America is, in a way, a country designed for people on the move. That's probably why it is one of the places where finding a place to stay is ridiculously easy. But still, let me give you some tips.
As I usually travel on a rather small budget, information here will be most relevant to other low budget travellers but I'll give some general advice as well.
So, how do I organize my accommodation? In short, I don't. OK, I'm joking, but only a bit.
Many people travelling abroad like to book their accommodation in advance expecting big savings and wanting the peace of mind. I really think that when you travel to the US it is not really necessary.
The exact planning depends, of course, on the nature of my trip. If I start my journey in some interesting city like Boston or Chicago then I might book a room for the first two or three nights as I know I want to spend some time there. Booking in advance also helps in securing reasonable prices for some good location with easy access to downtown. If, on the other hand, I only fly to some city to start a road trip (like I did in Atlanta or Dallas) I usually don't want to stay there and want to get moving as soon as possible. In such places I only recommend booking a room in advance if your flight arrives late so you can get there quickly and get some rest. There are of course countless websites offering hotel booking so there is no point in listing them here, just use Uncle Google. Remember that when you are booking a hotel in a big city you will pay a premium for staying in the centre. A good way of saving is booking some place outside the downtown but with good access to it. In NYC this means, for example, staying outside Manhattan but close to a subway station. In most other cities it means staying in the suburbs but close to a major freeway leading into town.
Once you move out of the biggest cities things get much easier (and cheaper). US highways are lined with countless hotels and motels. Most of them belong to one of the many chains, most of which you will never encounter in Europe. The cheapest rooms are in some of the remaining independent establishments (so called mom and pop motels) but they can be hit or miss. I did stay in some lovely independent motels (like the one in Michigan's Upper Peninsula) but I have also stayed in some really bad ones (like once in Iowa).
Staying in big national chain hotels at least gives you some assurance of quality. Standards still vary, as most of them are run independently by franchise operators, but the risk of getting into a really bad place is less than with independents (but still exists). One of the cheapest big chains is Motel 6 where you can get rooms for as little as $29. But you will have to pay separately for Wi-Fi and the only thing you get in the morning (apart from your bill) is a cup of awful coffee. A nudge up are chains like Days Inn, Super 8, Econo Lodge, Travelodge or Red Roof Inn all of which usually offer some sort of continental breakfast. To be honest, coffee will still be bad and breakfast can be only a few doughnuts but they might also offer some nice pancakes or waffles. Another step up are chains like Best Western, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, Quality Inn or Comfort Inn. They usually offer hot breakfast and in general their properties are newer and better maintained. They also cater for business travellers so you can often find good deals on weekends. The distinction between the aforementioned chains is of course not precise, some of the cheap chain locations are brand new and excellent while some of the supposedly better and more expensive chain locations can be dated.
Prices vary tremendously. Even the cheapest chains can be expensive in the tourist hot spots. I remember paying over $80 a night for a Motel 6 in Jackson Hole. It was nice and freshly renovated but, at the end of day, it was still only a basic Motel 6.
Of course you can book all these chains online but I never do so. Instead I use free discount coupons which offer the same or even lower prices than online. The easiest way of getting coupons is to print them from the internet. One of the biggest players in the coupon market is hotelcoupons.com (formerly known as roomsaver.com). They offer coupon booklets for different regions of the US. I usually print a few pages for my first location of the trip. That's what I did when I recently arrived in Atlanta, I had coupons for Georgia motels so I could choose any place on my way to Tennessee. I prefer this over having a hotel booked from home as I often change my plans, sometimes right after arrival.
Once you are in the US you can get the coupon booklets in many places. The most obvious places are the state welcome centers. As the name suggest they are operated by the states and you can find them along the main interstate highways when you cross the state boundaries. They are sort of rest areas which during the day offer tourist information, usually provided by some volunteers, often retired folks. You can get countless brochures, maps and discount coupons there not only for accommodation but also for dining or local attractions. I always stop at such places as you might always find something interesting there.
Apart from the welcome centres you can find discount coupons in gas stations or in big supermarkets, usually in special dispensers somewhere around the entrance.
When you get your coupons finding a particular location is easy. The coupons give you road and exit numbers and some basic directions if it is away from the freeway. Once on the road the chain motels are also marked on special blue lodging signs a few miles before each exit. Such signs list all the major chains you can find next to that exit. Once you are on the exit ramp there is another sign which informs you if you should turn right or left for your chosen hotel. The whole system is very logical and virtually idiot proof.
Another cheap option is hostel. They are usually centrally located and you can meet fellow travellers there. One of the best hostels I ever stayed in was in a hippie neighbourhood of Northwest Portland. It was a big old wooden house on a tree-lined street. They’ve got a deal with the local bakery so in the evening the hostel gets all the unsold bread and rolls. The place was quiet and welcoming. On the other hand hostels in Seattle or San Francisco were busy and noisy but fun. Particularly the one in San Francisco that was located right in the middle of the night-life district so it was a crazy place to stay on a Saturday night. However hostels only really exist in the big cities of the east and west coasts. You won't find them in places like Oklahoma City or Kansas City. Fortunately in places like that you can find rooms in motels for the same money you would pay for a bed in a hostel in San Fran or NYC.
Now a word or two about B&Bs. While in the UK they are often the cheapest option available, in the US they are definitely more upmarket. Often located in lovely old renovated historic houses, they are usually priced well above the mid-range motels.
What else can I say about accommodation in the US? Rooms are large, beds are large and even the cheapest and dingiest places have air-conditioning. And did I mention the showers? Somehow showers in American motels and hotels are always so much more powerful than in Europe. Even in otherwise crap places. I remember staying a couple of times in not so amazing locations but usually as soon as I stepped into the shower all the worries were gone. They really rip your skin apart. They might not be environmentally friendly but I love them. All the motels have, obviously, plenty of parking and you can often park right in front of your room, which is great as you don't have to carry your luggage too far.
The cheapest motels are often the closest to the highways so if you are sensitive to noise make sure to find some place a few blocks away from the major interstate.
There are of course plenty of other options. There are swanky resorts and plush five star hotels. There are designer hotels and trendy spas. There are huge business oriented hotels around the convention centres. I can't advise you on them as I never stay in them. I can't really afford it, but I'm not complaining as I really enjoy the way I travel. And if you ask me, the roadside America of cheap hotels, gas stations and fast food joints is way more fun than some boring spa or beach resort. It is also much more authentic experience.
Discover Lonely Planet's The USA Book
Author: Gregor Swiderek