By: Alisa Abecassis, Founder of ExploreAll50.com
If you’re like me and RVs are not an option, then hotels are where you’ll be staying over the course of your trip. Choosing a hotel can be a scary process if you have no knowledge of the area and are working with a limited budget, but using my helpful tips can take out some of the guesswork in finding acceptable hotels.
1. Chain hotels are usually a safe bet (and you could get breakfast for free!). What’s the budget for your trip? If you can stay in top-notch hotels with connecting rooms—fantastic. Although I was lucky enough to be able afford that luxury, I purposely chose not to. I wanted my kids to experience “roughing it” a bit so that they would be more appreciative of the luxuries they had at home. Our go-to spots are moderate-level hotels such as Best Western, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express, and the like. Large chains tend to have a uniform standard of style and cleanliness. An additional perk is that most of these moderate-priced hotels include breakfast. Again, nothing fancy—cold cereals, some breads and pastries, coffee, and fruit. Sometimes you might get lucky and they’ll have a hot buffet. Everyone loves the make-your-own waffle machine! It’s a great way to get something in everyone’s stomachs to start the day and you save on the expense of breakfast. Plus you can grab a muffin or piece of fruit for the road!
2. Do your homework: read ratings, reviews, and phone a friend. With any level of hotel, research is key. I check out websites such as Hotel.com, Expedia, Orbitz, and TripAdvisor, typing in the city to find all the hotels where I’ll be stopping so I can compare prices and look at pictures. TripAdvisor is a fantastic resource because you can see reviews and pictures from hotel guests. You’d be surprised at the discrepancy between a hotel’s photos and the photos by people who actually stayed there. Some places that look fabulous on the hotel website could actually turn out to be pretty gross in real life!
Before you choose a hotel, look at the location. Do research on the various neighborhoods so that you know ahead of time that you’re sleeping in a safe place. Do you have friends who live in, or have visited, the area? Enlist them! When I was planning a trip to Detroit, I had no idea where to stay (given that almost every hotel had reviews of thefts and other nastiness), so I called an acquaintance who happened to live in a suburb of Detroit and asked his advice. He told me that Dearborn was a nice, safe place for my family. He was right—it was great! Sometimes friends can tell you what the Internet won’t. However, if I don’t have any contacts in the area, and there’s not much posted online, then my general rule of thumb is that if it’s near a popular activity and it’s a well-known chain, then it can’t be that bad.
3. Make sure your hotel choices are also bed bug free. Another important step in researching hotels is making sure the place you’ve chosen has not been infested with bedbugs. Before making a reservation at any hotel, always check the Bed Bug Registry at www.bedbugregistry.com. It is an invaluable resource. You can look up any hotel in any city and see if there have been reports of bed bugs. Also, in the event that you encounter bed bugs anywhere you go, please be a good citizen and help out your fellow travelers by reporting it on the site.
4. Let’s book it! Once you’ve done all your research, you’re ready to make the reservation. Some hotels and travel sites offer discounts if you pay up front. This option can save you money, but keep in mind that if something comes up last minute, you will not be refunded (even if you have a sob story). However, if you make a reservation and secure it with a credit card, you can usually cancel up to 24 hours in advance without a charge.
I highly discourage you from booking directly through the hotel website or 1-800 number. Compare prices online and call the front desk at the actual hotel. On numerous occasions there was a special promotion going on that wasn’t listed online, and I never would have known if I didn’t call ahead. Also, the clerk on site can tell you what kind of rooms they have and notate any special requests.
Also to note: it pays to be a AAA member. A membership card can get you valuable discounts on hotels, car rentals, activities, and even at some restaurants.
Another way to get discounts is to join loyalty programs. Enrolling in a loyalty program can be a great way to rack up points if you go narrow and deep with a particular hotel brand. You can get their credit card and earn points on all your purchases, in addition to your stays, which over time will result in some free stays. Definitely worth checking out. Hilton Honors, Marriott Rewards are a couple just to name a few.
5. Print and file. Once you’ve made your reservation, print out the confirmation and put it in your trip bible for safekeeping.
6. Be ready to think on the fly-sometimes even the best-laid plans can fall apart. Sometimes, even with the best research, you can end up driving to a hotel that is way below your expectations and “just doesn’t feel right.” As a single mom, when this happens to me, I call the hotel to cancel. I would rather face a cancellation fee than stay in a place where I feel unsafe. Of course, there are ways around the fees, too. Often times a clerk will cancel the reservation just like that. Other times I’ve had to get a little creative to avoid the one night charge. Sometimes it might involve a story about my car being stalled or a flight delay, but sometimes the truth works as well. No one argues with me when I say I am a single mom and I don’t feel safe—again, the story you give is up to you.
On our last night in Nashville we booked a very inexpensive hotel near the airport. It looked fine from the outside but when we drove around back toward our room there were a bunch of drunk guys hanging off the balcony who started whistling and making suggestive comments when I got out of the car. That was enough for me to go right to the hotel office and cancel immediately. The clerk totally understood and recommended a few other places for me to check out.
When a hotel just isn’t what you expected, the best thing to do is drive around a bit and find where the newer hotels are grouped closed to a few restaurants. Your GPS can be very helpful with this. You may have to run in to a few to check prices and availability, but peace of mind is totally worth it. Always trust your gut—be safe instead of sorry.
Using my helpful tips with take a lot of the guesswork out of finding safe and comfortable places to stay on your trip. It’s not foolproof, but as long as you’ve done your research, and can redirect on the fly if need be, you will be fine when it comes to booking your stays. Safe travels!
About Alisa Abecassis
Alisa Abecassis is the proud mother of three children – Lilia, 17; Isaac, 15; and Joel, 14.
After her marriage ended, she decided it was time to strengthen her family’s bonds and personal history by traveling and gaining a better appreciation all 50 United States.
Abecassis is a blogger and has a bachelor’s degree in political science from UCLA. Connect with her on Twitter @ExploreAll50.