prefer hotel life. Not just for the housekeeping and the room service — but for the thrill of meeting other travelers in the lobby, the smell of a resort spa, the kids' club, the concierge … all those services as well as the ineffable qualities that make certain hotels so special and luxurious.
But all other things are not equal right now. We are extremely coronavirus-transmission weary, and at this stage are only comfortable traveling with a fully private and contact-less environment.
This Airbnb satisfied our truly substantial need to get away to a safe place, with the privacy of a house but the comfort of a hotel. We did not feel exposed to any meaningful risk, which is a sentiment I have expressed to many friends and family members as they seek to make their own low-risk travel plans. As I have told them, we felt our stay was a huge success and would gladly book another vacation rental in this vein again.
And in fact, for our sanity, we must do it again to get through this pandemic in our home state, which now holds the dubious distinction for most cases in the nation.
Just be sure to flag the search criteria that are most important to you when searching for vacation rentals, and save room in your budget for fees. They'll add up far quicker than a hotel resort fee.