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Cheap Hotels Buying Guide

We researched many of the nation's best-known economy-priced hotel chains, and while all have their ups and downs, Days Inn (double room starting at about $70 a night) and Microtel (double room starting at about $80 a night) stand out as the best options. Both offer more desirable amenities and benefits than the competition, including guaranteed Wi-Fi and free breakfast, and also receive high marks from guests for performance in most locations.

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Two second-best cheap hotel chains are Red Roof Inn (double room starting at about $70 a night), which boasts strong reviews but is a bit stingy with amenities, and Motel 6 (double room starting at about $55 a night), which slips slightly in performance ratings but offers one of the lowest prices for a night's sleep. Many Knights Inn (double room starting at about $65 a night) locations should be "drive-bys," reviewers advise, due to outdated and dirty facilities and generally unaccommodating staff. Another chain, Super 8 (double room starting at about $75) is often a safe choice but failed to qualify as a best cheap hotel due to prices that have been climbing, fewer money-saving deals, and relatively more mixed reviews.

This guide to cheap hotel chains offers tips on what to look for when perusing reviews posted by previous guests and the benefits and amenities that even frugal travelers can expect in the better-performing chains. Although much of what makes a hotel acceptable is service and comfort, several other factors are worth considering when making travel arrangements. If you're a smartphone user and/or always carry a laptop, look for places with free Wi-Fi; if you're a frequent traveler, a loyalty program might earn you free nights or even miles to trade for airline tickets. Some sustenance at the start of the day may be high on your list of priorities; ditto for a location near downtown, the airport, a beach, but far from neighborhoods that seem sketchy.

At the end of the day, though, if you're just looking for a place to rest, most locations belonging to the best of the cheap hotel chains will meet your standards. The room will be clean (that goes for the bathroom, too) and contain a comfortable bed; check-in will be simple and speedy; and employees will be friendly and helpful. Our research indicates that business travelers often care more about friendly service and a relaxing room while leisure travelers seem more interested in amenities, like breakfast and a pool, especially when traveling with children.

It is important to note that within all price categories, budget and otherwise, there is lots of variation in room rates, physical facilities, amenities, and service. Price differences typically reflect location. If you're in a metropolitan area like New York City or Chicago, say, hotel prices across the board are higher, although the chains on our list likely will be among the cheapest. The day of the week and time of year also affect rates. Weekdays tend to be more expensive than weekends, for example, and holidays and in-seasons (e.g., leaf-peeping in October in New England) usually correlate with higher prices.

Additionally, many national hotel chains are operated as franchises, and those we researched follow this model. This means that despite the best efforts of corporate headquarters, there's only so much uniformity in facilities, features, and service. Some mass surveys, by J.D. Power and Consumer Reports for example, compile meta data that refer to the chains as a whole. Guest reviews posted online of specific locations, meanwhile, may deviate wildly from the survey norms. So when choosing a cheap hotel chain for your next trip, use our assessment of performance and features as a starting point but make sure to check out the particular properties you'll be visiting.

by Lee Stevens (Google+ Profile)

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