In these days of a weak dollar, many Americans traveling to Europe are looking for the lowest-cost lodgings they can find. A reader recently asked:
"I've heard of some very low-cost motels in France. Are they OK for Americans?"
The short answer is they're OK for at least some Americans. But anyone seeking traditional hotel service and ambiance should look elsewhere. Here's a rundown of the current budget motel scene.
As in the U.S., chain budget motels are slowly taking over Europe's low-cost lodging market segment from small, independent, and often funky mom-and-pop operations. It's happened most rapidly in France, and the biggest chains are French-based. But the trend is taking hold in Germany, the U.K., and other main tourist countries, too. Of course, you can still find lots of those older places—many of which exude a quirky charm—but they are increasingly an endangered species.
The Low-Low End
Two French chains dominate the very bottom rung on the lodgings ladder:
- Formule 1, owned by multi-tier hotel giant Accor, is both the largest and the cheapest. Rates start at around €30 per night, for up to three people; breakfast is extra. Most locations are on the outskirts of cities and towns, convenient for highway access, with no-charge parking. Formule 1 has 380 locations in 12 different countries. Most are in France, but at least a handful are in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.K. You can reserve online; the English language website is easy to use.
- There's nothing even remotely like Formule 1 in the U.S. Rooms are typically about 100 square feet—that's smaller than most cruise cabins—with one standard double bed plus an upper-deck bunk suitable for a child or very small adult. Each room has a washstand, small counter, and TV, but toilet and shower are shared among several rooms. Rooms are not air-conditioned. The reception desk is attended for only a few hours a day; at other times, you check in with a credit card and receive a security code which you use on automated locks use to enter the building and your room. On my one test stay, I did not encounter a single hotel employee.
- Premiere Classe, part of the smaller Louvre Groupe, is a step up from Formule 1. The main difference is that each room includes a toilet and a very small shower; otherwise, they're very similar. Prices start around €33 per night, for one to three people; breakfast is extra. Almost all locations are in France, with a few outposts in Belgium and the Netherlands. You can book online, but the Premiere Classe website is somewhat quirky.
- Balladins, a one-brand chain, seems to have taken over some of the Nuit d'Hotel chain—formerly between Formule 1 and Premiere Classe, with rooms having toilets but no showers. They're now apparently branded as Balladins Express.
The Next Notch Higher
Going up the price/quality scale, you find quite a few large chains where accommodations start at around €35 to €40 a night:
- Accor's next-up entry is Etap, only slightly more expensive than Formule 1 but with more service. Still higher up the chain is Ibis, which is comparable to budget U.S. chains and features a lot of city-center locations as well as those along the highways.
- Louvre's choice in this niche is Campanile, which I would place above Etap but below Ibis. Balladins also has midrange choices.
- Motel One is a relatively new German attempt to replicate the French pattern, at the Campanile-Ibis level, with rates starting at around €40 a night.
The two big French chains tend to bunch their brands, at least at the low end. You often find a Formule 1 adjacent to an Etap and an Ibis or even a Mercure, and Premiere Classe is often next to Campanile. One benefit is that guests at the no-restaurant low-end chains sometimes get discounts at the full-service restaurants in adjacent partner hotels or have access to their airport shuttles.
In the U.K., the cheapest options are the handful of locations of the French chains. The two biggest indigenous chains are Premier Inn and Travelodge. The latter is promoting some rooms at rates as low as £19 a night, but only in a few locations and with a 21-day advance purchase; normal rates at either chain start at around £50 a night. Holiday Inn has also entered the U.K. market, at similar rates. By my take, those rates are a long way from "budget." Real budget travelers in the U.K. will stick with traditional B&Bs.
A Good Idea?
Several years ago, while doing some research for Arthur Frommer, I stayed one night each in Formule 1, Nuit d'hotel, and Premiere Classe. All were clean and, within their limits, comfortable and perfectly acceptable for Americans. Then, of course, with the euro at 80 cents, they were terrific bargains at under $20 a night. Now, they're about double that—but still an acceptable alternative for travelers who value economy over comfort.