Just because a billboard
sign promises a great room rate at an upcoming exit
doesn't mean you can't do better.
Maureen and Bill Palier saw firsthand
how hotel prices fluctuate during a road trip across
North Dakota to visit relatives. The couple stayed at
the same hotel twice -- Saturday on the way out and
Wednesday on the way back -- along the 12-hour drive.
Everything was pretty much the same, except the second
night cost $50 more.
The manager's explanation:
Booking the visit in advance and online had garnered
the better deal.
Experts agree that planning ahead is critical
to unlocking the best on-the-road lodging deals. "Many
chains will push the price up as it gets closer to the
date of booking," says Tom Magnuson, a former owner
and manager of several Best Western-franchised hotels
and now principal of Magnuson
Hotels, a company representing more than 450 independently
owned member hotels.
"You can always get a little peace
of mind knowing you've gotten things nailed down,"
Those members occupy an industry jam-packed
with recognizable names. "There are more than 300
hotel brands in the U.S. today. We're in the hotel business,
and we can't name them all," Magnuson says. Industry
growth has led to a blurring of brands.
"There isn't 10 cents' worth of difference
among the major chains, as they all try to outdo one
another," says Bob Jones, a frugal-travel expert
who writes The
Smart Travelers' Corner column for OneTravel.com.
Jones, who says
he may get in trouble for that statement, offers the
example of a Sheraton in Oklahoma literally changing
places with a Marriott. "No, they didn't move the
buildings, just the signs!"
Chain hotels, Jones says, can be:
- Owned and operated by a chain.
- Not owned, but managed and operated
by a chain.
- Neither owned nor operated, but franchised,
by a chain.
What that means for pricing: "Chains
like Days Inn are primarily independently owned and
use a common reservation system. They may have far more
fluctuation in rate than Marriott, which might make
special offers systemwide, like 'Kids stay and eat for
free,'" says Laurie Borman, editorial director
of atlas publisher Rand McNally, which features online
tools and tips.
Frills or not?
The first step to snagging the best lodging deal on
your next road trip is to identify your expectations.
Nearly all travelers expect "a hot shower with
decent water pressure; a clean, quiet, comfortable bed;
curtains that shut out light; and a safe and secure
room," Borman says. And most interstate chain hotels
have those basics.
Those looking for more -- from a restaurant
onsite to a workout facility to get the post-drive kinks
out -- will also find chains that appeal, she says.
"People have started to expect a lot more in hotels
than they used to because they are traveling more and
know what's out there."