After we checked in to the hotel in Des Moines sometime after 1 a.m., we pulled around to our parking spot only to be greeted by the flashing lights of police cruisers. It was hard to tell whether they were responding to an incident at our hotel or at the adult establishment next door. We tried not to look too closely.
On another trip, there was a hotel somewhere in mid-Iowa where I decided against taking a shower or putting on pajamas because I was afraid of what I might catch if I took off my socks.
But the final straw was Omaha, where we chose a hotel on a budget that turned out to be popular with long-term work crews. The room had a bare tile floor and a small iron bed frame with lumpy mattress. Guys ready to celebrate the weekend were rolling in with armloads of booze, and women soon followed.
See, my significant other liked to try to drive between our home in Colorado and our parents’ homes in Indiana without stopping. But at some point he would concede exahustion, and we’d end up at whatever was just off the highway there. Fortunately, I’m now in charge of choosing a hotel on a budget. And I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
Top Tips for Choosing a Hotel on a Budget
Location, location, location.
The nicest — and usually most expensive — hotels are in perfect locations. On the beaches or the slopes, in the heart of the best districts, steps from everything. But if you’re choosing a hotel on a budget, the next best stays are those that make it easy to commute to everything.
- If you’re comfortable with public transportation, look for hotels clustered around a commuter train line, elevated train or light rail. (This worked out super well during my solo trip to Oslo.) In Chicago, for example, you can easily navigate around the heart of the city via the L, and you can get into the city quickly from the ‘burbs on the Metra. You’ll find that nicer hotels are more affordable on the outskirts.
- Investigate whether there’s a hop-on, hop-off bus service in the place that you’re visiting. You might be able to choose a hotel on the bus route that’s not quite in the heart of the tourist destinations, but affords you access to all of them.
- If you’re going to have a car in your destination, very carefully scope out hotels clustered near a major interstate. Competition makes it easier to find a budget hotel in these regions. These hotels also are likely to have free parking, which can save you $30 or more per night versus valet parking or parking garage fees. Such areas also have captive audiences, however, so they don’t need to try very hard. See the section on “read those ratings” below.
- And if you find a good deal on a hotel nearer to the sites you want to see, don’t assume that you’re stuck with hotel parking fees. An app like SpotHero can pinpoint public parking garages in the vicinity, and you can leave your vehicle for sometimes half the cost of the hotel garage right next door.
- Choosing a hotel on a budget takes a tiny bit of extra legwork. To know that you’re getting the best rate for a hotel, start with an aggregator such as hotels.com or booking.com. These tools are a great way to map all of the hotels in your given area and plug in any special features that you want or need, such as a pet-friendly room or free breakfast.
- Once you’ve narrowed your list to a few properties that have the amenities you need in the price range that you desire, visit the hotels’ websites directly. Sometimes you’ll find that costs are lower if you book directly with the hotel — and if the online rate is comparable, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ask for a better rate. You can also ask if a hotel will match its competition’s price, or see whether they will negotiate.
- You can also sometimes find cost savings or perks by joining a hotel chain’s loyalty program. And don’t forget to look for special rates for teachers, the military, seniors or members of AAA. You can even join AARP — there’s no age limit!
if you’re choosing a hotel on a budget, the next best stays are those that make it easy to commute to everything that you want to do.
Read those ratings.
While price may be your first factor in choosing a hotel on a budget, keep an eye too on these other considerations:
- how highly previous guests have rated the hotel
- how many reviews contributed to that rating (a seven-out-of-10 status based on 300 reviews is more credible than a 10-out-of-10 based on two reviews)
- how the property has responded to guest reviews, especially to guest complaints
There will always be complainers for whom there weren’t enough towels or the front desk staff seemed brusque. But if you see frequent mention of bugs, mold, malfunctioning toilets, drag racing in the streets or other serious issues, consider moving on to the next listing.
And if you’re concerned about the safety of the neighborhood in which the hotel is located — a viable consideration for solo female travelers — check out spotcrime.com. Most metro areas will have a fair number of thefts and burglaries, but a site like SpotCrime can help you determine whether you’re more likely to be greeted by crime scene tape after your post-dinner stroll.
Read the fine print.
If you book a room for $120 a night but discover later that there’s a $45-per-night resort fee, is it really such a deal? Look closely at the fees and policies section of an aggregator or hotel website, and consider double-checking what you find with a phone call or email to the property in case something is out of date.
Have you ever heard of Harvey, Louisiana? I hadn’t either, until we found a beautiful new extended-stay hotel with free breakfast there, literally across the bridge from the heart of the spectacular French Quarter in New Orleans.
Add up the amenities.
At the same time, look for amenities that make your budget hotel a greater value.
- If you’re traveling with a group of friends or your family, a free breakfast buffet can save you a significant amount of money, not to mention time — your gang can sip their coffee while they do their makeup or round up their gear. When I’m traveling solo, a breakfast buffet can tide me over until dinner.
- An in-room kitchen can also help you save money during your trip. If you have a coffeemaker or hot water kettle, a microwave and a mini fridge, you can easily put together breakfast. Some extended-stay hotels even offer dishes and a dishwasher, making lunch assembly and midnight snacks a breeze. You can also skip the pricey room service and order carryout or delivery.
- If you work while you travel, look for free wifi. It’s pretty standard now, even in budget hotels, but you can avoid unpleasant surprises with a quick bit of research.
- If you’re flying into your destination, investigate hotels that offer free airport shuttles. Unless you’re able to take a bus or train from the airport to your hotel, a shuttle can save you at least $20 each way. (And your driver will often be happy to give you a little introduction to his or her hometown.)
- And free parking is a fantastic bonus, especially if you can find it in the heart of the city.
It’s still sometimes a challenge to reserve a decent hotel on a road-trip budget. I occasionally find myself relying on Hotel Tonight, an app that offers rooms that hotels still want to fill that very night for a discount. It’s not a solution for a vacation, unless you don’t mind moving from room to room or hotel to hotel every day, but it’s a helpful tool in a pinch.
Choosing a hotel on a budget frees up money for the fun things you want to do on your trip; and if it’s a good vacation, then you won’t be spending much time in your room anyway. But with a little bit of effort, you can also find a stay that combines affordability with cleanliness, comfort, safety and convenience. Because it’s nice to be able to take off your socks!
Although we strive to provide the most current information, bars, restaurants and attractions mentioned may close at any time, operate with a limited menu or reduced hours, or have takeout options only. We recommend checking individual websites for operating hours, updates, and social distancing measures before visiting. The views expressed on this website represent the opinions of the authors; we encourage you to form your own opinions and confirm any facts.