Or maybe I should say after a long crabby day. No matter how fun our days may look in theory, traveling all day for several days in a row can leave us tired and cranky. It's important to have time to refresh in order to make the most out of each day (and not kill each other along the way). From camping, to Airbnb, to casino hotels...we've made a lot of different choices for a good (ok, decent) night's sleep. I'll let you in on how we make our lodging decisions.
1. What do you want to see? Our number one consideration when deciding where to stay is our route. We tend to fly into an area and then rent a car and drive all over the place. Our anniversary trip in early 2017 covered a 1000-mile loop through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Staying in one place wasn't an option if we wanted to see some pretty awesome stuff in all three states (and break up the driving too).
Not having a home base, though, can be exhausting. It means packing up every single morning and having to check in to a new place each night. After a couple of less than ideal motel rooms down south, I started dreading the end of the day because I never knew what we were in for with our lodging. Not exactly a great way to refresh and recuperate for the next day's schedule. Staying somewhere different each night also calls for a lot more planning up front. I planned out each day carefully in advance so that we could reserve our rooms in locations that would be convenient for where we would be in our route. There's a lot less room for spontaneity when you have to book your rooms hundreds of miles apart. One way or another, you have to end each day where you planned it months ago. Different hotels also makes it hard to save money through sites like Priceline and Expedia. If you're used to bundling your flight, hotel and car, it's possible that you'll miss out on some savings by manually booking for each stop instead of booking one hotel for the duration of your trip.
Moving from place to place on your vacation isn't for everyone, but we usually feel that it's worth the price to cover so much territory and experience lots of new places. And, hey, if you get a bad room at least you know you only have to stay there one night (trust me, that's been good news on several occasions).
2. How much do you want to spend? The next thing we think about is how much money we want to drop on hotels. The answer is almost always all little as possible. Seriously. We have pretty low standards because we are cheap! We've found, though, that a cheap hotel in the upper midwest is not the same as a cheap hotel in the south. While I would normally feel comfortable booking the cheapest of the cheap closer to home, we discovered that, for the sake of safety and cleanliness, we need to step it up a little when traveling elsewhere (particularly in the southern states). If you're going to try for cheap, read the reviews! Though we did stay in a couple places that I wouldn't go back to, I think we avoided the worst of the worst by checking out what other people had to say before pulling the trigger.
Hotels and motels aren't your only options. We've saved some money by staying in Airbnbs, cabins and even tents (more about that later). Remember to consider everything a typical hotel offers when comparing prices. We almost always take advantage of a continental breakfast when available so if we find an Airbnb that's only $15-20 cheaper than a hotel/motel in the area, we'll usually go with the hotel knowing that we would spend about that much if we had to purchase breakfast elsewhere. Brandon doesn't love the spread at most continental breakfasts but as long as they have a waffle maker, which most do in our experience, I am a happy camper. Be sure to consider hidden costs like parking, wifi, food, park pass (for camping), extra packing or money for things that a hotel would normally provide and distance from where you want to be. Yes, a room outside the city limits is going to be cheaper, but if it means a half hour commute each day to and from the city (or paying for a taxi or bus ride) it might be worth it to spend a little more in order to be closer to the action.
If you really want to save money, you can't beat the price of staying with family. We recently visited my dad in Florida and it was great. Not only did we get to spend a lot of time with him, but we had the luxury of a home base (a rarity for us) and we had our own room and bathroom. Not having your own space or staying with people that you don't know as well or with whom you have a strained relationship can negate the monetary savings real fast. You might have to choose between saving a buck and saving your sanity. Always keep in mind that the biggest need that lodging fulfills is a good night's sleep. Don't cut so many corners that you end up not sleeping all night because the people in the cheap motel room next door are screaming at each other, the shower doesn't fully shut off, it's 90 degrees in your tent, the bed is too small or you're worrying about how you're going to survive another day with those distant relatives.
3. What do you want to experience? Our first camping experience as a couple, staying in a beautiful cabin at the base of Devil's Tower, being in a historic downtown area in Iowa, enjoying a garden-themed room in a bed and breakfast, and spending time with family are some of the happy memories we have to look back on. Sure, it's great to go as cheap as possible, but do you really want to stay at a Super 8 every night when you can camp under the stars in Custer State Park? We've had some truly spectacular experiences because of where we've chosen to stay overnight. Watching the sunset behind our little cabin (complete with wifi!) along a stream in Wyoming was unforgettable. So was camping with 3,000 other people at the Gage County Fairgrounds the night before the Great American Eclipse in Beatrice, Nebraska. I didn't sleep at all that night but the prairie breeze flowing through our tent and the stars peaking through our screened window made it all worth it.
We don't usually shell out for the sake of luxury, but we will spend more (or go out of our way) to stay somewhere that is with friends or family, in a beautiful nature setting, has some historic significance or is otherwise novel and unique (that's you, Camp Pendleton base lodging). Being creative with where you stay overnight is a great way to squeeze in one last adventure for the day and can be a real bonding experience with your spouse. There's an intimacy at the end of a long day when you begin to wind down and settle into wherever you're staying for the night, asking each other "What was your favorite part of today?" and looking forward to tomorrow. It doesn't have to be every night, but once in awhile look for places that make that experience extra special and unique. When you do, plan to arrive a little earlier than normal or stay a little later in the morning. We've learned the hard way that there's nothing worse than arriving after dark and spending all of your time sleeping in a cool new place that you didn't leave enough time to enjoy (especially if you paid extra to be there).
Consider too the social experience of where you are staying. Most people know themselves enough to anticipate how much interaction they'll want with others, but it's important to keep that aspect of your overnight stay in mind. The relative anonymity that you have at a hotel is not there when you stay at an Airbnb or with family. If you're staying in a tent be prepared to hear everyone's conversations in the next tent over, to have to wait in line for the shower and to worry about your husband's snoring annoying everyone nearby! Sometimes staying with people you know (or even staying in a stranger's home) can make it awkward to do what you want to do while you're away from home - whether it's getting up early in the morning or walking around in your pjs before bed. Neither of us is very comfortable in new social situations so it's something we have to consider especially when booking an Airbnb as you'll be in someone else's home (although many hosts are prepared to match your level of interaction). On the other hand, a warm welcome, the chance to get to know new people - and to get great local recommendations - and spend time with loved ones can really enhance your trip and challenge you to get out of your comfort zone a little. If you're an animal lover, staying in other people's homes just might give you the chance for some bonus cuddles. Some of our favorite "interactions" have been with the resident cats while we're missing our three at home!
4. How much can you pack? We've recently started taking some road trips to see some of the surrounding states and I've really enjoyed the flexibility of having the whole car for packing. Of course, we've never needed to pack the car full, but knowing that we don't have to worry about how big or heavy our suitcases are is great when traveling by car (being told your checked bag is three pounds too heavy and franticly pulling stuff out to add to your already full carry on is no fun). Our last couple of road trips involved camping to not only save some money and be exactly where we wanted to be, but also for the experience of it (see above - we're big on "experience"). Unless you're going to rent your equipment, camping is just not practical if you're flying to your destination. When driving, it's nice to be able to carry everything you need with you in the car. It's like a mini mobile home. In fact, on one of the nights with the tent I eventually tried to sleep in the car out of desperation. It didn't work, but it was nice to have the option.
There's obviously some middle ground between camping and staying at the Hilton. If you're staying in lots of different places, be sure to pack accordingly. Keep in mind that just one night on your trip outside of a hotel may mean packing towels, bedding, shower shoes, toiletries, etc. If suitcase space is at a premium, you may want to avoid any lodging that doesn't have you completely covered. All hotels provide towels and toiletries, but not all Airbnbs do. You can find out ahead of time by reviewing their information or, if you don't see it listed, send them a message.
If you have multiple bags, or if you're a constant re-packer like I am, situate your stuff to be easy for the needs of the next day. You don't necessarily need to lug all your bags into each hotel if you pack effectively, and you'll be glad you put that flashlight on top when you're searching for it in the dark inside your tent. While it's usually true that "less is more" when packing, the more you travel (and the more types of lodging you try) the better you'll get at anticipating your needs and learning which items truly earn the space they take up in your bag.
5. What contingencies do you need to plan for? In the summer of 2016 we hopped over to South Dakota (and the eastern edge of Wyoming) for a long weekend. Since we were driving, we decided to try out camping for the first time as a couple. We stayed in one hotel on the way out, tented in Custer State Park, reserved an adorable log cabin at a KOA and had planned to camp at a very primitive site in the Badlands on our last night. We tend to plan for more adventurous lodging on the last night of a trip because we know that we're just heading home the next day so if we look a little wrinkled and haggard, it doesn't really matter.
What we didn't plan for, however, was that several days of moving from place to place and very full days of sightseeing left us both weary and none too excited about roughing it that night. We ended up calling around to find a room in Wall, SD (Wall Drug was going to be our first stop of the day on the way home anyway so it was pretty convenient). It wasn't the end of the world, but since we hadn't visited the Badlands earlier because we were planning to stay the night at the very end we missed out on seeing them altogether (on that trip) and we missed out on the bragging rights of bare bones camping in the Badlands. Ha.
We've also been caught scrambling for a room at the last minute even with reservations. In Baton Rouge our hotel called us at 4 pm to tell us that they let our room go because I thought it was paid for when I booked and they, for some reason, weren't willing to wait for us to arrive later in the evening to check in/pay for the room. We book a lot of rooms through Hotels.com to earn free nights and some of them charge your card during booking and some of them don't (something we learned the hard way). That left us standing on the sidewalk in a new city trying to find another place to stay. Check (and double check) your reservations and make a note of check in times as well. That experience made us paranoid so for the rest of the trip we always called ahead to make sure that it was ok to check in late (which was our routine after exploring all day). Airbnbs also typically have a check in window, although we have found most hosts to be very accommodating if you communicate with them ahead of time.
Another time we figured we would check into our cabin at the base of Devil's Tower while it was still light out and visit the monument shortly before the visitor center closed. We thought there would be plenty of restaurants nearby by to grab dinner before turning in for the night. Little did we know that everything within a 30-mile radius was closed, partly because it was a Sunday evening and partly because the area was much more remote than we realized. We had an amazing meal that night, but neither of us were thrilled to make the unexpected 60-mile round trip for it especially in the pitch black night on roads totally unfamiliar to us. Don't count on there being restaurants, a Walmart or gas stations near your lodging. If you're going to need something, find out ahead of time where you can get it so you don't end up going way out of your way or wasting a bunch of time.
Finally, a rather big curveball we've been thrown in a few areas is the lack of cell service. On that same trip above to Devil's Tower, we didn't start even searching for places to eat until we were on our way to the monument. If, like us, you're used to doing some planning on the fly you can end up like a fish out of water when all your resources for directions, communication and research (i.e. your cell phone) are suddenly not available. Not only does your map stop updating, but if you do get lost you can't call anyone for help. Many of us are used to letting our apps tell us step by step directions, but it's always a good idea to look through the whole set of directions before you leave so you can get to where you're going if service cuts out. Considering downloading a regional map (or bringing a physical one) that you can look at in a pinch. A park map totally saved us when our phones cut out while looking for our campground in winding roads of Custer State Park after dark. And whether it's bringing an external charger, or just using your phone sparingly, make sure you have enough battery life to get you through times of little to no electricity when you're camping. Some of the most beautiful places on earth will demand your full attention (by rendering your phone useless).
No matter how well you've planned, there's always something you don't know about the new places you're visiting. My sister-in-law told me of a time when her family was on vacation when she was little. When they got to their hotel for the night, her parents weren't confident that it was safe and they ended up driving through the night. I'm sure it wasn't fun for anyone, but it was better than risking it at a shady establishment. It may be rare, but situations like that can and do happen. Practice running through different scenarios in your head to make sure you've got some back up plans (and the resources to execute them), and remember that some of the best (or at least most entertaining) stories come out those unexpected circumstances.
Bottom Line: It might seem like the least interesting aspect of your travels, but putting some extra thought into where you will be staying each night can really make or break your trip. Ask yourself these questions to make planning your accommodations easy!