We are now leaving Memphis TN to drive South to New Orleans, Louisiana, crossing Mississippi via Jackson. For those of you unfamiliar with this often underrated State, Mississippi is home of the blues and the birthplace of Elvis Presley (check out Elvis’ cars here if you haven’t already). We are now entering the next level of pickup domination, more in line with the national sales charts: based on official FY2013 data supplied by JATO, the Ford F150 is the most popular vehicle in Mississippi followed by the Chevrolet Silverado. Full Mississippi stats and my exclusive review of America’s budget motels below the jump. Make sure you read till the end as it gets more ‘authentic’…
US Coast to Coast trip so far. Picture courtesy of Google Maps
Driving to the tune of the Walk the Line soundtrack, the increased frequency of pickup trucks is clearly visible even on highways where they had been rarer up until now. Specifically in Mississippi I noticed a trend towards commercial F150 crew cab models (with black bumpers), a very healthy amount of F250 while the Ram pickup – like the 1500 (Albert) I’m driving, now pops up on the road at levels not seen since the start of this trip. I also spotted shiny new Toyota Tundras for the first time in a while.
Top sellers in Mississippi – Full Year 2013:
Source: JATO Dynamics
Logically as it is manufactured here in Canton, Mississippi, the second Nissan assembly plant in the USA established in 2003, the Nissan Altima is the best-selling passenger car in the State with 5,145 sales over the Full year 2013. That’s a comfortable 27% above the national king the Toyota Camry and 64% above the Honda Accord. So there is no photo finish, Mississippi customers know full well which company has been providing much needed jobs here for over a decade and they have rewarded Nissan accordingly.
Stepping out of official stats into observations on the highway, I have elected the Chevrolet Malibu as the hero of the day. This is a car I had hardly spotted since I landed in the US despite repeatedly ranking among the country’s 20 most popular vehicles for the past 7 years. Before today that is. A constant flow of current gen Malibu is travelling along Mississippi highways.
In the continuation from my observations in Tennessee, the GMC Acadia can be seen very frequently in Mississippi, as well as the Buick Enclave and Ford Taurus – the latter at levels unseen until now but given the age of the current generation this frequency could still be the result of a surge in sales a few years ago. On the other hand, I didn’t notice any particular hike in popularity for the Toyota Corolla, manufactured in Blue Springs, Mississippi. It would appear that Mississippi consumers are yet to catch up to the fact that this vehicle is manufactured ‘at home’ and reposition their buying patterns accordingly, as this has only been the case for the past 3 years when Toyota switched Corolla production from California to Mississippi.
Now that we’ve cleared the car landscape in Mississippi, let’s get onto my exclusive review of America’s budget motels. Indeed, I did not want to tamper too much with the authenticity of my USA Coast to Coast trip and decided to test out the oh-so-American concept of budget motels, perfect for this type of voyage. So if you thought I was sleeping in 5 star hotels all through this trip, you were wrong! Very wrong. My basic necessities are a bed, shower and wifi connection to keep in touch with the elusive outside world. The latter point unfortunately meant most ‘original’ motels (read: that do not belong to a nationwide chain) were out, even though I did step out of motel chains for a few nights with varying degrees of success.
Note this review of the Top 5 best motel chains in America is based on all motels I stayed in during this trip up all the way to Los Angeles, not just to New Orleans, as there is a little bit of delay between the real time and publication time. Note also that I received no gifts or money from any motel/hotel during the trip. First things first, hats off to the US highway signage system. In a trip like this where 95% of distances are eaten up fast thanks to the highway network, knowing which accommodation options you have at the next exit saves huge amounts of time and energy, and thus enable the traveller to see more interesting things. In the US, there are signs before each exit that indicate all food, lodging and gas options closeby. I don’t remember having seen this with such precision and regularity anywhere else in the world, and it makes for a very simplified, streamlined and more efficient choice process.
1. Econo Lodge
Number of motel nights: 1
The best value-for-money motel chain I have stayed at during this trip is Econo Lodge, at $49.99 in Savannah GA. It is a little symbolic that Econo Lodge comes first in this ranking as it created a new business category – the discount business hotel – in 1969 when it was established as Econo-Travel in Norfolk, Virginia. So technically not a motel chain if you want to be picky. There are 830 Econo Lodges open in the USA today, often located near highways. Econo-Lodge provided me with the quintessential American motel experience I was looking for during this trip: a long, stretched one storey building with one parking spot in front of each room, a warm check-in welcome at reception, a reassuringly uncooperative key card, free wifi, a comfortable bed and a free breakfast – a rarity at this price point. At the time it was the cheapest motel I got to stay in and also the best, no mean feat. Econo Lodges tend to be more concentrated towards the East Coast of the country, so they became rarer as soon as I left Savannah GA, I checked a few additional ones online along the trip, didn’t stay because I didn’t happen to stop in the area but they all seemed to align price-wise which gives this chain bonus points.
2. Motel 6
Number of motel nights: 4
Owned by the Accor Group up until 2012, Motel 6 is the most frequent motel chain I kept spotted along US highways during my trip – makes sense given it has over 1,100 locations nation-wide. Created as the very first budget motel chain in 1962 and responsible for the first (shock, horror!) non-smoking motel room, it was called Motel 6 simply because all single nightly rooms cost $6 at launch. Motel 6 gave me the best value-for-money night of the entire trip at $39.99 in Dallas TX. There the welcome was warm, the key card was uncooperative, the room was modern and the receptionist was worried when I checked out after just one night: ‘You didn’t like it?’ That same receptionist was the only one in the entire trip to actually ask me where I was headed next. Simple and obviously rehearsed but a nice touch. In the Motel 6 Hollywood CA, I got to stay in one of the redesigned rooms and I have to admit it didn’t feel like being in a motel any more, more like a boutique hotel. Is that all? Surely after all these positives Motel 6 should come first.
Not so, and the main reason is inconsistency between locations, potentially due to the fact that franchised Motel 6 do not have the same strict guidelines as the ones directly owned and operated. My night in Washington DC cost $89.99 with only a similar level of comfort and almost as warm a welcome as the $39.99 one in Dallas TX. And the two other locations I stayed at broke two of my sacred rules about motel-travelling. Hollywood, CA charged an extra $12 for your car! Isn’t the whole point of staying in a motel the fact that you can park your car close-by at no additional cost? That Motel 6 resembled in no way to a motel anyway. Whittier CA was appropriately gritty but charged $2.50 extra for wifi access and this was per device, something reception omitted to mention. I was so tired I couldn’t get myself to walk back to reception to add a device given I already did the trip to get a working key card. So I ended up spending an hour frantically switching from my phone to my laptop and having to log in again each time. Not ideal.
3. La Quinta
Number of motel nights: 3
Technically not a motel but an ‘inn’, I used La Quinta as a motel and therefore it qualifies in my review. Because I say so. Tellingly, I blanked out La Quinta for half of the trip thinking it would be out of my budget given the decidedly non-budget looking venues I could spot from the highway, until friends in Dallas recommended it as a valid option. This limited service mid-priced hotel chain was originally founded in San Antonio TX in 1968 and now has its headquarters in Dallas TX, operating around 1.000 locations across the country. It was on average more expensive than the rest of the motels I stayed in, but not the most expensive of the trip. Known for its pet-friendliness (not that I cared), to me the biggest advantage of La Quinta is its consistency across various locations, something other motel chains seem to be struggling with.
Ok comfort level, faultiness wifi and working key card (at last!): Amarillo TX ($79.99), Gallup NM ($99.99) and Las Vegas NV ($144.99) were all level and without any bad surprise. If La Quinta loses points for its dearer prices, it gains many for its spontaneity. Rather, the spontaneity of the Gen Y receptionist at Amarillo TX who will remain one of the more colourful characters of this trip: “But whyyyyyyyyy are you staying in Amarillo there is nothing heeeeeeeere!” A breath of fresh air among the generally circumspect yet polite welcome I received in most other places. “A song about Amarillo? Nah. Never heard of it. But I’m from Vegas, so…” You just made me feel 20 years older than I already am…
4. Days Inn
Number of motel nights: 1
Another very frequent motel chain along my route, Days Inn however loses a couple of spots due, again, to large variations in price and quality over my trip which disqualifies it as a reliable option. It still ranks inside my Top 5 because it did save my life (ok, night) in Franklin TN (a Nashville suburb) when I arrived a little bit before 2am all excited to have crossed the 30 mpg milestone with Albert my Ram 1500 ecoDiesel pickup truck, but rather exhausted from my 9 hour trek from Savannah GA. At $59.99 a night, this particular Days Inn at this particular time of the night after this particular trip looked like the best hotel in my entire life. Indeed, top notch quality, wifi and amenities did not disappoint. But there was a second storey (not a true motel!) and I went on to inquire at a few other Days Inn further along the way: double the price or more, and double the dodgy factor. Must get better.
5. Sentry Inn Gretna, LA
Number of motel nights: 1
I also reached this motel at ungodly hours of the night on arrival from Memphis TN. This was potentially the closest to dodgy I got to on this trip, in a questionable neighbourhood of New Orleans across the bridge and with such feeble wifi that it was required to get out of the room, jump in my truck, move the car a few metres and connect to the reception signal. But. It also was the closest to a true American motel I got to stay in and not a formatted chain. People did live there permanently: there were flower pots on the next room’s window. The air was heavy, the room smelled of humidity, the air-con was roaring, my truck was by far the shiniest in the parking lot and the painting on the outside walls was a distant memory. There was a sign next to the door warning to double lock yourselves at night for your own security. Except there was no more inside lock. I was basically waiting for the Samuel Jackson character in the Quentin Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction to burst into my room pointing a gun at my head. To top it off, a plump receptionist wearing fluorescent, diamond-adorned pink nails longer than her hand, sultrily checked me out with an avalanche of ‘baby’, ‘honey’ and ‘luv’. I’m still blushing. Ok this should have been #1.
Next stop: New Orleans LA