Gary Gomez is the editor of our Budget Tucson section: the art of enjoying Tucson & Southern Arizona on a tight budget.
Since graduating from U of A, Gary has enjoyed a successful 40+ year career in the hospitality industry. He has owned and/or managed restaurants, motels & hotels, both full service & economy, from Florida to California. Gary currently manages America’s Best Value Inn in Tucson. He enjoys the search for the best hospitality and tourism values in Southern Arizona and herein shares his latest discoveries. The following is Gary’s introduction to this new section.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy the finer things in life. Someone once told me it doesn’t cost any more to go first class; you just can’t stay as long. The reverse also is true. If you save money on hotel, food, admission tickets, etc., you can enjoy “paradise” a little longer; or if you're a local, more often Read More
What traveler doesn’t want to visit Tucson & Southern Arizona and stay a little longer? Life is a series of “trade offs.” Even the very rich have to live by this principle. They might be able to buy anything they want, but they can't buy everything they want.
Rating Budget Restaurants
How do I rate "budget" restaurants? Well, bad food isn’t worth my time on no matter what the price. What do I mean by "bad" food? For starters:
- • food with the consistency and taste of cardboard;
- • food that is over or under-cooked;
- • food that was yesterday's special (stale);
- • food that is boring or completely misses it's intent, such as bland salsa;
- • food with minimal nutritional value (over-cooked veggies, etc.).
By contrast, "good" food is fresh, tasty, nutritious, appetizing, and served at the proper temperature. I don't appreciate hot food served cold or vise versa. A grilled steak that isn't served sizzling hot or a Mexican plate that isn’t too hot to touch will not get a high mark.
High-end restaurants go to great lengths to present their dishes with an artistic flair. I don't expect that of a budget restaurant, but I do expect my order to appear appetizing.
Clean is non-negotiable. Dirty floors, bugs, or other critters are non-starters for me. Even budget restaurants and economy motels must be clean and sanitary if they want a positive review. If the restrooms are not clean and tidy, I assume the kitchen is likewise.
Lower prices can mean limited service, self service, or more basic service. I really don’t care at this level if ladies are served after or at the same time as men. Sincere, friendly, and helpful are my standards of service. I won’t accept being ignored or “taking your sweet time”. A simple nod and smile, or "I will be with you shortly" when the server is slammed can keep me happy. I will only grade (up or down) for exceptional or horrible service.
Ambiance? Are you kidding me. That is an easy trade off. For a bargain price I don't expect an expansive, unobstructed view of the City ... or crystal chandeliers, plush carpeting, or Picasso originals on the walls. I do expect reasonable comfort and space enough for my meal and my cell phone and, if I'm dining with others, an atmosphere that's conducive to good conversation (although my trade off rule does apply).
Value vs. Price
A budget meal to Bill Gates may be a $30 steak dinner. However, I do consider the relative price to the norm. For example, flavorful, fresh sushi at $10 is a great value to me. Value is relative. My goal here is to make informed recommendations about many places in or near Tucson that you can enjoy for relatively little money.
See our Budget Dining Reviews here.
Rating Economy Lodging
My standard for economy lodging is similar to AAA 2-Diamond rating. In and near Tucson, you should be able to get a decent room for less than $75 per night in the high seasons and considerably less in the summer. The Tucson Gem & Mineral Show is an obvious exception. Even Motel 6 doubles their room rates during Gem Show.
For that price, I expect the rooms to be clean and well maintained, and the beds to be comfortable. I expect bathrooms that are well maintained and not “threadbare” or “worn out”. I also expect free in-room cable or satellite TV.
High-speed WiFi is becoming the norm although it’s not a deal breaker, unless I’m on business. I will grade them up if they have it. Marriott is finally offering free WiFi in most of their hotels, but not all. All rooms should have a desk or table that can be used as a workstation. There should be a queen or king single bed or two double beds to choose from.
A good economy motel will have a variety of room offerings, such as some rooms that accommodate pets (usually with an additional charge or deposit); and smoking and non-smoking rooms (higher end hotels are going all non-smoking more and more). By law they must have ADA (handicap) rooms. Offering rooms that face a pool or courtyard is a plus. I always ask to see the room before I pay. Some people smoke in non-smoking rooms! I love cigars but don’t want to smell smoke in my hotel room (or my house).
Checking in and out should be hassle-free, although you may have to be patient as economy properties usually don’t have more than one person working. The lobby should have travel brochures and front desk people who can help with knowledgeable recommendations for dining options in the immediate area. It’s a real plus if they can offer ideas on things To See and Do. Concierge service is not unknown, but above the norm.
The public areas can be very minimal. It’s a plus if they have a business center, and an extra big plus if they also have a fitness center. Some economy motel lobbies offer free hot, fresh coffee. A free continental breakfast is becoming the norm, but again it’s not a deal breaker for me. Other public area amenities I look for are guest laundries, vending machines, and a convenient, functional ice machine.
We live in a desert. Thus, a clean, refreshing swimming pool is a huge plus for our warmer months. However, in winter, our desert can get chilly. Thus I look for a pool heated to 80+ degrees November through March, again a huge plus. A hot tub? I love hot tubs but they are rare in this price range.
The pool deck and grounds should be clean and maintained, but I don’t insist on manicured landscaping at economy lodging.
I look for economy lodging that is close to good restaurants, popular attractions, highways, and/or an international airport. However, I am willing to get off the beaten path if I can save money and get a better experience. I will grade down if the neighborhood is trashy, or if there is a lot of vacant property in the area, or vagrants or other obvious signs that I don’t want to walk around the area at night. Security service is a good thing most of the time. Sometimes it can be a red flag. But the nicer the neighborhood the more expensive the real estate.
Finally, a good budget motel will offer various discount programs. Discount offers include savings on multiple room nights, frequent stay programs, no-charge late check outs, and upgrades. Restaurants and attractions usually provide discount coupons or cards to the nearby motels and hotels. Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t see them. Marriott actually bans all such stuff from their lobbies (not that they fall very often into the economy category).
A good economy motel should honor a host of association discounts, such as AAA, AARP, U.S. military and government (again don’t be afraid to ask). Independent hotels (non chain affiliated-remember many if not most chain hotels are franchises and individually owned) usually offer fewer discounts but may have lower rates as they don’t pay high fees, booking charges, or advertising costs. If their rates are not lower, they are either, very good and very full or they just don’t have a clue.
See our Budget Lodging Reviews here.
Prior to our new Budget section, all Southern Arizona Guide dining and lodging ratings use the iconic saguaro cactus. A 3-Saguaro restaurant is just OK, nothing to write home about. But a 5-Saguaro rating is the Best of the Best, without any consideration of price.
Clearly, budgetary constraints require something different because price is very much a consideration. So, we're going with a somewhat more humble prickly pear symbol.
We budget seekers accept some trade-offs that at higher prices would be unacceptable. So, a 3-Prickly Pear rating would be average for a budget restaurant, but nothing to shout about. Similarly, a 5-Prickly Pear rating would be the Best of the Best in the economy lodging & dining categories. For example, (a) an incredibly good meal at a surprisingly low price, or (b) an economy motel rate with an exceptional view.
Taking advantage of chain restaurants and lodging is a good way to save a lot of money while traveling. Through economies of scale, chains can offer excellent value and often work very hard, particularly if there is a lot of competition in their area. Even if they do not offer a uniquely Tucson experience, I will seek them out so you can stay longer and experience more of what Southern Arizona has to offer.
I will only review chains with which you may not be familiar. Never a KFC or McDonald's. But perhaps some others, such as In & Out Burger that our visitors from back east might not know about. In the hotel/motel arena that is pretty hard to do. Excellent independent properties find it hard to compete because reservation systems are life and death these days with the Internet becoming the most important method of finding accommodations.
I hope you enjoy Budget Tucson and can use my recommendations so you can stay longer and see more of what is authentically Tucson and Southern Arizona.
"The thing to remember when traveling ... the trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast and you'll miss all that you're traveling for." Louis L’Amour