At the tidy, cheerily decorated, $51-a-night Cottonwood Inn in Salem, Ark., a note in the breakfast area alerts guests that the office is closed every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. That's when the owners, Nelson and Kay Bassham, attend services at the Salem Church of Christ, just down meandering U.S. 62 from the motel. And this July, they invited me to come along.
Well, they invited everyone. "Nelson and I would love to have you worship with us," the note read, continuing on to praise the minister. "Mike Yates is a good positive teacher and you will treated with respect and kindness. Don't worry about your clothes, you'll be just fine." I saw the note too late to attend, but the inclusive message was one you'd surely not find at a chain motel outlet. At places like the Cottonwood, the owners and staff are as down-home and friendly (at least when prompted by a chatty guest) as a bed-and-breakfast host.
There are so many ways to sleep on the cheap these days: Sort online booking sites low to high. Find a place to crash on couchsurfing.org. Rent someone's apartment on airbnb.com. Use Starwood points to stay at the Sheraton. Bid for a bargain on Priceline.
But none of those routes will get you to the Cottonwood: it's not listed on any booking site and, in fact, its Web site is currently down. To find it and other independent motels, road-trippers must pull over and ask either their smartphone or a live human being -- the latter are conveniently located in any small town -- what lodging options lie ahead.
That's what I did on my recent trip through the heartland, where I was able to find independent motels most nights. And I found that in many cases, the old roadside motel has gotten an upgrade. Though they are still decidedly one-star, my experience indicated travelers can expect flat-screen televisions, free Wi-Fi and beds that are perfectly comfortable.
I didn't find the sort of warmth that I found out at the Cottonwood everywhere I stayed; sometimes I had to settle for a crotchety night clerk, a dreary room and a bar of soap -- for example, at the inappropriately named Deluxe Inn in Miami, Okla. But for someone who has stayed in run-down hotels in small-town China or Latin America, even spots like the Deluxe felt, well, luxurious. It also felt like a very American experience, down to a gloriously ill-maintained marquee-style sign: "FRE BREA F ST," it boasted, as well as "R HBO W." And all for low "WEE L RATE S." (The daily rate wasn't so bad, either: I paid $49.17, including tax.)
As often as not, some hidden charm appeared. The Prairie Fire Inn and Spa (prairiefireinn.com) in Strong City, Kan., was just a red dot on a Google Map when I called; it turned out to be run by Kevin Ireland and Rachel Creager Ireland -- formerly the bassist of the Chicago band Frontier and a massage therapist. The motel, built in 1952, maintains its retro (that is, ugly) wood paneling, but did get plumbing and electric upgrades and new beds when the couple bought the place in 2004. They live with their two young daughters in the house that doubles as the motel office.
The televisions are ancient, but no matter: for evening entertainment, Mr. Ireland provides old 16-millimeter films onto a bedsheet in the parking area. If you complain about that trade-off, get thee to a Super 8. My night cost $55.15, with tax.
About half the motels I stayed in were owned by immigrant families from India, who were just as likely to be charming (or crotchety) as other owners. Probably the nicest guy I met all summer was Sonny Bhakta, whose family runs the Virginia Inn Hotel (virginiainnhotel.com) in Lawrence, Kan. And the Virginia was as pleasant as Mr. Bhakta: the rooms are huge, the beds and carpets nearly new (he's replaced them several times since he bought the place 10 years ago, he said) and 52-inch TVs are coming soon.
Here are some tips to finding the right independent motels, and avoiding chains.
HOW TO FIND THEM
Some larger independent motels are on booking.com and the like, but many smaller ones are not. Your solution: good old Google Maps. I found Prairie Fire by typing in "motels near Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve." Be aware that even the tiniest little red dot could be a great motel; click on it for more information and reviews. If it's hard to distinguish chains from indies, search for the place's Web site.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with the national low-end chains: the accommodations at Super 8 and Days Inn franchises are more standardized and thus slightly less risky -- though also drearily corporate: when something goes wrong in a chain motel, it's a flaw. In an independent motel, it's a quirk.
CHOOSING AND RESERVING
Reviews for even the tiniest motels show up on Google Maps (and, failing that, TripAdvisor). Though worth reading, be wary: just about every hotel I liked had at least one negative review from some "Princess and the Pea" type who is accustomed to fancier digs and forgets they've paid only $40.
If all reviews are terrible, though, consider another option -- or at least ask to see your room before paying. Of course, that works only if you don't put down a credit card, so when I call I always ask how many rooms are available and avoid reserving if there are plenty. (Note that motels can fill up, especially on weekends in well-touristed areas.)
If the motel is listed on one of the booking sites, it's worth asking for a discount when you call. Note the online price, and ask if it's cheaper to book directly. Because hotels pay as much as a 25 percent commission to booking sites, it's a win-win: you'll actually both save money by cutting out the middleman.
WHAT'S FOR BREAKFAST?
Many motels put out a "Continental" breakfast, if you stretch that definition to include Raisin Bran in a Styrofoam bowl. Still, free is free: by resisting the low-quality industrialized pastries and sticking to cereal, a banana, coffee and orange juice (not fresh-squeezed, believe me), I got a decent meal and saved $8 and the time it would take to order an omelet at the local diner.
One final note: part of independent motels' charm is the very American-ness of spotting that neon VACANCY sign, pulling in after a day on the road, parking right outside your room door, and then skedaddling the next morning. Perfect for the average budget road-tripper, but not always for an extended stay. Occasionally I had to stop to write for a day or two, and learned that if you spend too many daytime hours in a small-town motel room (let alone a second night) the charm rubs off pretty quick.travel
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.