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Road trip: Taking a chance there's no room at the inn

Traveling north on U.S. 27 after dark on Friday, I still had the energy for a couple hours of driving, plus a desire to make it as close to Apalachicola as I could before stopping for the night.

But I was on a stretch of road where I had never been before -- north of Tampa Bay, more than 100 miles short of Apalachicola. I passed towns seemingly too small to have hotels, and with no street lights, only a vague sense of what I was passing. I just knew that the sparse buildings along the road weren't lit up, so they weren't commercial establishments. That's not a good sign when you're looking for a place to stay for the night. And I suspected more of the same was all that lay ahead.

My plan was to drive late, then find lodging in some moderately priced chain motel. Since I'd be getting on the road again early, there was no sense spending a lot of money on even semi-luxury. I'd save that for another night -- Biloxi maybe, New Orleans for sure.

This is a gamble I often take on road trips: not making a hotel reservation in advance. I like to stay flexible. The worst that could happen? I'd have to drive all the way into a bigger city -- in this case,n probably Tallahassee -- that has plenty of hotel rooms, but would be well out of my way. On rare occasion, I've lost that gamble, meaning I had to settle for a hotel that was too expensive, too rundown, or far away enough to keep me up, driving past my bedtime. Once in Alaska, the Midnight Sun caused me to lose track of time and I ended up sleeping in a room over a gas station -- and paying way too much for that privilege.

But up ahead on U.S. 27 on Friday, I saw lights indicating the next small town was larger than the ones I had been passing. I saw a car dealership and a Sears, which I took as a sign this town was big enough for a motel or two. And sure enough, up ahead was a Best Western with a vacancy -- plus an in-room mini-fridge, free Wi-Fi, free continental breakfast and an AAA discount. Sold!