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  • April 15, 2024

    On The Road Again


    My wife and I love road trips.

    Forget airplanes – hopscotching across the country from one big city to another in big aluminum tubes with people strapped down and packed inside like sardines.

    On a cross-country trip we get to see the rest of America – the nation that is woefully unrepresented on the nightly news delivered via TV from a collection of self-important, college-educated scribes with little real-world experience. These are the folks who every evening come on the air to tell you what’s important and what’s not. Too bad they get it all so wrong about most of the country.

    On a road trip, you get to see for yourself. You get to go as far as you like for as long as you like. You can start early and drive late into the night – or even all through the night if you want. You can take as many detours and get places as slow or as fast as you choose.

    Of course, road trips also present a fair number of challenges. A trip across the United States by car will take many days. That means finding someplace to stay every evening. Our needs are pretty simple. We look for places that offer clean sheets, a clean place to shower, a comfortable bed, a microwave to heat up supper, and a mini-fridge for cold beverages. In short, a place to relax for the night at a reasonable price.

    We don’t need a full-service luxury hotel with an on-site restaurant and bar, room service, convention facilities, valet parking, and exorbitant resort fees, including $20 extra a night for an internet connection. We’re looking for a “traveler’s hotel.”

    Some of the brands that have traditionally met our needs include: Holiday Inn Express, Best Western Plus or Premiere, Hilton Home2 Suites, and Hilton Hampton Inns. Each one of these chains has its challenges – some are more expensive than others and some are not consistent in their offerings. Although the chains aren’t necessarily consistent across the country, we’ve identified the hotels that work for us. For the past 13 years, we traveled with Henry, the Wonder Dog, and so hotels that welcomed him were the only ones on our list.

    But times have changed. We just got back from a cross-country trip, and after about 15 nights in 13 hotels, we’ve had some experiences that have put a few of our tried-and-trues on the “no way in Hell” list.

    One is a Holiday Inn Express in Arizona and the other is a Hilton Home2 Suites in Florida.

    The Holiday Inn Express in Buckeye, Arizona, was the most expensive hotel we stayed in during our trip – just over $300 for our 10-hour stay. The night desk clerk who checked us in at 11:30 p.m. was lovely, but in the room there was a cryptic note from the hotel general manager Debbie DeMarco.

    Here’s a sample of her message:

    • Guest room thermostats are “motion activated.” Please come down to the front desks and let us know if you would like that adjusted.
    • Housekeeping service consists of a daily refresh every day and a full room clean every 5 days. For housekeeping service please ensure Do Not Disturb sign is not hanging on the door.
    • Our hotel offers a daily complimentary hot breakfast M-F 6:00am to 9:30am and Sat/Sun 6:30am to 9:30am.

    Does that mean the hotel in the middle of the Arizona desert has chosen the temperature for my room and if I want it cooler or warmer I have to go ask somebody to adjust it for me? Yes, it does.

    And what does “motion activated” mean? Does that mean if I lay down or sit quietly, the air conditioning or heating shuts down? Can I really not turn up the heat myself if I get cold around 3 a.m.? Or, if I’m too warm, does it mean I cannot adjust the heat without asking permission and getting assistance? Yes, again. That is what it means.

    I’m not sure about “refreshing” the room every day and cleaning it every five days. What does that means exactly? I would like to know before I rent the room if I am at day one or day five of the cleaning cycle.

    But, with all those frustrations, it was the “complimentary breakfast,” which really put this particular Holiday Inn Express at the top of the never-again list.

    The entire Holiday Inn Express chain offers the same basic breakfast – not bad, but not necessarily what we would order at a restaurant. And let’s face it, Holiday Inn calls it complimentary, but we all pay for it in the price of the room. Personally, we wish they would lower the room price a few bucks and let us buy the breakfast we want somewhere else.

    In Buckeye, we went down to breakfast, got some coffee and looked for some milk to put in it, but we couldn’t find any. We couldn’t find the breakfast attendant either. When we finally tracked her down, she was in the lobby, chatting to her friend at the front desk and clearly very irritated to be disturbed by a guest.

    Carmela told her there was no milk and asked if the lady could bring some more out. “Nope,” the attendant replied. “There will be some more tomorrow morning,” she told us. Of course, by tomorrow morning, we would be 400 miles away. Clearly not the attendant’s problem.

    We returned to the breakfast room. One of the guests decided he would like some pancakes from the automated pancake machine, but there was no batter to pour into the machine. We told him where to find the attendant – still by the front desk chatting with her chum.

    On the guest’s prodding, the attendant reluctantly went and got some batter mix and put it next to the machine. A family with a couple kids came in, poured themselves bowls of cereal and looked around for the milk. “No milk,” the attendant growled. “You have to eat it dry.”

    Carmela suggested, “why don’t you go to the store across the street and buy some milk?”

    “Can’t leave my post,” the attendant replied from where she was again leaning on the front desk, again chatting with her friend, and still clearly irritated that she kept being interrupted by pesky hotel guests.

    “Maybe you could get Door Dash to deliver it,” someone else suggested.

    “Not my job,” she answered.

    The question, of course, was why would she leave the self-serve cereal out if she knew there was no milk.

    The remaining guests – mostly traveling business types, some families with kids – started talking about the hotel, the rooms, the $300 a-night price, and how they are never staying there again. Good job, breakfast lady.

    The other hotel horror story was the Hilton Home2 Suites in Tallahassee, Florida. We’ve stayed there before, but things have truly gone downhill. We had reservations, but checking in meant standing in line with our bags for at least 20 minutes while the one clerk on duty dealt with a large and aggressive woman over what she thought should be a discounted rate for her room.

    He seemed to be doing the best he could, but by the time he got to us, he was completely frazzled. Meanwhile, the line of guests waiting with their bags to check in had grown substantially longer. No other hotel staff were to be seen.

    The room we had booked online was for one king-sized bed, with a king-sized bed room rate. But the clerk told us the hotel only has five king-sized beds, and we had to have two queen beds. OK, no problem, we said. What we got was two double beds shoved awkwardly into one side of the room and a musty smell in both the bedroom and the bathroom. The paint in the bathroom was peeling. There was mold in the shower, and the baseboards were cracked. The TV didn’t work. All of the ice machines at the hotel were either empty or broken.

    The next morning, Carmela went down to get some coffee to bring back to the room. When she poured a little milk in it, it came out in a curdled glub. Meanwhile, people who had ordered cereal and poured curdled milk into it were literally spitting it out and loudly complaining.

    The attendant responded by pointing out that the expiration date on the milk showed that it was still good and would be for several more days. No apology. No offer to get fresh milk. No realization that even though the expiration date hadn’t been reached, the milk had gone bad.

    Definitely not a good look for the Hilton brand.

    Those were the worst hotels this trip, but from coast to coast most of the hotels we stayed at have taken a hit. Hotels – like so many other businesses in the country – have been severely impacted. The extended economic shutdown plus new minimum wage laws have taken their toll. Hotels have cut back on their staffing and deferred basic upkeep and repairs to save money. At the same time, they’ve raised prices. As hotel guests, it does not make us happy, but we do understand that the financial model is not penciling out these days.

    Most disappointing was that at most of the places, there wasn’t anybody in charge who could make an independent decision or make things run better.

    At the Holiday Inn Express in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, the water suddenly stopped working. We had already showered, but we had to use bottled water to brush our teeth. In the lobby, guests with soapy and wet hair, wanted to know how long it would be before they could rinse off. “No clue,” said the unconcerned gentleman at the counter. He said the water was off all over town, but when we met friends for breakfast at a restaurant down the block, the water was on, and no one at the restaurant had heard that there had been any problem with the water.

    Bad things happen. Everybody understands that, but the man on the desk didn’t know what was going on, and he didn’t seem that interested in finding out. He just made up a lie to get people to go away and leave him alone. In a well-run hotel, the guests might have been offered an apology and a plan on where they might go to finish their showers.

    My guess is the man at the desk was not the man in charge. In fact, across the country the hotels we stayed at seemed to have nobody who was authorized to make a decision – such as awarding a discount, promising to find a solution, or even giving a sincere apology. The result is a plethora of hotels with toilets that don’t fully flush, TVs that don’t work, missing light bulbs, moldy and broken showers, and a general take-it-or-leave-it-attitude.

    For the most part, it is sadder than it is infuriating.

    It’s important to note that along the way we met folks, old and young, in some of those same establishments who were doing the best they could in very trying circumstances. They wanted to be helpful, they wanted to make the hotel guests feel comfortable and welcome.

    Even if they were short-staffed and out of ice, they were doing their best, and we appreciated it.



    In our Hotel Hell trip, there were two outstanding exceptions – the kind of exceptions that we hesitate to mention because we don’t really want the word to get out and for them to be all booked up when we show up again.

    One is the Holiday Inn Express in Pensacola Beach, Florida. It has one of the best views of the Gulf of Mexico on what is known as the Florida Panhandle – that section of the state that extends west from the Florida peninsula.

    In the panhandle, the beaches are facing south and are more accessible to visitors from Alabama than they are to most folks in Florida – which has provided the region with the nickname the “Redneck Riviera.”

    We were there during the stormy winter months, which we love, yet the waters of the gulf were still warm enough for a quick dip and a walk along the beach. The prices go up as the weather gets warmer, but this is still a deal and a lovely place to spend a few days.

    The other hotel of note is The Crystal Bay, a vintage hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida with an interesting past. Marilyn Monroe stayed there in the day and so did Babe Ruth, among others. Nowadays it is surrounded by a lot more traffic and commercial developments, but it retains the kind of ambiance that makes it one of our favorites.

    The rooms are clean, comfortable and have the old-world charm that screams Florida. The rates are reasonable, the staff is extremely friendly, and the complimentary breakfast buffet is one of the best in our experience.

    But please, let that be our little secret. We don’t want too many people to learn about it and horn in on our good time.

    – George Lee Cunningham

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