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Budget accommodations in high-cost Europe

Finding inexpensive hotels in Europe has always posed a challenge—a challenge that is even greater in these days of the weak U.S dollar. One reader recently asked: “I am a senior, 70 years old, trying to get a decent hotel in Liverpool and Southport, England, within walking distance of a train station. I am on a budget of $100 to $125 per night, or no more than £60.”

Although the reader asked for advice about an individual destination, his question is appropriate to just about all of Western Europe. And the short answer is that, even now, you can find accommodations for well under $100 a night in most of Europe.

The European budget hotelscape

Overall, budget travelers in Western Europe have two basic approaches (I exclude hostels, student rooms, and other accommodations for the young backpack set):

  • Traditionally, bed & breakfast or “zimmer frei” accommodations have been the mainstay of budget travelers, especially in the U.K. and German-speaking areas.
  • Lately, multinational budget hotel chains have taken much of the low-end accommodation business away from the more traditional low-cost mom-and-pop hotels. And a few sub-budget chains—especially in France—can undercut those older types.

Depending on the countries you plan to visit, your best bet is probably to explore both options.

Sub-budget hotels

Unless you’ve been to Europe lately—and especially France—you might know of nothing quite like the new breed of European sub-budget motel:

  • Rooms are about nine square meters (roughly 100 square feet), less than half the size of the lowest-end U.S. budget chains. You get one standard double bed (not queen or king), a pull-out or climb-up cot for one small child, a TV, and a washbasin.
  • In the very bottom-end chain, Formule 1, you share toilet and shower with several other rooms. If you go a notch up the line to Premiere Classe, you get a private toilet and maybe a private shower—possibly the smallest shower you’ve even encountered.
  • Prices start at around €25 (about $35 U.S. dollars; see for current exchange rates) a night.
  • Check-in and checkout are totally automated, by credit card. Swipe your credit card in an ATM-like machine, get a key card or key code, and head for your room. It’s possible to stay for several nights without encountering a single employee.
  • Simple buffet breakfasts are offered for about $10 extra.

Most of the locations are in smaller cities and the suburbs of the larger cities, but you find a few downtown locations. Prices, of course, are generally higher downtown.

Formule 1, owned by international giant Accor, has the most locations—hundreds in France and a few in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.K. You can search by city or with a map, and the site shows the precise location of each motel on a map.

Première Classe, owned by Louvre Hotels, is mainly in France, with a few locations in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Poland. Its booking site is less user-friendly than Accor’s, but you can use it even if you don’t speak French.

Budget hotels

You’ll find plenty of conventional budget hotels in Europe’s cities, small towns, and along the superhighways. They’re similar to what you get here at home in Motel 6, Super 8, Days Inn, Holiday Inn Express, and such.

  • Accor’s step-up from Formule 1 is Etap; Louvre Hotel’s up-the-line chain is Campanile.
  • The big conventional budget hotel players in the U.K. are Travelodge and Premier Travel Inn.
  • The multinationals, such as Holiday Inn Express, are expanding in Europe.
  • Promotional prices start at around $50 to $60 a night, but some of the better deals may require advance purchase.

Budget hotel chains are most prevalent in France and the U.K. They’re growing in other countries, too, but you may have to fall back on the more conventional, independent places. Here, your best sources of information are the very large worldwide hotel search sites plus guidebooks.

Bed & breakfasts

The simple B&B has long been the staple for budget travelers in Europe. And, unlike the case of the U.S., they’re still often the lowest-priced accommodations you can find. As here, quality, location, and price vary tremendously from one to another. They’ve always been most popular in the U.K. and in German-speaking Europe, where the term is usually “zimmer frei.”

As with small budget hotels, you find B&Bs either through large online sites or guidebooks. Among the online sites: Bed and Breakfast Europe, Bed & Breakfast in Europe, InnSite, and International Bed and Breakfast Pages, but you can find lots of others.

The Liverpool test

To see how the system works, I tested the reader’s request:

  • In Liverpool, I found both a Formule 1 and a Travelodge. The latter is located quite near the main rail station, and with a promotional rate of £39 ($78) is well within the reader’s budget—and far more comfortable than the sub-budget choice.
  • In Southport (right next to Liverpool), the best hotel deal we could find among the listed chains was a Premier Travel Inn, at £60 (about $120), just under our reader’s limit. However, had two options in central Southport for $103, and showed some rooms starting at around £30 ($60).

Overall, about 10 minutes of Internet time led us to several possibilities. You can probably do as well in most of Europe.

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