How to Find Budget Accommodations on a Road Trip

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You don't need to break the bank to have a comfortable, restful, and COVID-safe stay during your great American road trip.

Road trips continue to gain in popularity as Americans look for safe ways to travel during the pandemic; in fact, in a recent survey, 67 percent of respondents say they plan to travel by car on their next vacation. In addition to avoiding germs on an airplane, another perk of driving to your destination instead of flying are the savings. Not having to purchase airline tickets, park your car in long-term parking, or renting a car for a road trip once at your destination are all big-budget savers. However, if you’re not traveling by RV, you’re still going to need a safe and cheap place to stay on your road trip that won’t eat up all of your travel budget. Luckily, there are myriad ways to find cheap accommodations while traveling.

Vacation home rentals

Home rentals, where you can stay in a private space with extended family and friends, have become a popular way to travel during COVID times. According to HomeToGo, bookings for vacation houses are up 35 percent over last year. These full-use residences give you plenty of elbow room plus a kitchen where you can make meals (another budget saver), the ability to have multiple bathrooms and bedrooms, and also room to socialize and relax. Get some inspiration on cheap homestays, check out our list of the best Airbnbs under $100 and 50 of the best beach house rentals on VRBO.

To help in your search for cheap places to stay, the first piece of advice is to consider booking a vacation rental a little further away from the main tourist area, says Caroline Burns of HomeToGo. Use filters to look for homes by “distance to city center” to find more reasonably priced options just outside the busy main streets and downtowns. For warmer months or getaways, travelers can also choose to search by “distance to beach” or “distance to water” to be a stone’s throw away from where they want to kick back and relax, while still maximizing their budget, adds Burns.

Cabin rentals

When you don’t want to rent an entire home, but still want a private space to call your own, a cabin can be a great solution. “Cabin rentals continue to be hugely popular throughout the pandemic, offering a more remote accommodation option to recharge, socially distance, and adventure in nature,” said Caroline Burns, travel expert and head of PR at HomeToGo. You can expect to find cabins in more remote areas and at many campgrounds. Some, like the family-friendly units at YMCA of the Rockies, come fully equipped with everything from linens and towels to pots and pans in the kitchen. Others are more rustic, and you’ll need to bring all your supplies, including bedding. These are some of our favorite cabins for weekend getaways.

Short term rooms to rent

Using the same parameters as home rentals, you can find individual rooms in someone’s home as a cheap place to stay. Airbnb is a good option to find vetted, reviewed rooms in larger homes (look for private bathrooms if possible to reduce exposure to other people).

To cut down on expenses, take a look at the amenities that are offered with your room rental. Free parking will offer an added convenience, as will free Wi-Fi, morning coffee, and access to a full kitchen which will help cut down on the cost of eating out for every meal. If you’re not sure what the difference is between Airbnb, VRBO, and Homeaway, we’ve got an easy guide.

Motels

Not only do budget-friendly motels have a romantic road trip nostalgia element (think Route 66 and its neon-accented roadside options), the old-school style of motels that feature room doors that open directly outdoors also offer some built-in COVID safety, eliminating the need to walk through a crowded lobby or share an elevator with strangers. And the big chains (see below), not only have high standards for cleanliness and hospitality, but they also offer great deals to gain your loyalty so you’ll seek them out wherever you go.

And you may be surprised to learn that you can get some of the perks of big hotels at the most popular motel chains, including points and rewards to redeem for free rooms and upgrades. One great tip, joining loyalty programs is an easy way to get the biggest bang for your buck; it’s free to sign up and you are granted access to discounts and perks that only get better the more you travel. Also, download motel apps to book directly with the property, which also gives you the best rate.

Here are some of the most popular budget motels and inexpensive motel chains across the United States:

  • Econo Lodge. Offers discounts for Seniors/AARP (up to 10%). Part of Choice Hotels rewards program.
  • Howard Johnson by Wyndham. Offers discounts for YMCA members (10-20%) and Auto Clubs (10-30%). You can earn and use Wyndham points.
  • Motel 6. Offers discounts for Military (10%), AARP (10%), and Seniors (8%); kids and pets stay free.
  • Red Roof. Offers discounts for college students (currently 25%), Seniors (10%), and Government and Military (15%); pets stay free; offers RediRewards program for all four of its brands: Red Roof Inn, Red Roof PLUS+, The Red Collection, HomeTowne Studios)
  • Super 8 by Wyndham. Offers discounts for Military (15%); Seniors, AARP, Auto Clubs (all subject to availability). You can earn and use Wyndham points.
  • Travelodge by Wyndham. Offers discounts for National Parks pass holders (up to 20%) and Auto Clubs (10% and up). You can earn and use Wyndham points.

Hotels

Don’t completely rule out traditional hotels when you’re looking for places to stay on a road trip. Although these are usually the most expensive lodging options, there are often ways to find cheap hotels with discounts and deals. First, see if you have any hotel points. You may earn these through credit card programs or hotel loyalty programs.

And just because you haven’t stayed at a hotel recently doesn’t mean you can’t accrue points. Hilton Honors now has Guest Opinion Rewards, online surveys to earn Hilton Honors Bonus Points. Or apply for one of Hilton Honors American Express cards and you will earn a statement credit after your first eligible purchase, as well as bonus points after spending a specific amount within the first three months. (Many other hotel loyalty programs offer similar credit card tie-ins.)

Don’t have points to cash in? Try the last-minute booking site HotelTonight which offers great deals on properties closest to where you’re located. And if you don’t mind a surprise, you can use Priceline to find mystery “Express Deals.”

Some additional tips to save money at hotels: call the hotel directly to book, and like motels, above, be sure to dig all of your membership cards out of your wallet for further discounts. For even more savings, say the experts at Wyndham Hotels, traveling in the off-season is a sure-fire way to book for less. Key times for travel that will score you a really awesome deal, include September, January, and February, and May. Extra bonus: Off-season also means fewer crowds in attractions you may be looking to visit. Wyndham also advises keeping an eye on your budget for food costs by looking for hotels that offer free coffee and breakfasts and packing simple lunches to grab and go on your road trip.

Bed and breakfasts

Here’s a fun option that offers you the service of a hotel with the homey feeling of an Airbnb —a bed and breakfast. You can expect a private room but look closely at whether you’ll have a private or shared bathroom. Travelocity has a special bed and breakfast page that will help you sort and compare options. In addition to made-to-order breakfasts, other perks of cheap B&Bs may include free Wi-Fi, free parking, and even complimentary coffee and tea, snacks, and treats.

Hostels

Although the United States doesn’t have the robust hostel culture that makes it a popular choice in Europe, you can still find inexpensive shared accommodations across the country. The prices can range from less than $10 a night to closer to $50 for a private suite, depending on the destination. Websites and apps like HostelWorld can help travelers with planning and booking. Note that although they have a reputation as bare-bones places to lay your heads, many hostels have upped their offerings. The Miami Beach Bikini Hostel Cafe & Beer Garden, for example, offers free breakfasts, a Jacuzzi, and free beach yoga, with prices starting around $8 a night for a bunk in a shared hostel room. Hostelling International USA, the nation’s largest hostel network, is offering three of its San Francisco Bay area properties near the water—HI Point Montara Lighthouse and HI Pigeon Point Lighthouse (both in real lighthouses!) and HI Point Reyes Hostel—as vacation rentals, with private units for groups or families. All offer social distancing and abundant outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, and beach explorations.

In case you’re not sure, these are the differences between a hostel and a hotel.

Camping

To truly find the best deal, most space, and COVID-safe place to stay, camping should be your top choice. To get the best deals, and the best sites, Dan Yates, the founder of Pitchup.com, recommends traveling off-peak if you can, but also choosing sites that are a little more unusual. For example, the site offers duck farms, fairgrounds, and stables in addition to traditional campgrounds. Yates also says if you’re flexible on location and dates, try the ‘budget/backpacker’ filter which lets you browse the best value sites. All of these options offer a unique vacation experience and one that won’t break the bank. We’ve also found free camping sites around the United States.

For more on where to go and what to see around the country, check out our Ultimate American Road Trip Guide.

Sources:

Melissa Klurman
Melissa Klurman is a freelance travel writer and editor with more than 27 years experience who reports on travel trends around the planet for Reader's Digest. Winner of a Lowell Thomas Gold Award for excellence in travel writing, she started her career as an editor at both Frommer’s and Fodor’s travel guides, then went on to write about travel for many publications including Family Traveller, Parents, and Working Mother magazines. More recently she has been a contributing editor at Saveur, Islands, and Caribbean Travel and Life and a senior contributor at Travelocity. A New Jersey native, ice cream addict, and a lifelong Bruce Springsteen fan, Klurman lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband, son, and rescue dog.