On this trip we decided to stop in Eau Claire, and we made a beeline for our usual hotel there - only to find it booked solid for the night. We tried the hotel across the street and encountered the same problem. We drove to the Days Inn near the interstate, and they were also completely booked. We mentioned to the desk clerk that we usually had no trouble finding a room for the night in the area, and asked if something was going on. It turns out we hit town just in time for a country and rock festival. I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I had a mental image of us trying to sleep in the car. We brought the Volkswagen and had it so loaded down with luggage that we could not have reclined the seats to sleep even if they were capable of reclining.
We got back onto the interstate and began driving east again, since there are hotels at nearly every exit between Eau Claire and the dells. The first two exits proved fruitless (though there were a couple of small, independent, "we are not staying there" places that looked like they might have vacancies). As we pulled into a Days Inn at the third exit, we encountered a car with Ontario plates out front of the hotel. Its occupant was just coming out of the lobby as we pulled in. As I climbed out of the car, he asked if we were looking for a room, and assured us that the hotel was full. We asked which direction he had come from, and as we had suspected, he was heading west from Chicago. Apparently he was doing the same thing that we were doing in the other direction; hitting every exit in hopes of finding a hotel with any vacancies. We gave him the bad news about the hotels along our path, and suggested that he begin his search on the far side of Eau Claire.
Our next stop was a large, expensive, themed lodge. We stopped in there under the hopeful assumption that the erstwhile traveller we had encountered would not have checked there on his way through because he was looking for a room, rather than an experience. Our efforts amounted to naught, but the desk clerk helpfully suggested that he had heard that the next town (about twenty minutes further along) had several large hotels that still had some vacancies the last he had heard. We drove up there, and I ran into the first hotel to find them booked solid.
The girl at the desk said, "You'd have to have got here at 4 to get a room." She kindly listed off all of the other hotels in the area who are also booked solid. "The guys across the street had thirty rooms when I got to work this afternoon, but they were sold out fifteen minutes later." Then she mentioned that another hotel in their chain still had a few rooms open "about ten minutes ago". I asked her for the number so that we could call ahead and book a room, but she seemed incapable of producing a phone book, or of using their internal phone list. She finally gave me the corporate 1-866 number - which was better than nothing.
I had atara call them on her cell phone (hello roaming charges!) while I made my way back toward the exit. She reached a call centre (most likely in Mumbai), where she spoke with somebody for whom English was not among his first languages. After several frustrating attempts she finally managed to convey the name of the town and hotel chain for which we had heard there might be vacancies, and after putting her on hold for a few dollars of roaming charges, he returned and cheerfully announced that there were indeed a plethora of rooms for the taking. He began grilling her over what kind of bed we wanted, what kind of bath we desired, whether we wanted smoking or non-smoking -- to her credit, atara maintained her composure like champion and assured him that we wanted a room. We did not care that, among the amenities, this interstate-side hotel had free parking.
He put us on hold for a few more dollars before returning and announcing that he had misspoken, and all of the rooms had been booked out from under him while he tried to up-sell us. On the other hand, if we did not mind driving another hour up the road to The Dells, he had found us a room at the Days Inn there. I don't know what else he tried to relay to atara because she just kept saying, "Book it. Oh for Gods' sake just book it." It was well past midnight by this time, and we were desperate and exhausted. He took our credit card information and then after another long, expensive pause that had us fearing that he may have hung up on us, he came back on the line and gave us a confirmation number for the booking.
We found the Days Inn without incident. We pulled up to the lobby and ran in to claim our room. Before we could say anything, the girl at the counter said, "If you are looking for a room, we are full. No vacancies."
"Not so fast," said atara, waving the sheet she had torn from her travel notebook. "We booked it through your central booking agency and we have a confirmation number and everything."
"Oh really?" said the girl dubiously, "Because we are full." She asked our names, searched her bookings, and announced that she had nothing for us. Then she paused. "This central agency guy, did he take your credit card number?" Yes he had. "Well, I suppose I will have to find you a room then," she said glumly. She hemmed and hawed a bit before muttering, "Well, I guess I could give you that room. It's my last last room." She gave atara a key to the room and asked her to go and check on it while I settled the bill. By this point she had finally managed to figure out why she had no record of our booking; between when we had called their centre, and when the agent booked the room, the clock had rolled over past midnight and he had booked it for the wrong day.
She booked the room for us, and cancelled our reservation for the next day. Other than being really old, and having handkerchief-sized bath towels, we couldn't figure out what was supposed to be wrong with "that room". Our heads finally met the (lumpy, uncomfortable) pillows at about 1:45 that morning. It was a long day.
Even the next morning as we were leaving, when the front desk asked which room we were checking out of, their first response on hearing the room number was, "Oh... that room." They confirmed that the girl on the night desk had fixed the bookings, and promised that we would not be charged for two nights.
Pinkie Pie is our mascot for this trip. She called double-shotgun for the leg through Chicago and got to ride on the dash.