Fifty dollars can get you a motel room in Drummond, Montana that features five overlapping wall paper patterns. Or a night at a chain motel room in San Diego’s Mission Valley with a heated pool. Or two nights stay in a trailer/tent campground in Glenn’s Ferry, Idaho. Or a room in downtown in the upscale Baltimore suburb of Towson. Or a cockroach ridden hotel in New Orleans that doesn’t believe in providing their guests with working light fixtures. Or a night at Mandalay Bay – two free buffet passes included.

There is no apparent rhyme or reason for this variety. Yes, I know it’s all about supply and demand. I get that there are not thousands of people who want to stay at Mandalay Bay (famous for their pools) on a Wednesday night in December, but really? $50!?! Not that I’m complaining, but that’s how much we paid for a night in the Sky Motel in Drummond, Montana. And they definitely didn’t give us buffet passes. Or bathtubs. The Drummond bathroom did feature towels though, which was way beyond the capabilities of the staff at the Midtown Hotel in New Orleans.

So, how does one end up in these establishments? I don’t really believe in booking places ahead of time or researching anything, so I happened upon all these fine nightly accommodations randomly. And each time I end up paying $50 for two nights in a tent in some white trash Idaho town, I promise myself that I will do my homework next time and stay somewhere either nicer or cheaper. Next thing I know I’m in Baton Rouge, driving through a lightning storm while simultaneously trying to book a New Orleans room via Expedia’s mobile “cheapest price” search tab.     

But even when I try to plan things, it doesn’t work out. While in Baltimore, my friend Denise laid down the law. She refused to camp, sleep in the car, or stay in a ghetto. She facebooked some friends in Baltimore and reported that Towson was an acceptable area of town to stay in. Since we’d just come off of three nights in a Charleston suite, she decided she could tolerate a night in a motel. Great. I booked a $50 room. We pull into Towson and are immediately pleased. It looked like an area of town where stay-at-home-moms-that-employ-nannies live so they can shop for high end merchandise while drinking soy lattes. Not that I’m knocking that lifestyle. I’m currently wearing Ann Taylor clothes and drinking a nonfat caramel macchiato. Anyways, my $50 obviously landed us in the armpit of Towson. “America’s Best Value Inn” was in an alleyway between strip mall and the only shady looking group of condos downtown. Which I wouldn’t have really minded, except for we’d already paid for the place through Expedia and the owner of the motel demanded full payment. Again. After a good hour of fighting with him and talking to Expedia on the phone we gave up and canceled our reservation. We’d seen the room by then and were not sad to leave.

We spent the rest of our Baltimore nights at aLoft hotels, part of the Westin chain. They were not $50.

We didn’t dip back down to $50 hotel rooms again until Montana. By this time, we were trying to stay ahead of winter storms because I am afraid of driving in snow like Denise is afraid of motel sheets. (That would be very, very afraid.) We were in Vermillion when snow warnings across Montana started showing up on my phone. We left at four in the morning the next day, determined to beat the snow. Unfortunately Vermillion is in the southeastern corner of South Dakota (where Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa meet. It’s a really happening town, lemme tell you), so it took us sixteen hours to get to Butte, Montana where the snow was supposed to start. It was dark when we drove through Butte, but not snowing yet. We decided to keep going. Why stay the night and wake up just to drive though snow? Of course thirty miles out of Butte is started DUMPING snow. I’m sure it wasn’t really as bad as I am about to describe, but it seemed like the road was a white blanket in about two minutes. Important things like lane lines and mountain pass drop-offs were suddenly invisible. I couldn’t see two feet in front of me, and there were a big flashing signs warning me of herds of wild life crossing the road ahead. To say I started freaking out would be putting it mildly. I’m sure Denise was rolling her eyes at me the whole time, but I couldn’t take me eyes of the road to confirm it. Twenty agonizing miles down the road we pull into Drummond, Montana and check into the gas station/café/motel. The motel owner informs us that, this being Montana, we could wake up to half an inch or four feet of snow tomorrow. Denise takes one look at the room and wants to get back into the car, stating that if we were going to get stuck in the Montana, then Missoula would be much more acceptable then the Sky Motel in Drummond, Montana. However, my fear of driving on dark snowy roads trumped her fear of small towns and motels. Drummond was our $50 home for the night.

I would have paid $100.

Which was what I figured we would pay for rooms in Las Vegas and San Diego. After Denise and I returned home (Seattle), unscathed from our cross country trip, we realized that life on the road was way better than life in Seattle. So we headed south. A friend in Vegas found us the $50 Mandalay Bay room rates and we stumbled upon our San Diego room at the King’s Inn in Mission Valley on good ‘ole Expedia. That $50 was for the weekend! Crazy, huh? San Diego was wonderful in December, by the way – tank top weather and everything.             

The best thing about $50 hotel rooms is that you are much less likely to be disappointed. When I pay $100 or $200 for a hotel room that turns out to not have an iPod dock or is not as centrally located as advertised, I am PISSED. But if I only pay $50, the hotel is allowed to be bad. It’s best to travel with low expectations, and a hotel room that costs less than six caramel macchiatos (working on my sixth right now) does just that.