The cost of accommodation is significant for any traveller exploring the USA, especially in the cities, but wherever you travel, you’re almost certain to find a good-quality, reasonably priced motel or hotel. If you’re prepared to pay a little extra, wonderful historic hotels and lodges can offer truly memorable experiences.
Typical rates in motels and hotels start at $45 per night in rural areas, more like $80 in major cities, though discounts are available at slack times. Unsurprisingly, the sky’s the limit for luxury hotels, where exclusive suites can easily run into four figures. Many hotels will set up a third single bed for around $15–25 extra, reducing costs for three people sharing. For lone travellers, on the other hand, a “single room” is usually a double at a slightly reduced rate at best. A dorm bed in a hostel usually costs $20–35 per night, but standards of cleanliness and security can be low, and for groups of two or more the saving compared to a motel is often minimal. In certain parts of the USA, camping makes a cheap – and exhilarating – alternative. Alternative methods of finding a room online are through airbnb.com and the free hosting site couchsurfing.org.
Wherever you stay, you’ll be expected to pay in advance, at least for the first night and perhaps for further nights, too. Most hotels ask for a credit card imprint when you arrive, but some still accept cash or US dollar travellers’ cheques. Reservations – essential in busy areas in summer – are held only until 6pm, unless you’ve said you’ll be arriving late. Note that some cities – probably the ones you most want to visit – tack on a hotel tax that can raise the total tax for accommodation to as much as fifteen percent.
Motels, or “motor hotels”, tend to be found beside the main roads away from city centres, and are thus much more accessible to drivers. Budget hotels or motels can be pretty basic, but in general standards of comfort are uniform – each room comes with a double bed (often two), a TV, phone and usually a portable coffeemaker, plus an attached bathroom. You don’t get a much better deal by paying, say, $80 instead of $55. Above $80 or so, the room and its fittings simply get bigger and include more amenities, and there may be a swimming pool and added amenities such as irons and ironing boards, or premium cable TV (HBO, Showtime, etc). Most hotels and motels now offer wi-fi, albeit sometimes in the lobby only.
The least expensive properties tend to be family-run, independent “mom ‘n’ pop” motels, but these are rarer nowadays, in the big urban areas at least. When you’re driving along the main interstates there’s a lot to be said for paying a few dollars more to stay in motels belonging to the national chains. These range from the ever-reliable and cheap Super 8 and Motel 6 (from $45) through to the mid-range Days Inn and La Quinta (from $60) up to the more commodious Holiday Inn Express and Marriott (from $80).
During off-peak periods, many motels and hotels struggle to fill their rooms, so it’s worth bargaining to get a few dollars off the asking price. Staying in the same place for more than one night may bring further reductions. Also, look for discount coupons, especially in the free magazines distributed by local visitor centres and welcome centres near the borders between states. These can offer amazing value – but read the small print first. Online rates are also usually cheaper, sometimes considerably so.
Few budget hotels or motels bother to compete with the ubiquitous diners by offering full breakfasts, although most will provide free self-service coffee, pastries and if you are lucky, fruit or cereal, collectively referred to as “continental breakfast”.
Staying in a B&B is a popular, sometimes luxurious, alternative to conventional hotels. Some B&Bs consist of no more than a couple of furnished rooms in someone’s home, and even the larger establishments tend to have fewer than ten rooms, sometimes without TV or phone, but often laden with potpourri, chintzy cushions and an assertively precious Victorian atmosphere. If this cosy, twee setting appeals to you, there’s a range of choices throughout the country, but keep a few things in mind. For one, you may not be an anonymous guest as you would in a chain hotel, but may be expected to chat with the host and other guests, especially during breakfast. Also, some B&Bs enforce curfews, not allowing or appreciating their guests to stumble in long after midnight after a heady night of drunken partying. The only way to know the policy for certain is to check each B&B’s policy online – there’s often a lengthy list of do’s and don’ts.
The price you pay for a B&B – which varies from around $80 to $275 for a double room – always includes breakfast (sometimes a buffet on a sideboard, but more often a full-blown cooked meal). The crucial determining factor is whether each room has an en-suite bathroom; most B&Bs provide private bath facilities, although that can damage the authenticity of a fine old house. At the top end of the spectrum, the distinction between a “boutique hotel” and a “bed-and-breakfast inn” may amount to no more than that the B&B is owned by a private individual rather than a chain. In many areas, B&Bs have united to form central booking agencies, making it much easier to find a room at short notice; we’ve given contact information for these where appropriate.
Throughout the country, but especially out West, many towns still hold historic hotels, whether dating from the arrival of the railroads or from the heyday of Route 66 in the 1940s and 1950s. So long as you accept that not all will have up-to-date facilities to match their period charm, these can make wonderfully ambient places to spend a night or two. Those that are exceptionally well preserved or restored may charge $200 or more per room, but a more typical rate for a not overly luxurious but atmospheric, antique-furnished room would be more like $100–150.
In addition, several national parks feature long-established and architecturally distinguished hotels, traditionally known as lodges, that can be real bargains thanks to their federally controlled rates. The only drawback is that all rooms tend to be reserved far in advance. Among the best are El Tovar and Grand Canyon Lodge on the South and North rims, respectively, of the Grand Canyon; the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone; and Glacier Park Lodge in Glacier.
Hostel-type accommodation is not as plentiful in the USA as it is in Europe, but provision for backpackers and low-budget travellers does exist. Unless you’re travelling alone, most hostels cost about the same as motels; stay in them only if you prefer their youthful ambience, energy and sociability. Many are not accessible on public transport, or convenient for sightseeing in the towns and cities, let alone in rural areas.
These days, most hostels are independent, with no affiliation to the HI-AYH (Hostelling International-American Youth Hostels; 240 650 2100, hiusa.org) network. Many are no more than converted motels, where the “dorms” consist of a couple of sets of bunk beds in a musty room, which is also let out as a private unit on demand. Most expect guests to bring sheets or sleeping bags. Rates range from $20 to about $35 for a dorm bed, and from $40–60 for a double room, with prices in the major cities at the higher end. Those few hostels that do belong to HI-AYH tend to impose curfews and limit daytime access hours, and segregate dormitories by sex.