The fear of staying somewhere uncomfortable or unclean tempts many frugal travelers to pay up for short-term lodging. But Cheapism's close reading of scores of guest reviews found that the best cheap hotel chains offer adequate comfort and service, with double rooms priced well south of $100 a night. In many spots around the country, properties belonging to several chains are situated right along the same street, and if the prices are the same, it can be hard to choose where to lay your head. Our research can help guide the decision-making process.
Choosing the Best Budget Hotel Chain
The acceptability of a cheap hotel depends on a variety factors, comfort and service being first and foremost. Rooms should be clean (that goes for the bathroom, too) and contain a comfortable bed. Check-in should be simple and speedy, and employees should be friendly and helpful. Amenities may be sparse, but ideally a budget hotel offers free Wi-Fi and sustenance at the start of the day. Loyalty programs that earn free nights and other rewards are sometimes a big draw. And a safe, convenient location goes without saying.
At the end of the day, if the goal is simply finding a place to rest, most locations belonging to the top budget chains meet these basic standards. We researched many of the nation's best-known economy-priced hotel chains, and while all have their ups and downs, Days Inn (starting at about $70) and Microtel Inn & Suites (starting at about $75) stand out as the best options. Both offer more desirable perks than the competition, including guaranteed Wi-Fi and free breakfast, and guest reviews award most locations high marks for value and overall performance.
The two runners-up are Red Roof Inn (starting at about $65) and Motel 6 (starting at about $60). The former garners strong reviews but is a bit stingy with amenities, and the latter slips slightly in ratings and amenities but offers one of the lowest prices for a night's sleep.
Many Knights Inn (starting at about $55) locations should be "drive-bys," guest reviews advise, due to outdated and dirty facilities and generally unaccommodating staff. Another chain, Super 8 (starting at about $75), is usually a safe choice but fails to qualify for this list due to prices that have been climbing and fewer money-saving deals. Other well-known economy chains include Econo Lodge, Travelodge, and Rodeway Inn.
Within all price categories, budget and otherwise, there is lots of variation in room rates, physical facilities, amenities, and service both within and between hotel chains. Many hotel chain properties are operated as franchises, and the six chains discussed in detail here follow this model. (Depending on the brand, a hefty percentage of locations may remain company owned and operated.) This means that despite the best efforts of corporate headquarters, there's only so much uniformity in facilities, features, and service across locations. Accordingly, our overall assessment of performance and features is only a starting point. Be sure to check out the particular property before handing over a credit card.
Price differences in large part reflect location. In a metropolitan area like New York City or Chicago, lodging costs across the board are higher, although the chains on our list are typically among the cheapest. The day of the week and time of year also affect rates. Weekdays tend to be more expensive than weekends, and holidays and high seasons (e.g., leaf-peeping in October in New England) usually correlate with higher prices.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Hotel Reviews: What We Considered
To get an overall impression of the most popular budget hotel chains, we consulted mass surveys conducted by organizations such as J.D. Power and Associates and Consumer Reports, which compile meta data that reflect on the chains as a whole. We also combed through scores of guest reviews and found that assessments of specific locations posted on sites such as Orbitz, Travelocity, and TripAdvisor can deviate wildly from the survey norms.
Our research indicates that business travelers often care more about friendly service and a relaxing room while leisure travelers seem more interested in amenities such as breakfast and a pool, especially with children in tow. Reviews indicate that guests of low-priced hotel chains generally know not to expect frills or luxury amenities. What they want is a clean, relatively up-to-date room and friendly staff -- all standards that the better economy operations generally meet, as evidenced in online comments and ratings. When a particular property earns a lower rating, it's usually due to poor performance in one or both of these dimensions but sometimes reflects a bad location or irritants like late-night noise in the hallway or next door. The phrase "you get what you pay for" pops up often in reviews of budget hotels -- for better or worse -- and seems to signal acceptance of conditions given the savings.
Locations.The value of a hotel chain lies in plentiful and easily accessible locations. Availability promises travelers convenience, reassurance, familiarity, and often an opportunity to earn reward points. On the downside, a large number of chain-affiliated properties may mean more variability in quality.
Among the national chains we researched, Super 8 is the runaway leader with about 2,500 sites bearing its logo. Next in line are Days Inn with about 1,700 properties and Motel 6 with about 1,200. Red Roof Inn, Microtel, and Knights Inn are substantially smaller operations, each claiming approximately 400 locations; the first two are concentrated primarily in the eastern half of the United States. In general, economy hotels are clustered around cities large and small, in commercial areas, and along major highways. Some, such as Super 8, also pop up in more rural spots.
Cleanliness.The architecture may be stunning and the staff all courteous smiles, but the cleanliness factor can make or break the perception of a particular hotel. Cleanliness is mentioned in nearly every hotel review we read. Even in the budget category, where travelers knowingly forego silk sheets and cushy easy chairs, a dirty/smelly room, lobby, or hallway is a cardinal sin. Irate patrons often post images in their reviews as evidence of deplorable conditions and others rail about misleading advertising that artificially pumps up the quality and physical condition of a property (or states policies that management ignores).
The franchise/decentralized business model often means that conditions vary from location to location within a chain. Online ratings of a particular brand may range from 4-star averages on some sites to 1- or 2-star averages on others. Travelers' reviews often describe rooms at Red Roof Inn as quiet and clean, while Knights Inn often loses points on sites like Orbitz and Yelp specifically for unkempt and grimy rooms, lobbies, and hallways. Motel 6 is the target of complaints about cleanliness at some properties, with the issue arising more often in metropolitan areas. Assessments of cleanliness at Super 8 locations are both critical and favorable, sometimes for the same facility, but skew positive overall.
Comfort.Travelers who stay at budget hotels often write a perfunctory "comfortable" if the room is sufficient or "uncomfortable" when it fails to meet even the most basic standard. That said, reviews indicate that guests are far more likely to stay with a particular brand if sleep was restful and the room pleasant on a previous visit. For budget hotels, that mostly means providing lump-free mattresses, relatively contemporary decor, and sufficient space to store belongings.
Reviews of Microtel often mention comfort but usually only in general terms, while assessments of Red Roof Inns on Orbitz note the comfort of the beds. The company has been updating furnishings and adding in-room amenities, so the investment seems to be paying off. Many Days Inn guests also make a point of noting how relaxing the beds and pillows seem. Judgments about Motel 6 are more of a mixed bag, and darts thrown at Super 8 primarily focus on the dated and plain decor, which likewise is undergoing a full-scale refresh.
Free Wi-Fi.It's hard to be without an Internet connection these days, especially when traveling. In its absence, guests may get grumpy. According to J.D. Power's annual surveys, free hotel Wi-Fi is one of three top factors affecting guest satisfaction. (The other two are breakfast and parking; many miffed reviewers indeed grouse about limited parking at certain sites and express outrage when forced to pay.)
Even budget hotel operators seem to recognize the value of this amenity. Microtel, Super 8, Red Roof Inn, and most Days Inn locations guarantee free connectivity. Fees may apply at Motel 6 sites, and Knights Inn properties with Wi-Fi almost always charge users.
Free Breakfast.Free food in the morning is a staple at some budget hotels and absent at others. While guest reviews of the hotels' breakfast offerings are mixed even when the meal is free, most consider this amenity both a money saver and a stress reducer: Few travelers want to begin the day foraging far and wide. Reviews indicate that frugal guests are more than satisfied with the free continental breakfast at Microtel, Days Inn, and Super 8, all chains whose corporate headquarters require this amenity be offered. Franchise owners of Red Roof Inns have the option of providing breakfast, so if this is an important amenity, check before reserving a room. Motel 6 guarantees complimentary coffee at every location but no breakfast. Only participating Knights Inns offer a complimentary morning repast.
Other Amenities.Freebies can induce budget-minded travelers to book a room at a particular hotel. Red Roof Inn and Motel 6 allow pets at no charge, and kids younger than 17 stay free at Motel 6 when sharing a room with parents. Attractions such as pools and gyms depend on the property; many Days Inn and Microtel locations have pools. Useful items such as hairdryers, irons, mini fridges, microwaves, and electric coffeemakers show up often. Free toiletries (shampoo, conditioner, body lotion) are common, but not universal.
Discounts and Loyalty Programs.Increasingly common in the economy bracket, hotel loyalty programs help travelers earn free nights and other perks, such as exclusive offers. Several of the chains on our list belong to the Wyndham Hotel Group, which maintains an umbrella rewards program (associated with a Visa credit card) that covers stays at any hotel in the group. Thus, frequent check-ins at Days Inn, Microtel, Knights Inn, and Super 8 eventually earn a free night in one of the network's hotels or condos, including upmarket properties such as Ramada, or a gift card from select retailers and restaurants. Red Roof Inn's RediCard applies only at that brand's hotels but offers perks such as express check-in and discounts for early booking, in addition to free nights.
Some hotel chains eschew traditional loyalty programs for other types of deals. At Motel 6, a new program called My6 offers members special savings on room rates and speedy online booking. Many chains also extend discounts to members of the military and AAA, and/or to seniors and government employees.