The nation's roadside motel business is a grab bag. When you pull off the Interstate, you never know exactly what you're going to find, how much you're going to pay and whether you'll get your money's worth. Most chain names don't hold a promise of consistency.
Sometimes, the cheaper the place, the better the deal. But no matter what the price, you want to take a close look at what's included.
As my son says -- he being a world traveling financier and frequent user of first-class lodgings -- the irony of accommodations is that the more you pay for your room, the more the hotel charges you for extras.
Which is why my son Miles, in his $300-$400 a night room, is paying $10-$15 a day for use of the Internet and $20 for breakfast, plus annoying hidden hotel charges that sneak onto the bill.
On the road, in my budget motel room, I expect such services for free.
As I seldom reserve ahead because I don't know when I'll be ready to stop driving for the night, my great hunt for accommodations usually begins with roadside billboards. I avoid bargain basement bedrooms, for fear of thin mattresses, perfunctory cleaning and air conditioners that shudder all night.
That puts me in the $45-$85 range.
Roadside motel rates are up this year. But these days, desk clerks have the power to reduce room rates by early evening if enough vacancies remain. Give bargaining a try. On slow nights, you know that your chosen motel, or the next one, will lower the rate for tonight. When the parking lot outside is empty, that ought to be worth at least another $10.
On recent trips, I stayed at a Comfort Inn where the $79 lowest rate (with AAA or AARP discount) went to $59 when I said $79 was beyond my budget, and I splurged at a spiffy Holiday Inn Express where the quoted lowest rate of $109 (with discounts) suddenly became $87, just by asking.
At both, a Continental buffet breakfast, as well as an evening and an early morning peek at the Internet, were included.
Comfort Inn may seem like an oxymoron, but we are old friends. While the rooms can be a little worn, the blankets faded from washing and the maintenance incomplete (two of four light bulbs were burned out in my room in Charlotte, N.C.), Comfort meets my basic expectations: Rooms are clean. Clerks are friendly. My breakfast and wireless Internet connections are free. (And burned out light bulbs are replaced).
Breakfast in Charlotte included cereal, banana, muffins, orange juice, milk and coffee. That's $5-$10 even in a cheap restaurant. On another trip, breakfast at the Comfort Inn in St. George, S.C. ($54 for the night) also included waffles. My bed in St. George, by the way, sported a new, thick mattress, and the woman who operated the breakfast buffet had enough smiles for three mornings.
For the price, my Comfort stays were, well, comfortable. With no hidden charges.
David Molyneaux is editor of TravelMavens.net