On a recent trip, I landed in the Knoxville, Tenn., airport to find myself surrounded by hundreds of youngsters. "Who are all these kids?" asked the person in front of me in the car rental line. The agent was all too aware: "They're in the Destination ImagiNation Global Finals. It's a computer contest or something, and there are about 20,000 of them."
"Ah, that's why it was so hard to find a hotel room," said the customer. "In fact, it was impossible; we're staying out of town tonight."
Whether it's an unexpected event in a small town, a political convention (don't laugh, I know someone who got upset when he couldn't book a room during the last presidential election), or simply a holiday like the Fourth of July or New Year's — finding a hotel room can be challenging when there's no room at the inn. And since summer is peak travel time for amusement park towns, national parks, beach towns and the like, the following tips might apply even if there's nothing special going on besides the normal high-season rush. What's a shut-out traveler to do to get some shuteye?
Pick up the phone
As outlined in Choosing a hotel, despite the Web's instant and always-on compendium of lodging information, you might find out even more by getting a knowledgeable person on the phone. As that article notes, "Calling a hotel directly, rather than the chain's main number, might get you a room at the last minute or during peak travel times. National reservations desks often have a cap on the number of rooms they can fill at any given hotel, with the rest left to the specific hotel staff. Those working at the front desk have a better sense of the hotel's capacity and will be more likely to check for cancellations or no-shows."
A booking agent or front desk clerk can often offer you better rates than you'll find online, and you can make specific requests for a room with a view, a cot or crib, or a room with a work desk. I sometimes use this approach even when the online booking process shows vacancies.
Ask a local
There is absolutely no substitute for some local knowledge. No argument here, you might say, but I don't know anyone in Knoxville! Luckily, there are folks everywhere who will help, and even some who are paid to be your personal local connection.
If you are traveling for a meeting, to go to a local attraction or to attend a convention, the best first call you can make is to the organization or attraction itself. It's probably not the first time their preferred or partner hotels have been sold out, and they may be able to tell you "unpublished" alternatives, especially if you tell them your particular situation ("I have to be at my meeting by 7 a.m., so I can't have a long drive").
If that isn't an option or doesn't work, try one of the sold-out hotels anyway. Get a direct number for the hotel and simply ask the question: "Can you recommend another hotel very nearby that might have vacancies?" Chances are good that they can suggest a comparable hotel, and might even know which hotels have rooms, as you can probably bet that yours is not the first call they have received on the issue. It may also be worth calling the hotel again as your travel date approaches, in case there's a last-minute cancellation.
Next, the local chamber of commerce or tourist bureau could be your best option of all. While planning a recent trip to the U.K., I contacted the local tourist office, which directed me to a hotel with a recent cancellation, a private golf club that rents out a limited number of rooms, three bed and breakfasts, and a local college that rents out dorm rooms for a week's stay or more. In almost every case, the tourist office representatives even knew how many rooms were available and at what price; talk about local knowledge! I had my choice of several great lodging options in a location where all lodging was allegedly sold out.
This suggests another point: If all the hotels on the big booking engines seem to be sold out, you may want to try B&B's, vacation rentals or small independent hotels that can't be found on the big sites. For tips on this approach, check out Finding hidden hotel hideaways.
Buyer beware: What to look for
Sometimes "off the radar" establishments can be unacceptably downscale or well off the beaten path — too far down and out, or simply too far out of town. When given a choice between the "Berkley Suites" and the "Star Motel," it's a pretty fair guess that the Suites could be a sweet deal if price is no object, and the Star is the less stellar outfit. You might ask if the lodging would be considered a one- or no-star hotel — anything that lets you know what you're getting into.
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In the latter case, look and listen for a few key phrases for hints that you'll be too far from the action to be happy — most of them sound a lot like a pilot on a delayed plane soft-peddling your time on the tarmac. To wit:
"Just a few minutes from…"
"Just a few miles..."
"Very close to..."
"A leisurely walk or short drive from..."
"A short drive to..."
"A pleasant drive from..."
"Quick ride by car or train"
Watch also for "slash" locations such as Orlando/De Land
You get the idea. If the hotel is using vague language to describe proximity to attractions, there's a good chance it's farther than you'd like.
Use "map view"
If you really want to know where a specific joint is, either map it on a mapping service using the hotel address, or use the "map view" on one of the booking engines. The upside of the latter is that you can see availability, price and location of several hotels on one screen, and even if no availability is indicated, you can call the hotel directly as suggested above and proceed from there.
Forget about no room — there's no inn!
Friends from out of town were visiting the area with kids, and although we had their kids' days scheduled to the hilt to keep them entertained, the parents thought a day at an amusement park would make the trip a hit for the youngsters. The Six Flags Great Adventure park is "just a short drive" from our town — it's about an hour from here if you're honest — so it was an obvious choice.
The parents thought they would get an affordable hotel near the park as a good way station for the outing — to spread out a bit in a hotel after several days of staying with friends and relatives, to let the kids have a night "off" in with a movie in bed in a dark hotel room, and to get out of our hair for a night. (Good guests they are, no question.)
No brainer, right? Not so fast. If you put the nearest town to the park (Jackson, N.J.) into a booking engine, the result is basically "Huh?" (One booking engine returned results for Jackson Hole, Wyo.) The lodging page for Great Adventure lists hotels as far afield as Mount Holly — almost all the way to Philadelphia, nearly two hours away! The closest hotel — which just proves the point by advertising itself as "The Closest Franchise Hotel to Six Flags Great Adventure" — is a solid half-hour drive from the park by the time you negotiate the back roads (the hotel home page even says "Avoid Turnpike Traffic, Use Rt. 537 W"). This was clearly not the point of a cozy, recuperative night with a very short drive in the morning.
In this case, I did the following:
- Using a mapping site (MapQuest, Google Maps, etc.), I found some nearby towns that looked big enough to contain hotels.
- Using a booking engine (Expedia, Orbitz, etc.), I searched for hotels in these towns.
- Using the map view, I picked the most promising hotel by location and price, and booked it for them.
In the end, they chose a hotel near the ocean and split the difference — they spent an afternoon at the beach, collapsed in the hotel, hit the park the next morning and were back at our place for a late dinner that night.
A few years back, I used some of these same tactics when staying near family, and was eventually directed to a houseboat community that offers weekend and week-long stays, resulting in a few very memorable evenings watching the sunset and being rocked to sleep by the waves. If you see a lodging crunch as an opportunity to improve your options, and not to be shunted off to some fleabag hotel, your chances for a good night's sleep in a nice spot increase exponentially. You might even find the best room in town — or over the water.
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