Holiday-poor? You're not alone. And on the chance you're suddenly more receptive than usual to the idea of using a budget hotel or motel on an upcoming journey, here's an update on what's out there and how much it costs.
The surprising news, for someone who hasn't looked closely in a while, is that those familiar names of old--Motel 6 and Travelodge, for instance--are still there, but they're outnumbered by Days Inns, Comfort Inns and Super 8s.
The reassuring news is that there are more budget hotels than ever--more than a million rooms across the country, counting only hotels and motels that fly flags of the four dozen largest U.S. chains.
The editors at Consumer Reports publications, normally a taciturn bunch, have hailed American budget hotels in general as "the world's best value in accommodations" for their combination of cleanliness, freeway-convenient locations and modest costs. In an analysis of 54 major budget chains for the November issue of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, those editors chose no particular favorites. Nor have I, in large part because most of these chains are franchised, which means each site is independently owned and operated. Though each operator is supposed to meet uniform standards, franchise companies vary widely in their enforcement efforts. Hence, beneath even the most familiar signs, happy and unhappy surprises may lie in wait.
One helpful clue to look for, though, is the American Automobile Assn. imprimatur, which means the auto club's inspectors have awarded the lodging at least a one-diamond rating. (There are about 2,200 lodgings with one-diamond ratings nationwide--and countless thousands more that are unrated and unlisted in the auto club's guidebooks.) Mobil Travel Guide ratings are similarly useful.
If you want location information and other details about hotels and motels mentioned here, try the toll-free numbers noted below. Or consult the November Consumer Reports Travel Letter (available for viewing in libraries, or for $5 by order from CRTL, 101 Truman Ave., Yonkers, NY 10703-1057).
Below, harvested from my own experience and the labors of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter editors, are some factors to weigh in choosing a budget hotel or motel.
If you're determined to spend less than $40 per night: Budget Host Inn (telephone  283-4678) has 178 hotels nationwide, and an average nightly rate of $31. Knight's Inn (tel.  843-5644) has 192 hotels nationwide, daily rates $30 to $35. Masters Economy Inn (tel.  633-3434) has 31 hotels in the Southeast, daily rates about $36. Microtel Inn (tel.  771-7171) has 52 hotels nationwide, daily rates about $39. Motel 6 (tel.  466-8356) has 760 hotels nationwide, daily rates averaging $33.50. National 9 Inn (tel.  524-9999) has 171 hotels, most in the western U.S., averaging $29 to $34. Villager Lodge (tel.  328-7829) has 61 hotels nationwide, averaging $25 to $30.
A handful of smaller chains, such as Cross Country Inns (tel.  621-1429) and Economy Inns of America (tel.  826-0778), have comparable rates. Also, most budget hotels give 10% discounts to AAA members, or senior citizens, or members of the American Assn. of Retired Persons (AARP). But I've never found a hotel willing to give simultaneous auto club and senior discounts--you get one or the other.
If you want a familiar name: Since 1993, the biggest budget hotel chain in the country has been Days Inn of America (tel.  329-7466) with more than 1,800 hotels (more than 160,000 rooms) and rates averaging $43 to $52. Since Cecil B. Day's opening of the first Days Inn (1970; Savannah Beach, Ga.), the franchised chain has sprouted locations in every state. The last was Hawaii, where a Days Inn opened in Waikiki last year.
Top runners-up in numbers of hotels are Comfort Inn & Suites (tel.  228-5150) with nearly 1,600 U.S. locations (and 115 in Canada) and rates of $45 to $75; and Super 8 Motels (tel.  800-8000) with about the same number of locations and rates of $40 to $50.
Next, after a big drop-off, come Econo Lodge (tel.  553-2666, 709 hotels); Hampton Inn (tel.  426-7866, 700 hotels); Quality Inn Hotels & Suites (tel.  228-5151, 657 hotels); Holiday Inn Express (tel.  465-4329, 637 hotels); Howard Johnson (tel.  446-4656, 600 hotels); and Travelodge (tel.  578-7878, 520 hotels).
If you (or your children) require a pool: The following chains maintain pools at all of their locations: Quality Inn Hotels & Suites; Fairfield Inn by Marriott (tel.  228-2800, 317 locations); La Quinta Inns (tel.  687-6667, 260 locations); and AmericInn (tel.  634-3444, 97 locations in the northern Midwest). Several smaller chains also have pools at each of their properties. Most other major chains have pools at some or most of their locations.
If you want the security of a room door that opens onto an interior hallway, not the outdoors: Many chains offer interior doors, but only a few nationwide brands have all interior door designs. Holiday Inn Express (tel.  465-4329) is one. Others include Country Inns & Suites by Carlson (tel.  456-4000) and Sleep Inns (tel.  753-3746).
Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.