When should you save money on a hotel room?

Lodging is one of the biggest expenses of travel. Find a way to save money on that and suddenly a family vacation can become affordable.

But how do you know when it’s OK to go cheap? Here are a few times when there’s no point in spending a lot on lodging and a recommendation on how to know it’s not too cheap:

1. You won’t be there long.

This is best for those long road trips. You just need a (reasonably) comfortable bed and a shower. If you’re traveling with kids who have been cooped up in car seats for hours, you need one more thing: a pool. They have to work out the kinks and they deserve a treat. So don’t scrimp so much that there’s no pool. Tip: Always check to be sure the pool is operating and open the hours you will need it. My kids had meltdowns the time we checked into a hotel only to find out the pool was closed for repairs.

2. The lower-priced hotels offer lots of freebies.

Unlike business-rate hotels that might have nicer lobbies and higher-thread-count sheets, budget hotels such as Super 8 and Hampton Inns offer something more important to families on a budget: free wifi and free breakfast. Kids are hungry when they get up. They don’t necessarily want to wait for breakfast while you shower, pack, check out and find a restaurant. Take them downstairs (in the jammies if necessary), let them fill up on cereal or make a waffle while you suck down that first, all-important cup of coffee. Then head back to the room to shower, pack and check out. Tip: If you’ll be staying in a hotel for only one night on your way to your final destination, pack an overnight bag with just the supplies you need for the night–pajamas, underwear, toothbrushes, swimsuits, etc. That way you won’t have to unpack the entire trunk each night.

How do you know is the hotel is a good deal or just cheap?

I have stayed in Days Inns for $49 a night (including breakfast and wifi) that were just fine. Ditto for small family-owned motels. And I once booked an online deal to hotel that was so bad I refused to sleep there, even though they kept my money.

So how do you know whether a low-cost hotel is going to be a good deal? If you find a chain hotel you like, stick with it. For my family, road trips usually mean at least one stay at a Hampton Inn. They line America’s highways and I have yet to have a bad experience at a Hampton. We also like the Marriott Suites for those times when we want a little more space.

If you don’t have a favorite hotel chain, look at review sites like TripAdvisor (keeping in mind that the people who had a bad experience are more likely to write about it). Finally, before you book, call the local tourism bureau or chamber of commerce. Don’t ask whether a hotel is OK. They won’t want to speak ill of a dues-paying member of the chamber. Instead ask, “If you were booking a low-cost hotel for your family, which one would you choose?”

Cindy Richards is the mom of two, a long-time travel writer and the editor of TravelingMom.com, a website for moms who travel with and without their kids.

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