Consumer Reports checks out the cheap hotel and motel chains most glossy travel mags ignore.

Hampton Inn Downtown Miami

Usually when Consumer Reports magazine gets detailed feedback from its subscribers, it’s concerning physical items like cars, washing machines, and TVs. They do look at service industries as well though, including hospitality, and in a recent issue they took a close look at results on hotels.

What I liked about this one was the depth. They didn’t just focus on the big business and luxury chains like most travel magazines do. They ran through four classes of hotels, down to humble names like Econolodge and Motel 6. After all, in the real world that the 99% inhabit, these chains often have a higher occupancy than the big boys, especially on weekends when the biz travelers have gone home. (Despite the impression you may get from the print ┬átravel press, the average nightly room rate in the United States is generally around $100.)

So who came out on top? I’ll skip the top tier (Ritz-Carlton) and the second tier (Harrah’s and Walt Disney Resorts). In the Moderate category, here’s who got the highest ratings from readers:

1) Wingate by Wyndham
2) Drury Inn & Suites (Slogan: “Where the extras aren’t extra.”)
3) Hampton Inn & Suites

At the bottom were Quality Inn, Clarion, and Ramada.

In the Budget category, there were seven entries. Here are the top three:

1) Microtel (also owned by Wyndham)
2) Red Roof Inn
3) Super 8 (also owned by Wyndham)

In order, the others were Day’s Inn, Motel 6, Econolodge, and America’s Best Value (which apparently isn’t).

The ones that ranked the highest usually got a top score in the “comfort” category and “check-in” was a big factor as well.

Keep this list in mind if you’re booking online or perusing a coupon book you pick up at a rest stop—something I strongly advise on road trips where you want to stay flexible. Remember though that the individual hotels are usually franchises or independently owned in some other fashion. There’s a business arrangement there, but the brand you see on the sign doesn’t mean the Super 8 in Long Beach is the same as the Super 8 in Topeka. For budget motels, newer is generally better, all else being equal. These are not places built to still look good 200 years from now. Or even 25.

Don’t forget about the opaque booking sites.

Hotwire: 4-Star Hotels at 2 Star Prices; Save 50%Interestingly though, Consumer Reports basically said you should throw all this out the window if you want a great deal instead of just a good one: their advice was to book through Hotwire or Priceline whenever your plans are secure. They tried their best to top the deal they got through Hotwire through every means possible—including calling the front desk to request a discount—but couldn’t come close. They paid $133 for a high-end Chicago hotel in the location they wanted. The best price they could get on the same hotel, same night booking it any other way? $230.

As I’ve said before, if you’re not using sites like this, you’re paying far more than you need to—and far more than that cheerful couple in the room next door if that gets your competitive juices flowing. You don’t have to go in blind either. Use message board sites like BetterBidding, BiddingForTravel, and BidLessTravel to figure out what you’ll probably get in each star category. See links to these and more on null here.