Travel Survival Guide

When travelling on the road I don't plan very far in advance, simply because I enjoy the freedom of being able to drive as much as I care to and stop when I feel like it, rather than needing to make it to a particular destination by a certain point in order to keep my reservation. The result is that I've acquired a great deal of experience in the art of finding a hotel room on the fly.

What to look for

* The sort of hotel I target on the road is at the high end of bargain: minimal cockroaches and bedbugs, but no lobby gift shop or room service. Five floors at most, and you're as likely to park your car in front of your room and walk up as you are to deal with any sort of true lobby. You should be able to find a safe, clean bed and shower for $40-60 a night. More than that and you're paying for things you don't need; less than that and you're missing out on things you have a right to expect (like towels that absorb water). Those times I go below that threshold are usually those times I go straight for the hostel commune experience and skip the Motel 6 level entirely.

* It's true that there are non-name brand hotels out there, and these examples of local color are sometimes your only option if you're travelling with pets. But a national chain means an 800 number and a hierarchy of accountability; it also means you can expect to be treated like a human being and have a place to turn if you're not.

How to find it

* Zoning laws are tricky things, and they determine how a town's businesses and homes will be located. Generally speaking, hotels are placed in the same region as shopping centers and strip malls, and also industrial parks. Interestingly, they're less frequent in places like automobile dealerships. What you want to find is that part of town with the large shopping centers -- the Barnes & Nobles and Best Buys and Targets. These are the built up areas of town which have been constructed around and near the malls of twenty years ago. They should be crawling with hotels. And if all you've seen for three lights is Isuzu and Jeep dealerships, it may be time to turn the car around and go back to the most recent promising intersection.

* Seek rooms at the edges of beltways, near the major arteries leading out and away from cities. Look for the blue Food Fuel Lodging highway signs, and keep an eye on the map -- give yourself a gravity well exit after which you'll be turning back and heading towards the city again, or you'll be in the next state before you see signs of life. Beware of highways which suddenly open up to twenty miles of farmland or turnpike with no place to turn around a few miles beyond the city.

* Don't be too proud to pull over and check the yellow pages at a gas station. If you find yourself near a Kinko's, they may be able to sell you fifteen minutes of net time for a few bucks. You can Mapquest your way to a cheap hotel that quickly, right? [Swipe the business card at the front desk to get the zip code you'll want to zero in on, and check for that zip while you're online.] Again, if you're looking for a nice part of town to wake up in, cross reference your search for Borders or Barnes and Noble bookstores. Some bookstores are in truly urban or truly upper crust environments, but most of them are in suburban shopping centers on the very thoroughfare you wish to seek -- chock full of restaurants, hotels, and various and sundry retail options, an oasis for a weary traveller.

* Libraries can be hard to find from the highway, but most are open till nine pm even in small cities and all (by now) should have some sort of net access. You may want to spend a few minutes in whatever town you grab dinner tracking down a library to look up the resources of the town you expect to reach by midnight.

How not to pay too much for it

* Room prices, like anything else that's an expiring resource (an unsold room is worth less than nothing in the morning) are subject to negotiation. If you're not travelling alone, now's the time to play the couple gambit: "Honey, I don't want to drive any more tonight." "Yeah, but the Microt el in Newport was cheaper." Give the manager a chance to jump in with an offer. Same rules apply if you're flying solo: go for the pity rate.

* Feel free to throw down the gauntlet with the manager: "I'm really not prepared to spend more than $40 on a room tonight." See what happens. You and I may both despise manufactured charm, but paying $39 for a $52 room is worth a little smiling and aw shucks-ing.

* "Hi, what's the best rate tonight?" is the best opening line at the desk. You cut past the whole vacancies issue and move directly into looking for a good price. If you have a AAA card, use it, but don't be surprised if the best rate they quote is less than the AAA rate.

* Even if you smoke, you should skip an evening (if possible) and go for a non-smoking room. Your room will be in the newer, remodeled section of the hotel and your furniture and tv will be in better condition.

* Speaking of which, pay close attention to the blue Lodging signs you pass when taking an exit. Look for the logos which have been recently glued on to the sign (newer paint, raised border) for the newer hotels. They may be more expensive, but they may also not be -- and there's something truly exquisite about brand new bedding and fresh paint on the walls. One of the cheapest and also nicest evenings I've spent on the road was during the inaugural weekend of a brand spanking new Econo Lodge in Denver. The staff hadn't been there long enough for the perkiness to wear off, and they hadn't even opened all of the rooms to customers yet. It was divine.

* This, incidentally, also applies for eateries. I don't know (and don't care to know) what it is about a McDonald's frier that gets grungy as it ages, but the fries from a new McDonald's are about eighty billion trillion times better than the fries from an old one. Generally, look for new saplings rather than adult trees in the parking lot.

* If you're experiencing a state of road grunge and you think your appearance could slight your chance of getting a room for a fair price, target the Denny's or Waffle House or other nearby 24 hour restaurant and look for a local lodging newsletter. This is more common in tourist traps, but there is frequently a newsprint folio of hotel advertisements, frequently with +/-10% off coupons or "mention this ad for best rate" advertisements. Start calling around to the hotels within your line of sight first, and get the name of the person at the desk when you make your reservation. That way, when you walk your seedy, grungy, punk-ass surly self up to the front desk and their hand goes instinctively to the security call button, you can smile and say "You must be Debra. I just called for a single tonight, non-smoking?"

* The lodging newsletters are also a good tactic to use if you're not under the gun and feel like doing some legwork for the best rate. Call first for one rate, then walk in and ask for the best rate they'll give you face to face *without* announcing your earlier phone call. You can then play one quote against the other. You can also play one hotel against another as well: "The Best Western quoted me $37 but I really don't want to drive back there..."

* Night managers take over at midnight, or often eleven pm. You know the old tactic of Good Cop, Bad Cop? What you'll experience here is Cute Young Friendly Female Clerk, Gruff Old Surly Male Clerk. Not always; I've checked in at 10:30 at night in some places and seen the same smiling face when I came back in at the wee hours of the morning after a late evening of exploring. But you'll frequently see the switch. And the prices do change depending on the time you arrive and the person behind the desk. Not fair, and perhaps not legal, but it's what happens. And this is something to watch out for if you're going comparison shopping in the late evening; the person who quotes you one rate at 10:45 at the top of a string of motels may not be there when you return at 11:20 after checking around. If you're going to shop, get the names of the people who give you the quotes.

* The best medium-rate hotel I've found for a single technophile is Microtel. Dataport phones are standard, their rooms are spartan in a very appealing Eastern way and everything in it will be brand new (<3 years).

* Bargain rates with a minimum of hassle can usually be found at any of the sun-logoed chains (Sleep Inn, Quality Inn, etc.).

* I've been very specifically burned before by hotels in resort towns and other tourist traps which have no night staff to speak of. The very thoroughfare which was peppered with vacancy signs became, after midnight, nothing but no vacancies.

What is and isn't worth it

* Things which are worth their weight in gold for an overnight: thick towels, hot showers, pile carpeting (that "make fists with your toes" jetlag remedy detailed in the movie "Die Hard" works like nothing I've ever seen), a tv with a premium channel showing a late night movie you've always wanted to see, shower massager.

* Things which are useless premiums which only serve to overinflate the room rate: indoor pool (You're arriving after it closes and leaving before it opens), indoor hallways accessible by lobby elevator (you should have one backpack, and you should be able to cart it five flights without flinching), room service (what, you didn't note the 7-11 two blocks away from the hotel?).

* The continental breakfast and free USA Today are nice touches, but two bucks worth of doughnut, coffee, and paper is all it is. You can get them at the Exxon on the way out of town that you need to stop at anyway to get gas. Take it if they have it, but don't go out of your way for it and for god's sake don't pay more for it.

Things to look out for

* In every part of the country there's a dominant oasis which has crowded out the other lesser versions of the genre. Part gas station, part snack shop, they are distinguishable from other lesser mercantile establishments by the following:
+ they're always open, never resorting to a slot in a bulletproof window;
+ they have bathrooms, and sinks, and often clean ones at that;
+ they have an extensive snack selection which may even include a deli bar or a mini-restaurant attached to one side;
+ they have enough supplies to cover most cravings and/or emergencies in the middle of the night.
Sheetz, Wawa, Git-n-go, QuikTrip, and most new Exxons all fall into this category. They are a traveller's best friend. They'll have maps, they'll have phones, they'll have a staff who are acquaintances -- if not friends -- with the local police, they'll have every kind of beverage known to mankind, and they'll have gas at reasonable prices too. You should make this the first landmark you notice and remember the location of when first coming off of the interstate; it will serve you in good stead to know where to find a shop like this.

* The time to start looking for a hotel is when you start getting tired on the road; by the time you find a good rate you'll need to stop driving altogether. And you should have a good enough handle on your limits that you can make it to the next town if you have to.

* The reason to have a physical map of the area you're driving through is because sometimes you quite literally need to go up on the high ground and take a look around. Scenic pull-offs are not exactly safe after midnight if they're open at all, but they can give you a heads up for the main thoroughfares that cut through the town.

* You've got a buffer zone of perhaps fifteen miles in diameter around the outskirts of a city to look for hotels; go beyond that and you'll most likely have to drive to the next town. East of the Mississippi and west of the Rockies (except in the arid or scenic climates of Nevada, etc.), there should be major chain hotels within an hour of anywhere you happen to be.

* If you're in the midwest and you're not having any luck finding a hotel in the city you're in, it may be time to travel into the financial district and plunk far more on the credit card than you'd planned. Ask for late check out and get a wake up call. But don't expect there to be more hotels further down the road; distances between the Mississippi and the Rockies have a tendency to telescope ridiculously. Cities are located several hours apart; it could literally be dawn before you reach another hotel. If you're feeling truly fatigued, it will be safer and easier to doubleback and try a little harder to track down a bed in the town you're already in.

* Managers keep the names and numbers of surrounding hotels for overflow of conventions and so forth; if you've reached a hotel with no vacancies, ask the clerk to call around and see what else is out there. S/he may be able to point you towards a hotel you'd never have found from the road.

* Except for late August, mid-October, mid-December, mid-January, and early May, college towns are filled to the brim with empty rooms awating those few weekends the parents are in residence. If it's the weekend of a home game, you're screwed, but otherwise scan the map for the little mortarboard cap symbol on the map as a good place to look for a surplus of rooms.

* If you land in real trouble and want to go somewhere other than the police, try the local volunteer fire department. They know their way around town, they've got full emergency medical training, they've usually got a few extra cots, they're friends with the police, thanks to Y2K they've got plenty of unused canned goods and bottled water in their cellars, and they should at least be a place to get your bearings if you've been shaken up and don't feel quite safe at a gas station.

* While the staff at some upper crust hotels can be quite rude if you look less than top shelf, they should at least give you the time of day if you pull up in a vehicle. They'll steer you off their driveway with all expedience, but before they do so you should be able to grab a bathroom break, a soda, a snack, some time in a warm lobby, some local flyers and newsletters, a chance to stretch your legs, and solid directions, if not a phone reservation, towards the more affordable hotels in town. Plus, it affords you the opportunity to speak in a fake British accent and turn on the charm like Ferris Bueller in a French restaurant if you truly feel like being a smartass before being thrown out. If nothing else, it's another warm open building with people you can go to if you're feeling less than safe, and it's more likely to be visible from several miles away than a fire station if you need to find one in a hurry.

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© 2001 Kevin M. Hollenbeck. All rights reserved.