Summer is supposed to be carefree. It’s the season of spontaneous getaways, taken in the throes of nice weather, a few days off, and the appeal of the open road. However, as every American seems to have the same idea come July and August, a little advance planning could help you avoid crowds and high prices, and change your getaway from good to great.
Hitting the road
Do you need to make lodging reservations for your road trip this summer? Mark Sedenquist, publisher of RoadTripAmerica.com, says the answer depends on how much risk you can handle. “For many people, the thought of not knowing where they are going to spend the night or even how far they would drive is terrifying and not relaxing. For someone who is going to spend all day fretting … reservations are pretty important. On the other hand, for someone who is willing to let the road, the weather, even one’s mood determine a destination, a reservation-free trip can be full of adventure and fun.”
Reservations can also promote road and vacation safety. “Advance reservations are a good thing in that it disciplines you as a driver not to drive when you’re too tired,” says David Raposa, director of public affairs, AAA Southern New England. “If you’ve made your reservation in advance, at that six-hour mark, you know you’re going to stop.”
Where to look if you don’t have a reservation
“It is usually easy to find accommodations at exits on the interstate highway system,” notes Sedenquist. “Those motels were placed there to accommodate travelers who have not made reservations anywhere.”
“The bigger the destination, the more properties you’re going to have,” says Raposa. “Philadelphia will have more options than the middle of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Typically, you’ll find lodging establishments fairly close to highways or secondary roads. You can certainly draw a radius around a city or particular tourist attraction—Six Flags, for example, in western Massachusetts—within a couple of miles from here, I should find ‘x’ number of places.”
Sedenquist also recommends stopping by an area visitor center. “Welcome centers [are] usually one of the first exits from a highway in a new state. All stock motel coupons and often the volunteers will assist in finding rooms.”
Hit the books
Having a guidebook with area hotels can be a good resource to take along on your trip. “If you’re going to be on the road and won’t have access to the Internet, AAA tour books are pretty handy to have, and you’ll have an idea of what to look for,” notes Raposa. He suggests using a AAA guide when you’re ready to stop for the night. “You can look at the map, see the signs, see an upcoming Best Western or Choice [hotel], and can call ahead and book right there: ‘I’m 15 minutes away, do you have rooms?'”
Whatever type of guidebook you choose, just make sure it’s up to date. You wouldn’t want to pull off the road toward your chosen hotel, only to find it’s been closed down.
Know your chances
Any road tripper should know where the crowds will be, as well as what types of accommodations will be popular. Seaside towns and mountain-and-lake retreats are favorites of summer travelers, ski destinations will be full in winter, and Las Vegas draws crowds in any season. “Areas around seasonal resorts and the most popular of the national parks book weeks ahead in the summer months,” says Sedenquist, “Also, there are boutique B&Bs and special inns that fill nearly every night, and it can be rare to find drop-in lodging at them.”
In a pinch, it can be a good idea to network. Sedenquist recommends asking motel owners with no vacancy to call colleagues on your behalf—this may save time for you hunting for a place on your own.
Search for deals
“One of the delights of reservation-free travel is that sometimes you can obtain a wonderful room at a huge discount,” advocates Sedenquist. Ask the welcome center representative, motel owner, or fellow travelers for recommendations. They may be aware of discounts at premier properties in the area you’re visiting.
Additionally, AAA discounts can shave a few dollars off your nightly room rate. Also check in to other memberships, such as discounts for students, military members and veterans, teachers, and other associations.
If you can do some advance planning, there are many places to look to find a last-minute deal for a road trip. Site59 offers getaway options, including hotel-and-car packages, for travel within two weeks of booking. Hotels.com has seasonal sale rates.
Wherever you travel this summer, a flexible attitude and having a few resources on hand can be invaluable. So pack a guidebook and map, your cell phone, and a full tank of gas, and see where the road takes you.