June 24, 2017

Virginia to Reopen Closed Rest Stops

Good news for tour groups, truck drivers, and tourists traveling through the state of Virginia: Virginia’s new governor, Bob McDonnell, has announced that all 19 of Virginia’s closed rest stops and visitor centers will reopen over the next few months. The state had closed them in July 2009 in an effort to reduce the deficit in their state budget. McDonnell, elected last November, had promised during his campaign to reopen the rest stops. Not surprisingly, state tourism, as well as Virginia’s public image, was hurt significantly by the closures. Click here to read McDonnell’s official announcement.

Four of the closed rest stops are scheduled to reopen by February 17th, 2010; eight more will reopen by March 17th; and the rest by April 15th.

Click here for a PDF map showing all of Virginia’s rest stops and welcome centers, both those now open and the ones scheduled to reopen.

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The Perfect Hotel Room

Four Points by Sheraton, Charlesbourg, Quebec -- a very bus-friendly hotel. 

Four Points by Sheraton, Charlesbourg, Quebec -- a very bus-friendly hotel.

I’ve been on the road a lot this summer, as far south as Mississippi, and north to Quebec City, Quebec, Canada. And lots of places in between. As I sometimes tell my passengers, I call home every day, so my wife at least recognizes my voice when I come home!

When you’re on the road that much, the right hotel room can mean the difference between a great trip and a terrible trip. It’s often the little things that make the difference. But it never ceases to amaze me how many hotels screw up the little things!

The basics: a clean, quiet room is a given. But many hotels fall down right there — the room isn’t clean, or not as clean as it should be. Good help is hard to find, I know; but in most cases I’ve seen, management is the issue. People do what’s expected of them and only so far as they’re held accountable. Often a dirty room means someone at a higher level isn’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. (Does that apply to dirty buses, too?!)

A comfortable bed is also a given, you would think. I’m a tall guy — 6’5″ — and used to a king size bed at home, which is my ideal on the road, too. A queen size bed is still comfortable; but some hotels, mostly older ones, still have full size beds in their standard room. In those, my feet stick out the end, and I definitely don’t sleep as well. Some hotels have newer style “pillow-top” mattresses — wow, some are so comfortable I’m in no hurry to go home! Others have hard, “spring-loaded” mattresses; when you sit down you bounce right back up again — not good.

Other important factors include working temperature control in the room, preferably without having to hear a very noisy air conditioner or heater. A bathroom big enough to turn around in, with plenty of fluffy white towels. A wall mirror in the room in addition to the bathroom. A TV with a working remote. An elevator if you’re not on the first floor. A portico high enough to get the bus underneath for loading/unloading luggage on a rainy day. And, of course, bus parking — if you can’t safely park your motorcoach at or very near the hotel, all of this is a moot point.

Some hotel chains have introduced amenities over the years that have now become must-haves for the regular traveler. In the bathroom, a curved shower rod (thanks, Hampton Inn), and a great shower head (thanks, Holiday Inn). A “free” continental breakfast with at least one or two hot items (saves a lot of time and money when you’re on the road). Free Internet access. All of these used to be niceties, but I don’t want to stay in a room without them anymore.

If you’re away more than one night, especially on a trip where you end up killing a lot of time in a hotel room, a microwave and refrigerator is really important, too — partly for convenience, but especially for cost savings. On a multiple day trip I’ll often make a stop at a supermarket the first day and pick up a few things I can lunch on in the room.

Ironically, the more expensive hotels don’t include many of these things, or charge extra for them. Breakfast and Internet access, for instance, are often extra charges. Those hotels are more for vacationers and corporate travelers. Fortunately, for working travelers like motorcoach drivers, there are several chains who do a great job at meeting our needs. But the list is pretty short for those who do it well and do it consistently. There are exceptions, but overall, here are my favorites; the first three are way, way ahead of the pack:

  1. Drury Inn
    Too bad this chain is only in the midwest. “The extras aren’t extra” and they have no equal in my limited experience with them. It’s probably not a coincidence that they aren’t franchises — all are family owned.
  2. Hampton Inn
    Long my number one choice until my experience with Drury Inns this summer. They just get it right, over and over, across the chain. Must be someone following up somewhere!
  3. Holiday Inn Express, Holiday Inn Select
    These are the newer of the Holiday Inns, and, like Hampton Inn, get it right over and over again.
  4. The rest of the list is a distant fourth place or worse. They tend to be inconsistent — I’ve stayed in some excellent ones, and had to leave an occasional one, it was so bad. But because of the cost and/or location, they’re often in the running:

  5. Comfort Inn
    Many (most?) of these are two floors, no elevator. Many are older and run down. But a few are also very nice. I’ve had both good and bad experiences with these.
  6. Red Roof Inn
    Low price, pet friendly (which means if there’s a local dog show, you’re going to have lots of animals around!). Inconsistent quality.
  7. Days Inn
    Many of these are older and not in good shape, but there are some good ones, too.
  8. Ramada Inn
    I’ve only ever stayed in one Ramada I was comfortable in (Ligonier, PA). But I’m sure there must be a few other good ones somewhere.

Sheraton isn’t on my list above, because they’re often among the more expensive hotels that charge extra for things like breakfast and Internet access. But I recently had a good experience with a Sheraton near Quebec City in Canada, which is where the above photo was taken. Note the bus parking — right by the front door! I was the only bus there, so no competition for that spot; but other buses wouldn’t have had too far to go, since this was a fairly new hotel with very large parking lots.

A driver friend of mine has a real simple hotel rule: if there’s no front door giving access to all the rooms, it’s the wrong hotel. An oversimplification, perhaps, but you know what — he’s often right!

That’s my list, based on my personal experience. How does it compare to your experience? Feel free to add your comments below.

The Case of the Disappearing Rest Stops

Virginia Rest Area, Mile 54 South, I-81, one of the rest areas to be closed July 21, 2009.

Virginia Rest Area, Mile 54 South, I-81, one of the rest areas to be closed July 21, 2009.


With the downturn in the economy, states across the country are experiencing budget crises, and looking for ways to cut expenses anywhere they can. And many are looking for quick fixes — short term savings regardless of the long term consequences. One of those shortsighted “fixes” affects all of us who travel, drivers and passengers: the closing of state operated rest stops.

States are discovering they can save millions of dollars, in some cases, by closing interstate rest areas that produce little or no direct income. Virginia, for example, is closing 18 interstate rest areas next week (July 21, 2009), and one of their welcome centers on I-66 in September, for a reported savings of almost $9 million annually. Maine is closing two rest areas on I-95 to save about $700,000. Vermont has already temporarily closed four rest areas, and is considering permanently closing six rest areas, for a savings of $1 million annually. Louisiana has closed 24 of its 34 rest areas since 2000, four of them last year. Colorado, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Arizona and others are also considering closing highway rest areas.

One of Virginia's rest areas on I-81, closed 7/21/09 for budgetary reasons.

One of Virginia's rest areas on I-81, closed 7/21/09 for budgetary reasons.

While states may be saving a few dollars short term, it comes at the expense of both the traveling public and the local economy. The loss of 24/7 toilets at rest stops is just the most obvious loss. Now travelers will need to exit the highway to find facilities, relying on businesses — at their expense — to provide facilities. Some of those businesses will benefit from the increased traffic, but many aren’t prepared and can’t handle the increase. Most of them are not open 24/7, so travel times will be affected. Very few of them can handle animals, so travel with pets will be much more difficult, too. My guess is that we’re going to see a lot more cars parked alongside the road, both people and pets relieving themselves along the highway, the most dangerous place they could possibly be.

And what about buses? Fifty passengers descending on McDonald’s to use the restrooms may be slow but workable, at least occasionally … but what about multiple buses? Few small businesses can handle the parking needs of a motorcoach, let alone a sudden crowd of 50 or more people arriving at the same time. Trucks will have similar issues when it comes to parking needs. Rest stops have provided them a safe, off-the-road parking spot to catch a nap or just take a safety break. With more trucks parked on the shoulders of the highway, everyone’s safety is jeopardized. Studies have shown that the greater the distance between rest stops, the higher the truck accident rate.

Many small attractions in communities across the country have not been able to afford advertising other than the brochure racks in rest stops. Even larger attractions benefit significantly from the advertising opportunities at rest areas. Some will experience significantly fewer visitors from the loss of exposure and may ultimately close.

So short term, yes, states save a few dollars by closing rest areas. But it seems very shortsighted to me, with a very high potential cost down the road, from both an economic and safety standpoint. What do you think? Add your comments below.

UPDATE 7-28-09 — Here’s a link to a complete list of Virginia’s rest areas (from Virginia DOT) showing both open and closed rest areas that may be helpful:

http://virginiadot.org/travel/map-rest-area.asp

Five Day Trips Everyone Should Do

Day trips by motorcoach are something nearly everyone can do and enjoy. Here are five destinations that should definitely be on your short list if you’re in the eastern PA area and haven’t already done them at least once. All are easy and inexpensive; just dress comfortably and wear good walking shoes. Most tour companies offer trips here, but if you want to go with the best, go with Hagey Tours, the company I drive for. You can go by yourself on a public (retail) tour, or if you have a group, charter a trip especially designed just for your group, including custom pick-up and drop-off points.

1) New York City

What an easy way to visit the Big Apple! Take the motorcoach directly to the Times Square area. There is so much to do. If you like Broadway shows, pick up a half price (or deeply discounted) ticket for a same-day show at the TKTS booth in the center of Times Square. Lunch at one of the hundreds of great restaurants. Shop along Fifth Avenue in some of the most famous stores in the world. A short subway ride takes you [Read more…]

Five Things to Take With You on Your Next Motorcoach Trip

It’s easy to make your next motorcoach tour just a little more pleasant by remembering a few of these things to take with you. You may or may not want to take all of these, but consider the following.

1) Bottle of water

Even though most tours stop regularly for rest stops and meals, having a bottle of water along quenches your thirst, especially if you’re talking a lot with a seat mate or other fellow passengers. If you’re hungry, it can also hold off hunger pains until the next food stop. A snack bar or energy bar might also be a good idea if you think you might get hungry on the road.

2) Neck pillow

Seats on modern motorcoaches usually recline and are quite comfortable, but it’s always nice to have a small pillow of some kind with you. Places like Brookstone or gift shops in service plazas sell small pillows especially suitable for traveling, but [Read more…]

Eight Tips for Group Leaders on Motorcoach Trips

Have you chartered a motorcoach for your group’s trip? Great — smart move! Here are eight tips for you, the group leader, from my perspective as your driver for your charter trip.

1. Introduce yourself, as the person in charge, to your driver.

You’d be amazed how often we have to guess or ask around the group to find out who is in charge of things like letting us know when you’re ready to depart, confirm destinations and time schedules, letting us know that all passengers have boarded, etc. Sometimes our paperwork tells us who’s in charge and we can find you, but just as often the person listed on our paperwork is the person who booked the coach for the trip, not the person who’s actually in charge on trip day.

2. Ride Bus #1, and sit in the front of the coach.

If you’ve booked multiple coaches for your group, the overall group leader should ride on the first coach in the group. Sometimes last minute “executive decisions” need to be made en route, and it’s difficult [Read more…]