Cheap tips on lodging, car rental, and phone on extended U.S. trips. Written on a booksigning tour!
I don't usually book a room everywhere I am going in advance, but it's not a bad idea. Hotels are kind of like car dealers; you never know how much the bottom price really is. And the prices can often be negotiated if they aren't already pretty booked up. However, they usually need some kind of "excuse," such as a Triple A card or Entertainment card. I used Entertainment's Half Price Hotel card for most of my trip. They send a booklet of participating hotels and the price was $59.95 for one year. I stayed primarily at Residence Inns on the trip, and they were pretty darned comfortable, spacious, and affordable at about $55 a night or so with the entertainment card. Sometimes they were too booked though, so they don't always honor the card.
These hotels aren't even listed in Entertainment's booklet. Many hotels are not, but will still give you a discount if you call and ask. Many times the hotels never even asked to see my card, just assumed I had one.
I don't know about you, but I hate going to a lobby and asking them how much a room is and then saying never mind, it's too much. So, often I called ahead to the next city's Residence Inn, asked if they had any rooms at the entertainment rate for the next evening, or whenever, and if they did, had them place a reservation. If not, I would wait until I got to that city, find out what hotels were in the area I needed or wanted to be in, go to a pay phone, and call them to see if they had rooms and could honor the entertainment rate that night. That worked very well for me.
Remember that what one person tells you isn't always so. A couple of hotels told me they had no rooms at that rate. I called back later, talked to someone else, and they said no problem!
U.S. telephone numbers for Travelers Advantage Half Price Hotel/Entertainment Card: 800-548-1116
Residence Inns: 800-331-3131 or http://www.residenceinn.com
Type in a 9 and a comma before your ISP's phone number in your laptop to have it dial out properly.
Do not use the hotel's long distance service. One 2-minute call can easily cost 5 bucks or more. Have a calling card, preferably without a per call standard fee on top of per minute charges.
Many long distance cards are very expensive, while on the surface looking cheap. Get one that guarantees the same rate on every call, and also can bill your credit card instead of needing prepayment. Many cards say "save 40 %" or some other nondescript thing which means nothing. I was satisfied with the company I used, which was IDT. Their number is 800-225-5438 ext. 6700.
Rental car agencies are shrewd. Make sure you get a faxed quote ahead of time, confirming your rate. [Editor's Note: Do this for hotel reservations, too, and get the name of the clerk you spoke to. Also, when renting a car, you'll often pay a lot less if you reserve several months ahead, especially if the car rental is during the "high" season; they won't charge you till you pick the car up, so reserve as soon as you know your plans.]
Watch for weird charges such as "convenience fees" (usually abbreviated as something you would never know what it is) for picking it up and dropping it off at the same place. Don't let them refill the tank; it's usually impossible to bring it in on empty and their prices can be very high for gas. Get unlimited mileage. Its usually cheaper to rent a car for 2 FULL weeks than for ten days, since they have a lower rate for week, then charge a high rate for each additional day. Bring it back early if you have to.
Be careful when they say things like, it's only $10 more for a mid-size car. That's $10 a day, folks, but they don't say that--and for two weeks, well, that adds up. Hardly anyone sees your car, and since you will be putting some miles on, economy can be the way to go for gas purposes. Leave your ego in your own driveway.
Check your insurance before you leave, and bring a copy of your insurance card with you. The rentals are usually covered by your own insurance, But if you're not sure, you may sheepishly say, go ahead and insure it, because you want to make sure you're covered. It will then cost you about $125 or more per week, which you probably didn't need to spend.
Before leaving home, I punched in all addresses of places that I knew I needed to go, found out approximately where they were, highlighted them on the map once I printed them on my printer, and stapled them in packs of each city I was going to. Here is a good place to get such a map:
Now, these aren't always exactly right, but will usually get you close. Make sure to leave plenty of time to get there, get lost, and usually, its best to go the day before to see EXACTLY where you need to go in case you get behind or lost that day. This map blaster lets you zoom in or out, which is handy. You want to zoom out far enough to see where your location is in relation to the nearest expressway, print out one of those, then zoom in for the real specifics.
Then, when you get to that city, BUY a real map [Editor's Note: Or get them free from AAA, tourist information booths, etc.]. Highlight your areas with a marker. That helps you keep your perspective for other places you visit and gives you a good visual idea of the whole area. Also, I liked the laminated maps the best; you can unfold them at stop lights easily, etc. but you need a crayon type pencil to mark on them. Bring one along. Remember, most maps don't show one-way streets and there are often many versions of what seems to be the same street (Oaklake Park Drive, Oaklake Park Drive Circle, W. Oaklake Park Drive, etc.).
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