Sonder offers long- and short-term vacation rentals with hotel-like amenities — here’s what it was like to stay at one during COVID
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Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, I’ve been very selective with the accommodations I’m willing to stay in during my travels.
And as a travel writer, I’ve generally looked for hotels with stringent COVID policies or private vacation rentals where I don’t have to worry about coming in contact with other travelers. In the early days of quarantine, I felt confident in a Malibu staycation through Homes & Villas by Marriott.
But this time, since I was traveling with just one friend, I didn’t need something quite as large. Still wary of large hotels, I came across Sonder.
For those unfamiliar, Sonder runs and rents large blocks of units or floors inside existing high-end apartment buildings in 39 major cities around the world. They operate over 5,000 furnished apartments and typically convert specific units into chic, furnished rentals that feel far homier than many cookie-cutter hotels, while providing many of the perks and amenities of a hotel that are missing in vacation rentals.
Additionally, unlike many Airbnbs or vacation rentals, every apartment is designed specifically for hosting vacationers, rather than doubling as someone’s home with personal effects scattered around. Each listing is highly curated and well designed.
Sonder also offers 24/7 concierge service, housekeeping, and perks like gyms, rooftops, or pools in some buildings. And while units are still in shared buildings, check-in is contactless with strict cleaning procedures in place, making it a good option for travelers seeking for a high-end stay, but who aren’t quite ready to sleep in a hotel yet.
There are many similarly curated vacation rental companies available, like Domio, Lyric, and Locale. However, I was swayed by Sonder for a San Diego weekend thanks to the offerings mentioned above, in addition to their flexible cancellation policy.
When I searched through listings on Sonder’s website, the units ranged from cozy studios to more upscale one- and two-bedroom loft-style apartments. However, since I was booking a room fairly last minute, there weren’t a lot of one-bedroom options available. I ended up booking a studio unit with a balcony for $143, that came to $225 once tax and a hefty $75 cleaning fee factored in. It was housed in a luxury, high-rise building in Little Italy that’s less touristy than Gaslamp Quarter or Downtown San Diego.
These apartments are designed to feel warm and inviting and come equipped with everything needed to feel at home. While I only stayed for a weekend, Sonder is currently offering a discount for longer stays, from 35 percent off week-long stays to 45 percent off stays of 30 or more nights. After staying here, I think it’s a worthy choice for those looking for more flexible accommodations to fit our new remote, work-from-home lifestyle.
Keep reading to see why I was so impressed by Sonder.
Sonder’s booking and verification process was fairly simple, though check-in was slightly different than a standard hotel or Airbnb.
Sonder required a quick scan of my face ahead of my arrival using my computer’s camera, as well an uploaded image of my driver’s license. This is meant to verify my info without the need for in-person contact when checking in. I instantly received a confirmation email with check-in instructions because my reservation was less than 48 hours away.
When I pulled up to The Continental (the high-rise our unit was located in), we had to circle the neighborhood a few times to search for parking lots nearby and found a lot one block away that cost $12 per night without in and out privileges. It would have been helpful to have this detail mentioned in the apartment listing ahead of time.
We arrived right on time for the standard 4 p.m. check-in and I didn’t need to interact with anyone from Sonder during our entire stay. The digital self-check-in process was seamless and easier than anticipated because the app provided clear and thorough instructions.
We entered the building using a code at the callbox and retrieved the elevator key fob from a locker station just next to the elevators. I really liked the high-tech keyless entry option to get into the unit and wish this was more common in hotels since I’m prone to losing my hotel key cards.
The building was very well-maintained and located in a residential part of Little Italy, within easy walking distance of restaurants and bars, while still far enough away from the action and noise.
The building lobby had social distancing stickers on the floor as well as signage that limited occupancy in the elevators. I passed by a few residents who were all wearing masks and immediately felt comfortable in the building.
However, I would have liked to see hand sanitizer stations in the lobby given that it was a larger building. Luckily, I packed my own.
Upon entering my studio, I was immediately struck by the chic aesthetic and how spacious and clean the apartment felt.
The studio I booked was $143 per night ($225 including tax and a $75 cleaning fee) and came with a King-sized bed and full kitchen. When you search through listings on Sonder it tells you whether in-unit laundry is available or not in each unit. This particular unit did not come with laundry, which was fine because I was only staying for one night.
Safety seals were put over high-touch areas like the kitchen cabinets and an envelope with the TV remote control to indicate the contents had been sanitized.
While everything seemed spotless, the A/C remote control was not in a sealed envelope so I questioned whether every last surface had indeed been thoroughly sanitized. I quelled my fears by doing an extra pass of everything with cleaning wipes I brought, but I wasn’t too anxious since everything looked immaculate.
A helpful welcome sheet on the dining table listed essential details such as the Wi-Fi login, concierge contact information, and a local map.
I particularly liked the added touch of a welcome postcard that had a fun fact about San Diego and a recommendation for where to find the best tacos in the city (Old Town and Barrio Logan) signed by the General Manager of Sonder San Diego. I also appreciated the attention to detail through instructions on how to use the coffee maker, since that can be confusing when you’re unfamiliar with a particular machine.
My loft-style studio had high ceilings and exposed concrete walls, track lighting, and a private balcony with views of the city. The apartment was nicely furnished using midcentury modern furniture, but it could have used more artwork and plants to add color.
I also liked that the dining area was separate from the living area, and the bedroom was situated next to the balcony for plenty of natural sunlight.
There was a fully equipped kitchen with modern appliances including an electric stove, oven, microwave, a coffee maker with Metropolis coffee, a toaster, and a kettle. Basic kitchenware and cooking utensils included a knife block, limited pots and pans, and a cutting board.
While everything looked like it had been cleaned, I washed the kitchenware myself before using it as an extra safety precaution.
The apartment had very limited storage space with a small closet in the bathroom to hang clothes and store linens, but overall, it lacked a full dresser, which would be useful for long-term stays.
The bathroom was stocked with luxury amenities by Jonathan Adler in addition to two full sets of towels, a blow-dryer, iron, and an extra set of amenities. These products were single-use except for the refillable hand soap container.
The bedroom was spacious and quiet. I was thankful for this since I can be sensitive to outside noise, and the balcony faced the street.
The King-sized bed was extremely comfortable and came with a few decorative pillows and nightstands on each side. I noticed an extension cord and exposed wires next to the TV that could have been more neatly tucked away.
While it was more than comfortable, If I were traveling with a friend again, I would book a two-bedroom next time so we could each have our own private space. However, for a solo traveler or couple, the studio would be plenty spacious.
However, for longer stays, I would recommend a building with in-unit laundry, parking included, and even a gym or pool. Of course, given the pandemic, many of those communal spaces are likely closed right now.
Overall, I was thoroughly impressed with the size of the room, the full kitchen, and the added amenities. Staying here offered strong value in a city where hotels easily cost far more for rooms with far fewer amenities.
One “amenity” that sets Sonder apart is their free app. It was very user-friendly and included detailed instructions about my reservation and the surrounding neighborhood. You may book a new reservation through the app, access existing reservations, and send a message to the concierge.
My favorite feature, however, was the local neighborhood directory of restaurants, bars, cafes, cultural attractions, and supermarkets nearby. Helpful descriptions gave us a sense of the vibe and price point, as well as how far of a walk it was from our Sonder.
The building I stayed in didn’t come with many amenities. There was, however, a beautiful rooftop terrace with lounge furniture that offered ocean and skyline views. It was a great place to relax and there wasn’t anyone else up there when I was there.
There was also a shared coin-operated laundry room in the building that could be accessed with the key fob, with controlled access through a callbox.
Guests may also use a mobile concierge option to text (or call) 24/7. I texted to ask a question about the A/C unit and they were very quick to respond.
Wi-Fi is also standard and included across all Sonder listings. And while there is housekeeping, it’s only available when you check-in and check-out, as opposed to during your stay.
In general, most Sonder units are inside of high-end serviced buildings that have one or more perks like a swimming pool, fitness center, and/or business lounge. It was hard to tell what drove the nightly rate because some Sonder buildings had more amenities than others and were comparable in price to the units that didn’t have as many fancy perks.
Little Italy is a trendy neighborhood adjacent to Downtown that has a vibrant nightlife scene. Rows of restaurants with outdoor dining options pour onto the streets, adorned with string lights and patio umbrellas offering a charming vibe reminiscent of the buzzing alleys in Europe.
For a bustling Instagrammable brunch spot that feels like Disney on steroids, check out Morning Glory which is walking distance from the apartment, but beware, you might need ear plugs because it can get loud inside. Pro-tip: order the fluffy blueberry pancakes.
Barbusa is also a good choice for dinner, featuring authentic Sicilian food with a modern twist. The Little Italy Mercato, a popular farmers market on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., is also a fun weekend activity.
If you’re headed Downtown, check out Garibaldi during sunset hour. It’s a speakeasy-style al fresco restaurant inside the InterContinental San Diego offering panoramic views of the bay — but there is no visible signage anywhere so you might have to ask a hotel staff member for a little guidance.
If you’re headed to a Sonder elsewhere, in general, all of the units are in major cities and close to plenty of bars, restaurants, and attractions.
Check flight prices to San Diego on Expedia
Who stays here: The modern aesthetic and location of this Sonder apartment in Little Italy would appeal to singles, business travelers, and young couples looking for a lively neighborhood where locals hang out.
We like: The contactless check-in was not only really convenient but it was a big reason why I chose Sonder when comparing short-term rental options.
We love (don’t miss this feature): The rooftop terrace is a must-visit. It offers magnificent skyline and ocean views with lounge chairs to relax, perfect for reading a book or enjoying a glass of wine.
We think you should know: The room was spotless and very well-maintained. I felt safe and comfortable staying here and would definitely consider staying here again.
What we’d do differently next time: While it wasn’t a major issue, not knowing what the exact parking cost was a bit stressful. Next time, I would book an apartment that includes a parking garage. I would also book farther ahead time to have more options at the best rates.
Sonder has elevated their cleaning standards, which can be seen in its updated policies here. The Sonder unit I stayed in had social distancing signage and floor stickers throughout the common areas including the lobby and elevator, in addition to sanitization seals placed on high-touch areas inside the unit. The website indicates that single-use hand sanitizer is provided when available, which would have been a good standard measure to offer all guests, but we didn’t receive any upon check-in.
Most of the units offer self check-in and contact-free concierge service via phone or email. They also ensure their cleaning standards meet the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, in addition to partnering with Cleveland Clinic to ensure extra precautions are taken. Some of the updated Sonder cleaning guidelines include:
- Housekeepers must wash hands upon entering a room and must dispose of gloves after cleaning. Reusable gloves are not allowed.
- Housekeeping staff are required to wear a mask inside the building.
- Housekeepers are provided with EPA-registered, CDC and Canadian Public Health Agency approved cleaning products, including Clorox, Lysol, and isopropyl alcohol.
- Surfaces are cleaned and then disinfected using the products mentioned above.
- All linen and consumables are replaced after each guest’s stay.
- Housekeepers are instructed to disinfect high-touch areas including keypads, doorknobs, remote controls, headboards, waste bins, and more.
While I had no intention of canceling my reservation, I had peace of mind knowing that Sonder had a flexible cancellation policy, which offers a full credit of the reservation amount for any modified or canceled reservation to be used toward future bookings. The credit is valid for one year from the time of cancellation. For longer stays (up to 90 days) at least 30 days notice is required to cancel or modify without fees. Their full cancellation policy can be viewed here.
While everything appeared clean, I didn’t see any specific signage or seals on the rooftop or throughout the rest of the building indicating they were cleaned on a regular basis. I also didn’t encounter any Sonder staff during my stay, so it’s hard to say how often they are checking up on buildings and making sure protocols are enforced.
Overall, I highly recommend Sonder for anyone who is easing into travel during COVID-19 and looking at private rentals versus hotels, but still want to enjoy the perks of the latter.
The entire process from booking to check-in was flawless and didn’t require any contact with a host or staff member.
The apartments are designed tastefully with chic furniture, fully stocked kitchens, and quality amenities. For those looking for a more authentic and homier stay that still includes concierge service, a dedicated cleaning staff, and building perks, Sonder hits the suite spot.
Sonder is also a particularly good option for travelers looking to practice social distancing and minimize contact with others right now.
Book Sonder starting at $143 per night
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