Inexpensive Hotels: What You Can Expect Abroad

My recent round-the-world trip provided a chance to sample the current state of inexpensive hotel options. Yes, I was flying in extravagant business class (on frequent-flyer miles) but I reverted to my penny-pinching ways for hotels; overall, I'd say with success.

Bookings were through some combination of Booking.com and Agoda. Hotels were chosen for moderate price—between $50 and $100 per night—plus location, availability of no-charge Wi-Fi and reference to travelers' reviews on the booking sites and TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel's sister site). Some overall observations and conclusions:

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Budget and low-cost hotels in much of the world differ most from homegrown varieties in that the rooms are typically a lot smaller. Often, they're just barely big enough to accommodate one double bed. Some have no furniture other than the bed, a built-in counter, perhaps an end table by the bed, and an armoire or closet. Only one of the rooms where I stayed had a big, comfortable chair, and two had neither chair nor desk.

The best moderate-priced accommodations are generally in older hotels that were formerly higher in the pecking order but downgraded as newer deluxe hotels have proliferated. That was what I found in Beijing, where the Oriental Gardens had obviously been designed to a first-class rather than tourist standard and provided good-sized rooms, a good-sized bath, a full lobby, a modern elevator bank, and two in-house restaurants. The rate, at around $90 a night, was less than you'd typically pay for similar accommodations in a large U.S. city. And unlike some comparably priced hotels in the United States, maintenance, upkeep and service were top-notch.

Europe's newer purpose-built budget hotels these days are more expensive and less spacious than their U.S. counterparts. Rates at the two where I stayed—an Etap Hotel outside Lyon and a Stars near Geneva—were about $20 per night more than you'd pay here at Motel 6, Econo Lodge and Days Inn chains. The rooms are noticeably smaller, as noted, often without a comfortable chair. And the bathrooms are really tiny—efficient, to be sure, but very small—typically in what appears to be a preassembled unit with a small corner shower stall, a small sink, and a toilet. The three-story Etap Hotel had an elevator, but the two-story Stars did not, and someone with a bad back might have a tough time schlepping a suitcase up to their room. Also, the process is highly automated: Room and even outside hotel access is by a number code into an automatic lock. The Stars' desk was not staffed during much of the day, including when I arrived in midafternoon, and although the Etap had some kind of night watchperson, I'm not sure its desk was staffed full-time, either. Fortunately, however, and unlike some of the earlier budget motel iterations, both places offered air-conditioning, which was welcome during a relatively warm spring week.

You never know quite what you'll find at some of the older, independent accommodations. Often, they're long on charm or they offer great views; the Chambres D'Hotes Nuits De Reve in Aosta has both; the Aparthotel Station in Krakow has neither. And some older places don't have elevators. In fact, I had to bail at the Aparthotel Station, where the room was up three flights of stairs and not air-conditioned. Fortunately, when the duty clerk saw my obvious discomfort, she quickly offered to let me off the hook and arranged a taxi to a nearby Ibis Hotel.

Booking-site hotel reviews tend to miss some of the problems you'll face. Many of the reviews of the Aparthotel, for example, seem to me to be wildly inflated. TripAdvisor entries were more realistic, although, again, quite a few ratings were much higher than I would have given.

All in all, you can do quite well with low-cost accommodations anywhere you visit. But be prepared to roll with a few unpleasant surprises and the occasional need to bail. As in the United States, going one notch up costs a little, but you can gain a lot.

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Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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