We stayed in a variety of accommodation while in North America. We booked
all accommodation ourselves, not through travel agents. If you were doing a
package deal to Disneyland or something it may well work out cheaper to have the
travel agent book it as part of a package, but for our trip the research we did told us
that we could do much better booking it ourselves. It seems that the rates the travel
agents quote you tend to be on a ‘per-person’ basis. That’s not really how it works
in America – you pay for a room, not per person (except at hostels).
In general, the only accommodation we booked prior to arriving in the USA was in
the major cities (LA, SF, NYC, DC). Basically, anywhere we were flying into, we
made sure accommodation was booked. We also pre-booked a few places like
Grand Canyon, New Orleans and Las Vegas, where we wanted to stay in a particular
location, and which we knew could get very busy.
As to the rest, we booked accommodation on our road trips a few days ahead, or
even on the road the same day, so as to have some flexibility in the itinerary. We
never had any problem finding somewhere, but then again we were not travelling at
a peak period such as mid-summer. You also need to be mindful of major events
in particular cities or towns, as well as public holidays such as Memorial Day.
One example of this is when we visited Boston. We had not booked accommodation,
and found ourselves there in the very busy time of ‘graduation season’. All the
universities were having their graduation celebrations, and this attracts parents from all
over the country. This was not a huge problem for us, but meant we could not find
reasonably priced accommodation downtown as we had intended. Instead, we had to stay some way out of town at Danvers. We should have researched this better – coming from Australia where our academic year ends in November, we just didn’t think of graduation season being in May!
In Washington DC and New York City we stayed in youth hostels, which were very
basic but well-located to explore the city. These were the HI Hostel in DC at 11th and
K Streets and in NYC the Big Apple Hostel at 119 W 45th Street – between 6th Ave and Times Square – excellent location!
The hostels were clean enough and we had no problem staying there with children.
For about $100 USD per night (for four people) you get a smallish room with four
bunk beds, an airconditioner and the shower/bathroom down the hall.
One attraction of staying in hostels is that they are very social - you get to meet people
from all over the world. This was especially the case at the Big Apple in NYC, where
you could sit out on the back deck at night and have a few drinks with the other guests.
However, some of the hostels (the HI group is one, I think) do not allow guests to drink alcohol on the hostel premises.
The hostels have kitchens and it is easy and fairly cheap to buy groceries and prepare
your own meals. They all have internet terminals where you can access the net for a fee, usually ranging from 20 to 30 cents per minute).
While on the road and in the smaller cities we generally stayed in the chain motels.
There are many of these, and they provide clean and basic accommodation for a reasonable rate. You will find that they are fairly bland and very generic – many a time we found ourselves commenting that the room we were in was almost identical to the one we had at the same chain a few nights ago, right down to the furniture, lamps, placement of the various items in the room, etc. Not much different to Australia…
We generally managed to find a reasonably priced motel with a pool for the kids, usually an indoor pool, at least in the areas where it gets colder. They all have cable TV, with many channels on offer (helps to keep the kids amused). However, they will not always have the ’premium’ cable channels like HBO. Because we are big fans of The Sopranos, and season 5 was being shown on HBO while we were there, we always tried to make sure that the place we were going to stay (at least on Sunday nights!) had HBO. If they have it, it will usually be prominently mentioned in the advertising material.
In most cases these motels will be located in clusters near a freeway junction. Usually there will be a selection of fast-food restaurants nearby, as well as establishments one or two steps up from that. Often the motels will be a short drive from the town itself, which is OK if you have a car.
One tip that we found to be very useful is to take advantage of the coupon books that are provided at ‘Welcome Centers’ (Tourist Information Offices) which are clearly signposted on the highways as you cross the state line from one state to the next. These Welcome Centers are well worth stopping at, as there is lots of useful information to be gleaned there and the staff are generally helpful and knowledgeable.
The coupon books I refer to cover the State you’ve just entered and maybe a few nearby States as well. They contain coupons for cheap accommodation at various hotels and motels, listed by city/town and region. Also these books have maps showing where all the hotels are located in a particular region, in relation to the major roads.
The coupon books do offer some really good deals – it is possible, in the cheaper regions of the USA at least, to find a reasonably decent motel for $40 USD or even less. The rates they offer are ‘walk-in’ only. This means that you cannot call ahead and make the reservation. If you get there and they have rooms available they will usually honor the coupon. Having said that, if you call ahead the receptionist will often be prepared to give you an indication whether they are likely to be busy or not.
I should point out that they are not obligated to honor the coupon, and certainly will not if they are very busy. For example, a few times we got to a town and there was something like a jazz festival that weekend, attracting big crowds. In that situation you will just have to pay the going rate. The coupons are basically intended to help them sell off their surplus rooms when they are not going to fill them any other way.
The chain we stayed with the most was Choice Hotels (www.choicehotels.com). This includes such brands as Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Quality Inn & Suites and Clarion. We found them to be reasonable and cost-effective accommodation when on the road. Almost always these places will include breakfast as part of the deal. Other chain motels include La Quinta, Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express. Also Days Inn and Motel 6. These last two are further towards the budget end of the market, I think.
Choice Hotels runs a ‘frequent flyer’ style scheme called ‘Choice Privileges’. Once we started our road trips, we joined this scheme. It’s free, but required us to provide a US address on the form, so we just used the first hotel we stayed in (not part of Choice Hotels). It can be quite useful as they often offer a deal where you can get one free night with one of their hotels once you’ve paid for two nights (not counting ‘discounted’ rates using coupons, etc) at any hotel that is part of their system. We took advantage of that offer in suburban Boston.
Normally the Choice Privileges scheme requires maybe 10 nights to get a free one, but the ‘free night after two paid nights’ promotion seems to be run fairly frequently. For example, it was on in April/May 2004 while we were in the US, then it ended, but it is back on now (October 2004).
Choice Privileges membership also means they give you a rate that is supposedly as good as you can get on Expedia, Travelocity and the other websites offering discount accommodation. We had a book listing all their sites, and would call on the cell phone from our car to book the accommodation or else do it on their website. We also had the books for a few other chains. These are also useful as they include road maps of every State.
You do have to be a bit careful with offers of ‘free breakfast’. Not so much with Choice or the other major chains, but sometimes with the small independent motels, ‘Continental Breakfast’ can mean a few Danishes or donuts and orange juice! When looking at ads for motels, or those coupon books mentioned earlier, the trick is to look for the words ‘Extended Continental Breakfast’ or ‘Deluxe Continental Breakfast’ or similar. This will generally mean at least cereal for the kids, toast, bagels, fruit and often a machine where you can make your own waffles or pancakes.
The system common in Australian motels where you fill in a little form with your breakfast order and drop it into the office at night, with the breakfast delivered on a tray to your room the next morning does not seem to exist in North America, as near as we could tell. The hotels/motels will have a breakfast room where it is all set up, and you just help yourself.
Another thing that might surprise Australians is that you do not always get a fridge in the motel room. For example, even in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas there was no fridge, although I think you could rent one for an extra fee per day.
Instead, they tend to have a (free) ice dispensing machine on each floor, and an ice bucket in the room which can be used to cool a bottle of wine, or store ice-cubes from the machine to be used in mixed drinks. Mostly in chains like Choice Hotels you do get a fridge and microwave. Look for the words ‘micro/fridge’ on the coupons or other advertising material for the hotel in question. Even where a fridge is provided, the ice machine and little ice bucket will usually be there as well.
Hotels and motels in the US are very well set up for Internet access, as long as you have a laptop with you, which we did not. For example, even the most reasonably priced chains will usually offer free wireless broadband. You can just use your laptop to access the net, from your room, without phone cables etc, if you’re set up for wireless. If not, they have ports where you can dial up.
If you need internet access, and are not travelling with a laptop, then you may need to find a place that has a ‘Business Center’. This term generally means that the hotel has a terminal that guests can use (generally for free) to access the internet. Where these exist, they are high-speed connections. However, not all places have them. Probably because business travellers with laptops are so well catered for these days, places with Business Centers can be a little hard to find.
‘Internet Cafes’ are not all that common outside the major cities, but you can always go to ‘Kinkos’ a printing and photocopying firm that now also offers internet access, for a fee. These stores are everywhere, and many operate 24/7. You can just swipe your credit card and you are good to go.
Public libraries will also generally have free internet access.