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Small-town motel search

Finding a good hotel deal in a big city may require quite a bit of Web surfing, but at least you have plenty of places to look. When you need accommodations in a smaller town, however, the job can be tougher. As one reader recently asked, “We want to visit Philadelphia, Mississippi, for a few days and need a cheap hotel—how should we locate one?” Actually, you have several sources. Here are my suggestions.

The small-town motelscape

If you’ve traveled around the U.S. at all over the last few years, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that budget chains increasingly dominate the interstate highway hotel scene. It’s hard to pass an interchange in a populated area without encountering a Motel 6, Best Western, Super 8, Holiday Inn Express, or equivalent. Most are, as the Brits say, “purpose built” as budget motel properties, with the amenities you’d expect. Typically, that means cable TV, a swimming pool, vending machines but no restaurant, and—often—”free” continental breakfast.

But today’s budget chains often aren’t the least expensive options. For really bottom-end prices, the best place to look is along the former U.S. and state highways that were once the main routes through old downtown central business districts before the interstates bypassed them. Those motels have generally remained independent; many have converted from strictly transient to a mix of transient and extended-stay customers. Obviously, they show their age, but the best ones keep up with steady maintenance and refurbishing. Many include minimum kitchen facilities.

Whichever way you decide to go, you can locate possibilities easily with a few online searches.

Budget chains

All major hotel chains, including the budget ones, rely heavily on the Internet for bookings these days. Motel 6, Super 8, Days Inn, Best Western, the several budget Choice sub-chains, and others cover the nation pretty well. If you have a favorite such chain, by all means take a look at its website. Those sites are especially good about posting AAA and senior discounts that may be available.

Big online travel sites

Those big online sites—Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity—cover a surprisingly large spectrum of American cities, including some pretty small ones. Expedia, for example, shows two hotels in Philadelphia, Mississippi: a Days Inn and a Deluxe Inn (both at around $50 a night). I tried several other small towns near where I live, and found listings for such obscure places as Burns, Oregon, and Weaverville, California. However, Expedia did strike out on Cave Junction, Oregon, actually a place that enjoys a brisk tourist traffic as the gateway to the Oregon Caves National Monument. It also struck out on Burney, California, near the popular McArthur/Burney State Park.

In my experience, these sites don’t do much with the small, independent, old-highway motels. Still, starting with the big online sites is always a good idea, especially if you use a search tool such as SmarterTravel’s price-comparison tool that facilitates searches of multiple sites while requiring you to enter your trip data only once.


Whether online or in print, the AAA directory is pretty good about listing lots of hotels in even the smallest U.S. cities. AAA shows four hotels in Philadelphia, Mississippi, (the Deluxe Inn, three others, but not the Days Inn). It also shows one hotel in Cave Junction (but no rates; book by phone) and four in Burney. In some cases, you can book directly through the AAA website; in others, the site provides a link to direct booking. In most cases, the site shows the AAA “diamond” rankings.

Over the years, my experience has been that AAA is especially good for independent motels, not so good on budget chains. But it’s also a good place to start.

City websites

A city has to be pretty insignificant these days to be too small to have a website. And those city websites often list more local accommodations than any of the national sites do. Some such sites are run by city government; some by chambers of commerce or visitors bureaus. Either way, you quickly find lots of choices.

  • The website for Cave Junction, for example, lists six local motels plus a B&B, several campgrounds, and some rental cabins.
  • The site for Burney shows six motels plus a handful of resorts and rental cabins.
  • The site for my local commercial center, Medford, Oregon, lists dozens of motels, including most of the independent pre-interstate units along old U.S. Highway 99.

To find a city site, start by Googling the city. You’ll get plenty of entries for online sites that sell travel, but you can dig out the official sites pretty easily: Most city-run sites will be “.gov” rather than “.com” sites, and the chamber or visitors bureau is usually a “.org” site. Once you locate the site you want, log onto the home page, then click on a button or text line for “lodging” or equivalent. Regardless of specific terminology, they’re all pretty easy to figure out. Often, those city sites post direct links for online bookings. All in all, I suspect that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere in the U.S. that doesn’t show at least a few lodging alternatives.

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