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Motel Hell-O: Tales of Stays Gone Wrong and How to Avoid Them

Sometimes even the most road-ready travellers, those paragons of research, and disciples of detail manage to wind up in less than stellar accommodations. What happened? And how can you avoid falling into the same trap? Meet five seasoned travel correspondents, people you would never expect to find spending the night in less than comfortable digs. Read on and learn from their mistakes and winning strategies.

Searching for the sign of a good motel - photo by Emily Overes

Searching for the sign of a good motel – photo by Emily Overes

Setting the Bar Too High

Say hello to Michele Peterson. Her website, A Taste for Travel.ca, is a buffet of international culinary adventures, recipes and travel tips that she’s gathered from around the world as she searches for the next big taste sensation.

The King George Hotel in Cobourg has stories to tell - photo Michele Peterson

The King George Hotel in Cobourg has stories to tell – photo Michele Peterson

Michele writes, “On a last-minute whim I once stayed at the King George Inn in Cobourg, Ontario and to describe it as quirky is an understatement. Some rooms have the original jail bunk beds from the old Cobourg Jail and the original bars in the rooms.” (Note: those are real bars, not mini-bars). “Although history lovers might find it interesting, it’s also considered to have one of the highest levels of paranormal activity in Canada, according to the TV series Rescue Mediums. It was so unsettling to my Guatemalan husband that he hung a rosary in the window. This was after I told him there was no way he was going to sleep in his pick-up truck and leave me alone in there. There was a big moon outside our window that added to the experience. So, not much sleep! We could not wait to check out!” I believe her. The combination of iron bars, striped wallpaper and tiny windows looks very claustrophobic on TripAdvisor.

Arabian Nightmare

Mary Chong has travelled the world from Aruba to Asia and beyond. She partners with internationally known brands and stays at some of the most luxurious hotels in the world. Her website, CalculatedTraveller.com, is a wealth of information, including how to squeeze the most out of every precious travel penny. But even a savvy traveller like Mary can get bamboozled occasionally.

City of Ait-Ben-Haddou, Morocco - one of our stops - photo Mary Chong

City of Ait-Ben-Haddou, Morocco – one of our stops – photo Mary Chong

“When it comes to road trips in foreign countries, you have to look beyond the star ratings, lofty names, and glossy brochures. After a fabulous stay in a luxurious riad in Marrakesh, (an authentic tiled townhouse with a central garden courtyard), my husband and I ventured out on a small-group tour through the Atlas Mountains of Morocco that we booked in Jemaa el-Fna square. We were ecstatic to see that our road trip itinerary included an overnight stay at a 4.5-star auberge in the mountains. We imagined an evening stargazing at the moonlit sky at the inn while we sipped our mint tea.

What we experienced upon arrival was a room with no furnishings except for a bed, no heat, an exposed light bulb ceiling feature, scratchy bedding and towels, and cold water streaming from the brass laundry tap in the doorless bathroom. The just-bigger-than a twin-sized bed was more than enough room for us as we huddled together for warmth, while the wind billowed the window curtains and howled through the night.” One website for this hotel made it look amazing, and the reviews were glowing. Read Mary’s tips for cross-referencing sites below.

A Good Deal Goes Quietly Bad

Jennifer Merrick, a travel writer, and ESL teacher from Toronto loves family travel, especially road trips. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @JenniferMerrick3, but you may not find many photos of this very quiet motel.

“Road tripping with a family on a budget sometimes requires some creativity and resourcefulness. Staying in more off-the-beaten-track locations and scouring the net for an off-season rate has yielded us some fab deals, so I was quite pleased about my ‘find’. It was a two-night family stay in a New England mountain resort for $60 a night, including breakfast. What an ideal way to break up our drive back from the Maritimes and enjoy some hiking!

The pictures of the 70-room hotel looked a little dated, but the reviews were good. When we arrived late afternoon, the hotel looked precisely as it had in the pictures. But strangely our car was the only one in the parking lot. We walked into the lobby. Empty. We walked up to the reception desk. No one was there.  Just as we were about to walk out, a man appeared and took our reservation and gave us our keys.

“Is there anyone else staying here,” I smiled, trying to sound light.

“Yes,” he said in a clipped voice that stopped the conversation.

Empty hallways in The Shining’s Overlook Hotel. Photo from the movie by Warner Bros.

But if there were guests here, we didn’t see any. Not in the games room, the hallways or outside, where the seating areas were deserted. My mind floated to the movie The Shining.  I tried to brush those thoughts away as we played ping pong in the empty games room. Later in the evening, we had a campfire in one of the fire pits and sat outside by ourselves, looking up at the dark windows of the resort, which was appearing more and more ominous. It was not the best night’s sleep with every creak magnified by the emptiness. Alone in the dining room for breakfast, the receptionist from the night before silently served and cooked us a meal. We decided not to stay the second night.”

The Bluebird of Happiness

Not all motel stories end in disaster. Dan and Emily Overes love to travel the back roads and byways of Alberta searching for ghost towns, grain elevators and abandoned farmsteads with their dog, Tucker. Dan creates wonderful drone and photo videos complete with historical details on his YouTube channel DanOCan. They’re fans of mid-century modern too, so of course, they took a trip on Route 66 in 2019.

Vintage delights at the Blue Swallow Motel in New Mexico - photo Emily Overes

Vintage delights at the Blue Swallow Motel in New Mexico – photo Emily Overes

“When we were planning our trip on Route 66 there were four of five motels that we just had to stay at”, Emily said. “The very top one was the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico. The Blue Swallow was special because they’ve done such a great job keeping the rooms true to the look of the ’30s. It was one of the original motor courts. We stayed in Room 1 of about 20 which was meticulously appointed with genuine antiques including an original vintage chenille bedspread. The bathroom was tiny, but we wouldn’t have traded our stay there for anything. One surprise we had was the communal evening bonfire. Since it was a fairly small group of people, everyone got to know each other, and that was great. And the rates were very reasonable. We bought souvenirs, including a vintage room key and our bill was still less than $120.”

Top Tips for Avoiding Motel Meltdowns

  • Always try to book ahead. For popular spots like the Blue Swallow Motel, the Overes reserved several months in advance.
  • Don’t book when you’re tired or desperate. Leave some time to cross-reference reviews on as many platforms as you can including Google, TripAdvisor, Yelp, and local sites.
  • For bookings in Europe and Asia, Mary Chong suggests Agoda.
  • Take time to review the photos taken by actual travellers, not just the hotel beauty shots.
  • Calling a motel directly will often get you as good a rate or better than online aggregators.
  • If in doubt, pick a well-known chain. If problems arise, they’ll be more likely to assist.

DISCLAIMER: We hope you enjoyed these travel tips, however, while COVID-19 is ongoing, #stayhome and #staysafe until we can travel safely again. Adhere to all federal and provincial travel guidelines. If you must travel, wear a mask in public places, wash your hands frequently, and practice social distancing. Ask in advance about COVID related cleaning procedures in place at hotels and motels and don’t stay anywhere that does not have them in place.

The editor of this story has stayed in some dumps, but that’s another story. As always, her opinions are her own. For photos of beautiful properties, and her cat, follow her on Instagram @Where.To.Lady.

Although we do our best to provide you with accurate information, all event details are subject to change. Please contact the facility to avoid disappointment.

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Due to COVID-19, travelling is not what it used to be. It is advisable to adhere to physical distancing requirements, ensure frequent hand washing, and wear a mask indoors when maintaining distances is not possible. See www.travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories for more details.