Friday, June 26, 2015

Updated: Taking a Budget Road Trip, Part 2: Lodging

On June 22, 2011, I published Part 2 of my Take a Road Trip series, on lodging.

I present below my updated version: 

Lodging options:

All options have pros and cons, based on these variables and their importance to you:

  • Money
  • "Administrative overhead"
  • Safety
  • Personality
  • Comfort

Lincoln Motel, Chandler, Oklahoma.
Crash with friends

On the surface, it may seem like a no-brainer to stay with a friend who lives along your road trip route. Free! Comfortable! Easy! Reconnect with friend!

Mmm, not so fast.  It may make more sense to stay in a motel and just meet a friend for a drink in a mutually-agreeable location for an hour or two rather than stay at his place. Here’s why: 

This is a budget road trip, remember? And you can’t show up empty-handed to a friend’s place to crash. You know yourself and you know your friend – what will it cost you in real bucks to stay with the friend? A dinner out? A bottle of wine? A pound of the coffee you know he loves? Whatever it is, you need to factor it in to your budget. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. But read on because money isn’t necessarily the biggest consideration.

Administrative overhead
  1. Planning time. Staying at a friend's place requires a little or a lot of advance preparation to make sure your schedules mesh, not the least of which is your projected arrival time in his city.
  2. Face time with friend. Do you just want to get to the friend's house, chat a bit, crash, then get on the road early the next morning? If yes, will that be possible with the friend? Or will you need to invest time socializing late into the night or for a large portion of the following day?
  3. Getting to the friend’s place. If you've got a friend who lives "in" St. Louis, does this mean s/he's within a few minutes of your route or is she actually 20 miles south of St. Louis, where you'll traverse various highways, then two bumper-to-bumper arterials, til you finally get to that side street where the friend lives? And then repeat it all the next day, hoping to miss the worst of the morning rush?

White Sands Motel, Alamogordo, New Mexico.


Couchsurfing means that you're crashing at a stranger's house, who's agreed to put you up for the night, no charge. (Here are some couchsurfing etiquette tips.)

  • For those of us who are social creatures, what a terrific concept!  Meet new people. Get the insider's view of the city.
  • It's not for all of us, though. For example, I'm an introvert and I like to be able to escape to my cave. The idea of having to be "on" for an evening or longer with a stranger does not relax me.
  • Some couchsurfing hosts offer private rooms; some don't. Weigh your privacy needs with what prospective hosts have to offer and the cost of alternative lodging.

Administrative overhead

If any of the following is a factor with a particular host, then couchsurfing may not be worth the hassle for you:

1.                  Complicated, drawn-out negotiations or instructions related to the lodging, whatever the type. 
2.                  Lots of rules.
3.                  Having to deviate too far from my main route to get to the lodging.


Although there are ways to mitigate the safety risk of couchsurfing, your personal risk threshold may just be too low to allow for couchsurfing. In that case, pass on it. A road trip is about fun, not self-imposed stress.


When you're couchsurfing, you're at someone's house, not a hotel. The housekeeping might not meet your tolerance threshold. Maybe the hosts have cats and you're allergic. Or you're not allergic, but the litter box smells. Or the host's place is right next to the airport.

You don't go into a couchsurfing place completely blind, but there are limits to what you know up front.

Frontier Motel, Cuba, New Mexico.

Sleeping in the car

Yes, I've done this.

In none of those cases did I plan to sleep in the car. It just worked out that way because:
  • I drove so late that I became too tired to drive any further to a hotel
  • I couldn't find a hotel
  • The hotel I did find was scarier than the prospect of sleeping in my car
  • The hotels in the area were just too expensive

Once, my brother and I drove into an empty campground in France and slept in the car there. It was spooky. The trees were leafless and had been topped. They looked like headless creatures. A fog permeated the grounds. It was a veritable vampire attractant.

In at least two cases, I slept in well-lit interstate rest areas. The advantage of a rest area is flush toilets and potable water. Plus I've found there is sufficient incoming/outgoing traffic to ensure I'm not alone for long ... 'course, that's a potential disadvantage, as well.

In this roadtripamerica thread are suggestions for other possibles: truck-stop parking lots, hospital parking lots, and hotel parking lots. Not saying they're good suggestions, just suggestions. An excellent resource I gleaned from this thread was Free Campsites, which points you to free campsites (including the parking lots of some stores, where you could car-sleep) all over the U.S.

(Awhile back, I wrote about Glenn Campbell (not that Glenn Campbell) at Homeless by Choice and his lodging strategy at "Walmart Motels," which is sort of a cross between sleeping in your car and camping.)



Administrative overhead

Extremely economical in time and hassle. Pull in, sleep, and pull out. No advance planning. No socializing.


Concerns about safety may rule this option out for many travelers. If you're traveling with someone else, you may be more comfortable with it.


Privacy. There really is no privacy when you're sleeping in your vehicle, unless you have a vehicle in which you can cover the windows. To achieve privacy, you can pull your vehicle over to a secluded area that draws no traffic, but that may also make you more vulnerable to attack.

  • Sleep. If I'm sleeping in my car, I'm likely to have a lighter sleep than if I were in a more traditional place.
  • Hygiene. If I'm at a rest area, I can wash my face and brush my teeth, use a flush toilet, and wash my hands with soap. If I sleep in a place with no facilities, then I will still do OK, because I will have packed a jug of water and at least waterless soap and have a washcloth and hand towel. And toilet paper. Good to go. I don't want to do that every day, but once in awhile, no problem.

Anasazi Inn outside Kayenta, Arizona.



If I camp, it's likely I'll pay less than $20 for a campsite per night. That assumes non-electric sites, which is a vanishing category in many campgrounds. (On the other hand, camping in some Bureau of Land Management and other lands is free!) The longer my road trip is, the more attractive camping becomes in my lodging plan.

Free Campsites directs visitors to free campsites all over the U.S.

Administrative overhead

1.                  Assuming tent camping, it takes time to set up and break camp.
2.                  It may take considerable time to drive from your main route to the campground, up to an hour, depending not only on distance, but road conditions. (Driving a switchback up a mountain is slow work even on a well-paved road.)
3.                  Checking in takes time.
4.                  Selecting a campsite takes time.
5.                  Unless you really go bare bones on the camping bit (sleeping in your car and not cooking), there's a hassle in that you have to pack more gear that takes up more space in your vehicle - a tent, sleeping bag(s), cook stove, gas, lantern, etc.


Assuming you're in a campground, and you don't do something completely stupid, like rub yourself with hamburgers before you turn in for the night in bear country, camping is very safe.

  • Privacy. With some exception, privacy is not much of a concern, unless you've got the rare situation of loud neighbors.
  • Campfire! It's pretty hard to beat the good time of poking a fire with a stick.

  • Sleep. If you awaken with each noise outside your tent thinking it might be a bear or a mountain lion or a Deliverance-style local, then you might have a more relaxed time in a motel.  You want to have fun on your trip - not feel anxious. 
  • Hygiene. There may or may not be showers. Or flush toilets. You'll need to have a water container and your own soap.

Buffalo Inn, Canyon, Texas.


I have a different standard for a motel where I'll stay only one night versus one I'll stay in for multiple nights. For one night, I can overlook charmlessness in exchange for cost savings.

A good-enough budget motel has:
  • Clean sheets
  • Floor that is clean enough that my feet won’t get dirty walking on it
  • Clean bathroom, even if it’s not been updated since the 1960s
  • Shower that works
  • TV that works
  • Free wireless
  • Secure door and windows
  • Air conditioner that works
  • An ice machine somewhere on the premises

I don't care if it has a free breakfast, although sometimes this is nice. I like a coffee maker in the room, but I’ve learned to bring one with me on a road trip, as I’ve discovered a lot of locally-owned budget motels don’t provide an in-room machine.


1.                  On a road trip, budget motel means $70 or less to me. I strive for $50. Sometimes I can't get under $70, but usually I can
2.                  "Free" breakfasts. Given a choice between a $50 hotel room without a "free" breakfast and a $60 or higher motel with, I'll select the $50 motel. The vast majority of time, the "free" breakfast is unsatisfying. I do better having breakfast out of my small cooler or by stopping at a restaurant and getting exactly what I want for the same price or less than the "free" breakfast. Another thing to consider is that if you intend to get back on the road before 6 a.m., that "free" breakfast won't even be set up yet.
3.                  Discounts. In most cases, the AAA, AARP, and government discount rates are the same. Sometimes the government (or military) rates are lower. An AAA is a good investment, anyway, in the event of car trouble.
4.                  Frequent sleeper plans. If you travel a lot for work, become a "frequent sleeper" member of one or two hotel chains with a large family of hotel brands. Both Marriott and Hilton have a nice continuum of budget through upscale brands. You do especially well if you usually stay at the higher-end brand for work and then use your free-stay points on the economical brands in the "hotel family" during vacation road trips.
5.                  Be willing to do some footwork. When I swing into a town that has several motels, I'll gravitate to the one I think will meet all of my criteria first. But if the price is too high, I won't hesitate to:

  • Before I had a smart phone: Drive to other choices and check ‘em out
  • Now that I have a smart phone: Do online research on the fly, and call the motels to check their rates.

Administrative overhead

Other than sleeping in your vehicle, a motel stay is the most economical of your time. Other than check-in, there's no set up, and you leave as early as you want the next morning.


If I'm by myself, and if the neighborhood feels a little sketchy, I ask for a room on the second floor.

Camp Meade Motor Court, Vermont.


A hostel is a form of lodging that:
  • Is less expensive than a motel
  • Has some form of shared space, such as the sleeping room (i.e. dorm), bathrooms, kitchen, or living areas
  • One generally finds in locations that draw high tourist traffic, whether that's an urban (NYC) or rural setting (i.e. the Abominable Snowmansion near Taos)

Other than the above features, I wouldn't want to pigeonhole hostels as serving a particular age, socio-economic, educational, cultural or travel-style demographic. However, some hostels do have age ceilings, so if you’re over 30, check for that when you look into potential sites.

A lot of hostels do offer private rooms, which can be an economical way to go if you’re done with the backpacking experience. Check the fine print, though: Often the price quoted is per person, with a two-person minimum.

Here are some websites that list hostels:

In general, hostels don’t figure much into USA road trips unless you’ve got a popular tourist city on your itinerary. Sometimes the hostels cost more than what you’d pay for a motel that’s in the outskirts (and where you’re likely to enjoy free parking). 
Leroy Percy State Park cabin, Hollandale, Mississippi.

Airbnb and the like

Airbnb has grown like mad since I first wrote about it five years ago. Some entrepreneurs buy properties for the sole purpose of letting rooms via airbnb. In such cases, the owner does not live on the premises, and sometimes two strangers are sharing a house with little or no face-to-face contact with the property owner.

For the most part, my airbnb experiences have been good ones. A host's drive to get a good guest rating, however, can result in tiresome pressure to: a) give a rating, and b) give a five-level rating.

Generally speaking, airbnb differs from couchsurfing in these respects:
  • You will pay a fee for an airbnb acccommodation; couchsurfing is free.
  • You’ll have a private bedroom and an actual bed with airbnb, whereas with couchsurfing you might be sleeping in the living room on an actual couch. Note: Some hostels use airbnb to advertise and in these cases, you may only have a bunk in a shared room.
  • The airbnb host is less likely to be your best new friend than a couchsurfing host. And this makes sense – an airbnb host wants to supplement his income in a pleasant way, while a couch host’s main driver is to meet and interact with interesting people.

Airbnb and couchsurfing are alike in these respects:
  • There is mutual vetting/ratings for hosts and guests, which helps keep the process safe for all parties (although this is not foolproof).
  • In traditional airbnb accommodations, like couchsurfing sites, you’re in someone’s home.
  • The hosts are often quite interesting in a good way!  Also, with airbnb, fellow guests are almost always interesting.


On a road trip, where I’m just passing though, the only reason for me to use an airbnb instead of a motel is the lower cost. If I can’t find an airbnb with a room significantly less than a motel, than I’d much rather stay in a motel. And that’s the beauty of airbnb – most of the time, it is less expensive than a motel.

Administrative overhead

There’s not a lot of administrative overhead to booking a room on airbnb. But:
  • Read the host’s fine print about his cancellation policies, his house rules, and any fee add-ons.
  • Look carefully at what amenities are and are not available.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask questions before pulling the trigger on the booking, such as alignment between a room’s readiness and your anticipated arrival time.


There are a few scary stories out there, but that holds true for motels, camping, and anything else. In general, an airbnb is very safe. Read the reviews the host received from past guests. Respect the vibe you get from a host before you confirm a reservation.


I have always felt comfortable bowing out of any social interaction at an airbnb. Hosts understand that you want to do what you want to do, and they leave you alone to do it.


I’ve been sufficiently comfortable at all of the airbnbs I’ve used. I’m not crazy about having to share a bathroom if I’m in a house, but that’s tolerable for a short term.

So there you have it - we've got several lodging options on a road trip. What you choose depends on your budget, disposable time you have available on your trip, your tolerance for administrative overhead, your personality, and comfort needs. 

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