Five years ago we did a post on the best cheap hotel chains in the USA and for quite a while it was one of our most popular posts. It’s understandable that people want some kind of shortcut when choosing between hotels/motels that all seem very similar in what they offer. Plus we’ve all stayed at some terrible, dirty place that was a “name brand” but independently owned and poorly run. These are the kinds of places you see the host trying to fix on Hotel Impossible.
There’s never a sure thing, so if you’re booking a cheap hotel, this is when you should invest 10 minutes to look at the online reviews. You can go to TripAdvisor of course, but also the hotel booking services themselves have been nagging customers to death to review the places they’ve stayed. Enough of them have done that now that you can often see right on the booking site which places are lousy. Yesterday I booked a city airport hotel on Booking.com where the $65 place 4 miles from the airport had a review score of 5.5. The $59 place 8 miles from the airport had a review score of 9.8. Easy decision; I didn’t even need to read the individual reviews to know it’s worth a longer taxi ride.
Trivago gives you a meta score based on the aggregate reviews of the different booking sites they’re pulling data from. If you’re headed to Asia, you can probably just book with Agoda and be assured you have the best selection and review depth. In the USA it’s not so cut-and-dry, so Trivago may send you to Priceline, Expedia, Hotels.com, or the property’s own site.
Chain Hotels With a Good Reputation
Consumer Reports, who I pulled data from before, hasn’t done one of these hotel surveys for quite a while. JD Power & Associates just released the results of their recent customer satisfaction survey though, so we’ll use that.
I’ll skip the luxury and upscale categories since those are predictable and if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably not a frequent guest of the Ritz-Carlton. Here’s who came out on top in the lower categories:
Upper Midscale: Drury Hotels (for a 12th consecutive year)
Midscale: Wingate by Wyndham (for a 3rd consecutive year)
Economy: Americas Best Value Inn
Upper Extended Stay: Staybridge Suites
Extended Stay: Candlewood Suites
It’s interesting hat these are all from different companies except the last two, which are both part of the IHG group. Here’s how the rest of the group played out in the midscale category:
Chart by J.D. Power & Associates
Here’s where everything came in for the Economy category.
If you ask me what the worst chain hotel I stayed in the past few years was, I would have vividly bad memories of a Quality Inn motel in Virginia that was the opposite of quality. I’m not surprised they’re scraping the bottom, along with Ramada, Rodeway Inn, and Knights Inn. (Something heard never: “That Knights Inn we stayed in was really nice!”)
You’ll notice that Wyndham properties have the #1 and #2 spots in these two categories though, which leads us to the next section. Which loyalty program earns you something back the easiest?
The Best Hotel Loyalty Programs
Most people get a little thrill out of getting something for free. If you show a little loyalty with a specific hotel chain, you can earn points that will get you a free hotel room and/or extra perks. (I have to say that Bonwi pays you back faster than any of these branded ones, but this survey is not about booking sites.)
I’ve personally had a tough time earning much with Starwood, have gotten a few nights with Hilton Honors, and have scored over and over again with the IHG group. I just spent two nights at a Holiday Inn Express in South Carolina for just 20K points total—quite a bargain.
Looking at this data-driven report from Wallethub put out last year, Wyndham Rewards snagged the #1 spot overall and they were the winner in a lot of individual categories too. So I think it’s safe to say if you can stay at Wyndham brand hotels a lot, you’ll probably be on your way to freebies faster than with any other chain.
Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach in Florida
This U.S. News and World Report round-up put Marriott’s program at the top, so if you travel a lot for your job that might be the best choice. They have more business hotels in the right locations around the world, so that probably gave them an edge. Wyndham Rewards did come in at #2 there though and the main criticism was that they don’t have a lot of high-end properties.
If you’re a budget traveler though, there are two others to consider. Choice Privileges came in at #3 on the second survey and fared pretty well in many other categories in the other one. My main beef with them is the short expiration time on points. If you’re an infrequent guest, Best Western may be the best choice: their points never expire.
With all of them, the way to really rack up points in a hurry is to get their credit card. That changes the whole equation on who is “best” because you get a big sign-up bonus and then points earned depend on your spending. IHG also gives you a free night at any property each year when you renew—which means paying an annual fee can pay you back 3X or more.
I can’t promise picking the best chain will help you find cheap hotels near Central Park in New York or in the heart of San Francisco, but you’ll know which ones are less likely to disappoint.