Deciding Where to Stay (Epic Road Trip Planning Part 4)

by - Monday, March 16, 2015

Once you have determined your epic road trip destination, it's time to think about accommodation. For me, this is always the hardest, but most exciting part! My top five tips for deciding where to stay are 1) research the location, 2) know your options, 3) read reviews and trip reports, 4) use travel apps, and 5) visit a Visitor Information Centre.

1. Research the Location. Take the time before you make a reservation to see what is in the vicinity. Will you be able to hike/bike/swim/ski/paddle from your door? If you are staying in an urban centre, is your motel on skid row, near an industrial park, or backing onto railway tracks? Ensure the location is safe for children, not too noisy, and close to amenities/activities. When we camp, we camp in scenic areas off the highway, near water, with plenty of hiking trails suitable for children within walking/biking distance. When it's ski season, we try to stay as close to the hill as possible so we can spend more time on the slopes and less time in the car.
  • Key considerations: Safety, proximity to amenities/activities, noise (traffic, trains, planes), views
This beautiful waterfall was just minutes' walk from our hostel.
2. Know Your Options. There are various accommodation types to suit every budget and traveller. Tent and trailer camping are not the only ways to get close to nature. Alternatives to traditional camping include yurts, oTENTiks ("Comfort Camping" in Canadian National Parks), wilderness hostels, or cabins. It is possible to stay in a prime location with minimal hardship! For more solitude, consider a walk-in campsite. As backpackers, we enjoy doing walk-in camping with our children and getting away from the RVs.

If you need more creature comforts, hotels and resorts will serve you well. Depending on what you plan to do on vacation, or what amenities the properties offer, hotel/resort stays can offer good value. We look for the following perks:
  • Free breakfast
  • Free kids' meals
  • Free wifi
  • Free parking
  • Swimming pool and hot tub for evening fun
  • In-room fridge, microwave, and coffeemaker so we can make our own beverages and meals.
  • Complimentary equipment rentals: bicycles, canoes, kayaks. Call to confirm that children's life jackets are available.

B&Bs and hostels are affordable options, but not all allow children and the family rate can often be more expensive than 3-star motels! Most hostels allow children if you book a private room; check before you book.

We typically tent camp (front country, walk-in, and backcountry) in the summer and hotel it during the cold months. Our one experience in a yurt gave us bedbugs, and I find cooking in a crowded hostel kitchen annoying. Do what works for you and your family.
  • Key considerations: Cost, desired experience, privacy, location
A charming, but bedbug infested yurt we stayed in.
3. Read Reviews and Trip Reports. Look for a high number of positive reviews, especially pertaining to cleanliness, service, and noise. If any reviews were negative, how did the business owner respond? Apologetically or in a hostile manner? Take note as that is how you could be treated.
For detailed reviews, I usually turn to TripAdvisor (campgrounds, hostels, B&Bs, hotels), Expedia (hotels), and Yelp (campgrounds, hostels, B&Bs, hotels). TripAdvisor's forums offer a wealth of information on where and when to go or what to do in a given location. Take advantage of others' expertise! 

I also look at reviews and recommendations from travel magazines, local newspapers, or independent writers (bloggers). Look for "Where to Stay" and "Trip Reports".
  • Key considerations: Cleanliness, service, family friendly, noise, handling of complaints. For me, recommendations from friends or family trump any review.  
Luxury vacation rentals are about the same price as a 4-star hotel, but bigger and often have more perks.

4. Use Travel Apps. The best travel apps not only provide information, but booking capabilities and itinerary management. Use the apps on the go to pull up reservation numbers, or to find a deal and make a last minute booking. Consider TripAdvisor, Expedia, Kayak, or Orbitz (all of these are free!). I use the Expedia app on a regular basis and am extremely satisfied with how well it works and how reliable the booking process has been.
Around Me is a useful app to have when you aren't sure where you're going to stay for the night and need to know what's nearby. Besides providing accommodation information, Around Me will tell you where to eat, shop, fill up, bank, or catch a movie (and more!).

For trips within the U.S., Roadtrippers is a powerful app that allows you plan out your route, read reviews, and book accommodation; all on an easy to use platform. Although there is some Canadian information, there is not enough at this time for me to recommend it for road trips in Canada.

There are several camping apps, but most have a fee or have conflicting reviews. In BC and Alberta, the best free resources are the Discover Camping Mobile Site and online Alberta Campground Guide (the Alberta Campground app does not provide pricing information), respectively.
  • Key considerations: Data usage, cell phone coverage/wifi availability
Expedia App

5. Visit Visitor Information Centres. We're big fans of visitor information centres for the clean washrooms, free wifi, interesting exhibits, and recommendations on where to stay, eat, and hike. Be advised that most info centres keep business hours.
  • Key considerations: hours, location
There's a lot to see and do at the Lake Louise Visitor Centre.

To Reserve or Not to Reserve?

Once you've decided where to stay, book it before someone else does! First, be sure to check the cancellation policy to see what fees you will be responsible for in the event your plans change. Many hotels offer free cancellation up to 3 days before, or even the day before, but others require more notice. 

Campgrounds typically charge a reservation fee which is nonrefundable, but may be avoided by travelling midweek at a campground with a large number of first-come, first served sites. Keep in mind that during peak season, you may not get a spot even if you show up on mid-week. Campsite reservation season has just starter with most campgrounds allowing bookings up to 3 months in advance. Start checking now and save the dates!

The method to our madness is to book our favorite places and leave the rest of our itinerary open. A little flexibility makes for truly epic road trips.

Where is your favorite place to stay?

Wilderness Hostels are a great alternative to winter camping.

More Information on Booking Campsites, Comfort Camping, and Wilderness Hostelling

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