8 Great Tips for Choosing a Motel

On US road trips, I prefer to stay at independent motels.

I find that motels are a better value than hotels and motel staff provide better service and information. It can be a challenge deciding on an adequate, clean, and safe motel so I compiled this list of tips for choosing a motel to help savvy travelers.

tips for choosing a motel

8 Great Tips For Choosing a Motel

1. Save Money at an Independent Motel

Skip Motel 6 and try the nearby Mom’s Motel.

Rates at independently owned and operated motels are generally $10-25 less per night. This is because independent properties do not have to contribute to national branding (advertising and marketing campaigns).

2. Observe the Motel Traffic

When choosing a motel, I look for parking lots that are 30-75% full after 8pm. Some people should be out for dinner, shopping, or entertainment. If there are too many vehicles, then the place might be too rowdy. If there are too few vehicles, the property probably has underlying issues.

This is just a general rule; I have had great stays in properties that were nearly empty or completely full. However, various discounts are unavailable when a certain number of rooms are booked, so I prefer to find a place that has enough but not too much people.

3. Observe Motel Traffic, Part 2

In a prospective motel parking lot, I look for vehicles with out-of-state license plates mixed with local state plates. I consider it a great sign to see a variety of travelers and locals.

4. Observe Motel Traffic, Part 3

I bypass motels with a large percentage of contractor trucks. Especially on Friday nights, contract cable installers and construction workers can be a rowdy bunch. During the week, though, I might let this rule slide knowing that they will be working the next day.

tips for choosing a motel: look for fun places
The Big Texan, Amarillo, Texas

5. Watch the Motel People Traffic

The property and rate might be perfectly acceptable. When a bunch of people are just hanging around, though, I tend to move on to other motels. It is usually easy to tell if the people are long-term residents or perhaps a wedding party.

6. General Motel Condition

When it is dark, it is difficult to see the overall condition of the buildings and landscaping—especially from the main road. I look for places with decent lighting. Driving into a lit parking lot, I can tell at a glance if the building is well maintained or shabby.

A clean exterior does not always translate into nice rooms but an unkempt exterior usually means bad rooms. In addition to the condition, I pay attention to motel signs. I am a sucker for kitschy names. One of my favorite motel stays was at Mayberry Motor Inn, Mount Airy, North Carolina.

7. Motel Office Cleanliness

If a motel passes my first six visual tests, I will stop and enter the office. A clean office is a fantastic sign. If the office looks (and smells) clean, the rooms are usually in great condition.

McCool Travel tip: a curry smell in a motel office is almost always a great sign to me!

8. Preview a Motel Room

Even when a motel passes my first seven checkpoints, I usually still request to see a room. The front desk agent (who might also be the owner) will most often give me a key for the actual room I would stay in. I look at the linens, bathroom, carpets, and a/c unit. Dirty pillow cases, a/c filter, rugs, or bathroom are immediate signs to leave.

If the room smells musty, smoky (I only stay in nonsmoking rooms), or like pets, I will pass. Otherwise, it is a safe bet that I would strongly consider staying in a room that looks and smells clean.

It is a rare motel that does NOT have a mini refrigerator, microwave, and coffee maker in every room. So, motel stays also help me save money on dining costs. Major selling points for me are motel rooms with large flat screen TVs and fluffy pillows.

Since the motel front desk agents are imbedded locals, I find the quality of their suggestions (for dining and activities) to be better than hotel staff. Even better, independent motels are much more likely to negotiate rates than motel chains or hotels, have free wi-fi (which is typically stronger than at hotel chains), and have free parking right next to the rented room.

Road trip habits of happy travelers include enjoying the journey, knowing when to make and break rules, and finding great travel deals.
Funky Mayberry themed motel in Mount Airy, North Carolina

Do you have any other factors to consider when choosing a motel?

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16 thoughts on “8 Great Tips for Choosing a Motel”

  1. I like your advice about staying in motels that are not completely full but not nearly empty as well to ensure it’s not too rowdy or too sketchy. My fiance and I would benefit from this advice since we plan on going on a road trip soon. We would be staying in a few motels for our trip, so thanks for this!

  2. I hadn’t thought of driving by to see the type of people who are staying at a motel before I would choose to stay there, but it seems like a good idea. My wife and I are going to go on vacation this fall, and it will be important for us to be confident in the motel that we would choose to stay in. When we look for one, I will be sure to drive by to see the people who are outside.

  3. I thought that it was helpful that you suggested to check the cleanliness of the office of a motel before you choose it. My wife and I want to go on a trip, and we would need to stay in a motel. I will be sure to look for one that has a clean office.

  4. I do like that you recommend previewing a room if they will allow you to. After all, it helps to get an idea of what kind of room you’ll be staying in before you decide to pay for it. This is where booking online can help as most motels and hotels will put up pictures of their rooms for potential guests to see.

  5. I agree, when you’re choosing a motel to stay in stuff like the property condition is definitely something you’ll want to look for. After all, you will want to make sure that the motel you’re staying in is clean and well taken care of. Ideally, the staff should emphasize cleanliness and deal with maintenance problems as soon as possible.

  6. I recently had a good stay at a small motel and it has me wondering why I’ve always passed them up before. Thanks for the tips, going to use them in a couple of weeks!

  7. I’m planning a vacation and want to get a motel to stay in. I had no idea that when looking at a motel you should check for local and out of state licensed places as it’s a good sign to see a variety of travelers. Something else to consider is to get a motel whose prices that are within your budget so that you have more money for fun activities.

  8. I have always avoided the smaller mom and pop motels and now will consider one to test it out.
    Lots of good points, thanks Charles.

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