Which are the best cheap hotel chains in the USA? According to the most reputable consumer satisfaction survey out there, it would be Drury Hotels, Tru by Hilton, and SureStay Hotel by Best Western in the three lowest-priced tiers. Those were the winners in 2020 and they came through again in 2021, a period where many hotels struggled and others filled up, so that’s a testament to keeping guests happy.
It was a close race in some of the categories though, plus it’s always fun to look at who came out on the bottom too, so let’s dive into the results.
This latest batch of data is from the 2021 J.D. Power and Associates hotel brand satisfaction survey in the USA. As the list of hotel chains seems to grow each year and it’s harder to keep track of them all, it’s good to see a survey that has the hotel brands ranked.
People love ratings and satisfaction surveys, especially when it comes to services that are going to potentially cost them hundreds of dollars. It’s understandable that people want some kind of shortcut, even when choosing between economy hotel chains and economy motel brands 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. The “free breakfast” was undrinkable coffee, fake juice, and stale pastries wrapped in plastic. These are the kinds of places you see the host trying to fix on the TV show 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.
When I was doing this post a few years ago I booked a city airport hotel on Booking.com for a layover stay 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 was worth a longer taxi ride.
HotelsCombined 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 HotelsCombined or a full lodging aggregator like cozycozy may send you to Priceline, Expedia, Hotels.com, or the property’s own site.
When you get the final booking site, almost all of them will have some kind of user ratings for the options in your hotel budget and the reviews will probably be from actual guests. With Tripadvisor you never know if they actually stayed there or not. I’ve seen reviews where someone was clearly paid to post something and they used the same template as another review, raving about a great fitness center in a hotel that doesn’t even have one, for instance.
Cheap Chain Hotels With a Good Reputation
Consumer Reports hasn’t done one of these cheap hotel chains surveys for quite a while. When they last did, in 2016, they had this in the intro after saying the average hotel price was $111: “Upscale and moderate hotels give a lot of bang for the buck, but most budget hotels earned low scores for value, comfort, service, and upkeep.” Ouch.
They also noted this oddity, which makes many self-employed business owners take their business down a notch out of principle. “Oddly, luxury hotels are most likely to nickel-and-dime guests on such basics as Internet access (usually $10 to $20 per day).” Or they fold it into an annoying “resort fee,” whether they’re really a resort or not. The cheaper hotels will almost always provide Free Wi-Fi, though see the reviews to see if it’s actually fast enough for getting real work done.
Unfortunately, the resort fee rip-offs have gotten even more widespread since then, so don’t believe the first room rate you see on the booking site: many hotels will then reach into your pocket again for services that should be included in the rates, but aren’t. You won’t run into that much in the very cheapest categories, but in some locations like Las Vegas and Clearwater Beach, it’s a widespread plague. The only major resort in Sin City that doesn’t reach in your pocket twice is the Virgin Las Vegas.
JD Power & Associates releases the results of their travel industry studies each year so it’s more current than most. We’ll use that one for this update on hotel brands at the lower end of the scale.
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 Ritz-Carlton or Wyndham Grand anyway. Here’s who came out on top in the bottom three categories, where the cheap hotel chains compete.
The lowest category with low-cost hotel chains is called Economy in this survey. Former winner Microtel slid down to third this time. They weren’t all that far behind the two above them though: America’s Best Value Inn at number two and SureStay Hotel by Best Western at the top. All three of these are owned by larger brands but these logos are the ones with the most affordable rates. The corporate owner is obvious for the top entry, but Red Lion bought the America’s Best Value Inn brand a few years ago and then Sonesta swallowed up Red Lion. Microtel Inn is owned by Wyndham.
You’ll see Wyndham’s name on here a lot actually in different categories, good and bad, as they’ve been on an acquisition spree over the past five years. If you travel a lot in the USA, it’s probably worth joining up with their loyalty program, also highly rated. More on that in a minute.
Be advised that the “micro” part of the Microtel motel chain name is there for a reason. In my experience, their guest rooms are about half the size of those at a Holiday Inn Express. You get what you pay for. But when people just want a cheap place to crash, they’re happy with the value for money.
The other cheap hotel chains with an above-average score, as you can see in the J.D. Power chart, were In-Town Suites, Econo Lodge, Days Inn by Wyndham, WoodSpring Suites, Travelodge, and Red Roof Inn. The overall score comes from the booking process, check-in, the room, price, and other factors.
Up a Notch for the Best Budget Hotel Brands
When we go up to the Midscale category, the reigning champ for years, Wingate by Wyndham, got knocked off its perch and slipped to the second spot. Tru by Hilton scored a good bit higher to take the gold and the third entry was only a few points behind Wingate: Candlewood Suites. That last one is part of the IHG Group and I’ve stayed at a few of their locations in two countries, on points for free nights and paid. I’ve found them to be a good value since they have a kitchen and living room lounging area with a pull-out bed for a kid. They’re great for longer stays.
The midscale budget hotel brands that also got an above-average score were only a shade behind these top ones. There were only three more: the oddly named AmericInn by Wyndham that always looks like a typo, Best Western, and Sleep Inn. Be advised that in the USA, these lowest category entries are not always in a convenient location if you don’t have a car. They’re seldom in the city center and tend to be roadside motels better suited for a road trip than a city vacation where you arrived by plane.
The next category up, called Upper Midscale, is often where you can find the best overall value, especially in foreign countries where overall rates are lower. These are often under $100 per night in U.S. cities and $40 to $70 in Mexico and Central America. These discount hotel chains offer affordable prices and are generally clean, well-run, at not at the level where they try to charge you for WiFi or tack on a rip-off resort fee.
The winner in this category was Drury Hotels, an independent chain that has been winning this category for as long as I can remember. They get high marks for nice rooms, a great complimentary breakfast buffet, and friendly staffers. Their lead over the number two entry was not very large this time though, so TownePlace Suites by Marriott is nipping at their heels. Close behind that is another all-suite brand: Home2Suites by Hilton, Then an IHG property is only a few points back: Holiday Inn Express—also offering free coffee and breakfast.
The other two Upper Midscale hotel brands that garnered an above-average score were Hampton Inn by Hilton and Fairfield by Marriott. So you’ve got good choices for the big loyalty programs if you’re banking points.
The Worst Budget Hotel Chains in the USA
If you ask me what the worst chain hotel I stayed in over the past decade 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 of these categories, along with Ramada, Rodeway Inn, and Knights Inn. (Something heard never: “That Knights Inn we stayed in was really nice!”)
The bottom of the Economy level entries, with the lowest overall scores of the 102 brands in the survey, were (starting with the very worst) Knight’s Inn, Rodeway Inn, Extended Stay America, and Motel 6.
In the next category up, the worst scores went to Baymont Inn by Wyndham, Sandman Hotels, Quality Inn, and two more Wyndham budget brands. It should be noted though that the average score in this Midscale category is above all but the #1 entry in the Economy category. Another $10 or $20 per night can make a big difference in the motel world, even if you are trying to get around as budget travelers. The option with the best rates is not always a great value.
In the Upper Midscale category, the worst hotel chains were Clarion, Comfort Inn, Holiday Inn, and Country Inn & Suites by Radisson. If you’re looking for an easy rule of thumb, no Clarion or Ramada brands scored well in any category. They often seem to be old and poorly maintained. Many of the other brands that have been around a long time seem to suffer from inconsistency. I’ve stayed in a couple of brand-new Holiday Inns that were great, others that were well past their prime. Best Western Plus scored below average, but some of them are great, like this Copper Canyons one in Creel.
The Best Hotel Loyalty Programs
Most people get a little thrill out of getting something for free. If you show some loyalty with a specific hotel chain, you can earn points that will get you a free hotel room and/or extra perks. You can really upgrade your vacation if you bank points and miles for future travels, especially by getting the right credit cards.
I’ve personally had a tough time earning much with Hyatt, have gotten a few nights with Hilton Honors, and have scored over and over again with the IHG group. More than a dozen times I have gotten nights at an IHG property (Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, or Candlewood Suites usually) for 5K to 20K points a night—quite a bargain.
Looking at this data-driven report from Wallethub put out a year ago, Wyndham Rewards snagged the #1 spot overall again 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. Their report noted that “Wyndham Rewards offers up to $13.46 in rewards value per $100 spent – most among major hotel loyalty programs.”
I actually added the Wyndham Rewards credit card to my wallet last year and got a 60K points bonus after meeting the initial spending requirement. I kept spending and staying, so I’ve still got that many points in my balance, but I cashed some in for a an airport hotel in Houston and a great Wyndham Esplendor in Patagonia, Argentina.
Who else topped this list? Fortunately for you, mostly not the most expensive brands. The others in the top-5 were Radisson, Best Western, Choice Privileges (up from #5 the year before) and Marriott Bonvoy. I’ve personally found Marriott points to be worth less than with the other chains, a situation that seems to get worse each year when they recategorize properties and make the program even more complicated. Wyndham, on the other hand, only has three simple tiers.
With all of the hotel loyalty programs–which usually assure free Wi-Fi by the way–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. For the past two years, I’ve paid $49 a year for the fee, but gotten $469 in value back from the two included hotel stays. Marriott also gives you a free night on renewal if you have one of their premium cards.
Yes, You Can Bargain on Hotel Rates
Don’t forget that you have the power to bargain for the lowest price they’ll accept, especially if you’re staying multiple nights or it’s outside of high season. That’s true for budget hotels and upscale ones alike. Here’s what Consumer Reports had to say on that subject:
Only 28 percent of survey respondents tried bargaining, yet 78 percent of those who did won an upgrade or a lower rate. (Success rates were higher for people who haggled over the phone than for those who did in person.) When we challenged 16 students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism to get hotel rates reduced, all succeeded, scoring discounts of 5 to 32 percent.
Hotels aren’t allowed to publish rates that are lower than they offer on the booking sites like Expedia, but they have ways around that. First of all, they are not “publishing” a rate when they discount it on Hotwire. That’s because you don’t see the exact hotel until you book it. They can also offer a lower rate to their loyalty members. So sign up and maybe get their credit card for good measure.
But in the “It doesn’t hurt to ask” category, calling up a hotel to get a better deal can often pay off. This is especially true of franchises or independently owned hotels. Even if it says Marriott, for example, it’s probably not really owned by Marriott—just managed by them. The actual owner wants to fill every room. You may not get an actual cash discount, but you’ll almost surely get something else if you ask enough: a bigger room, a suite maybe, some kind of extra perk, or no charge for something that usually has a fee.
I can’t promise picking the best chain in this satisfaction survey 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.
How about you? Any great experiences at the cheap hotel chains in the USA?
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