At a time when every penny counts&mdah;and every euro is worth 122 of them—simply getting a good night's sleep across the pond can be a pricey proposition. So what can a cash-conscious traveler do? Try following the lead of locals by bedding down in a budget European chain hotel.
The Big Guns
When it comes to budget lodgings, Accor—the French hotel giant—likes to keep it all in the family. Its bottom-tier brands dominate the market, the lowest of the lot being Formule 1 (www.hotelformule1.com), which has 300-plus locations in France, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. In France, where it's called Hotel FI (www.hotelf1.com), the chain is so ubiquitous that it is hard to pass an airport or highway exit ramp without seeing one. And the reason is simple. Bare-bones accommodations start at €25 ($30) a night, parking included. But while the brand is big, rooms aren't. Measuring about 100 square feet, they're positively Lilliputian.
That means there is barely room for you let alone luggage. The kicker is while each has a sink, toilet and shower facilities are shared. Service is spartan too. Check-in is automated (you pay by credit card at a kiosk, receiving entry access codes in return) and actual reception desks usually open only at peak times. On the upside, rooms are clean and surprisingly cheerful. Better yet they typically have a single-over-double loft bed enabling them to sleep three. If you've ever tried to book a triple room abroad, you know what a bonus that is! Long story short: Formule 1 suffices when you merely need a place to crash for the night.
Want to go a step up? The Etap brand (www.etaphotel.com), with 400-odd continental hotels, is very similar though its rooms do have small private bathrooms and the hotels tend to be better located. That's reflected in the rate. Say you're in the Madrid area during July: you'd pay $45 at Formule1, $60 at Etap. For something more along the lines of our Motel 6, which Accor also happens to own, there is Ibis (www.ibishotel.com). It offers still higher levels of service and comfort at higher prices. Rates vary depending on the one you choose. For instance, a summer night by Paris' Gare du Nord train station costs $151, while one in the heart of Budapest costs $50.
The Regional Players
Of the chains operating in specific areas, Motel One (www.motel-one.com), which has 26 hotels in 15 German cities, stands out. Don't let the "motel" part fool you. They're well located and rightly billed as "budget design hotels." Double rooms not only have a-c and hair dryers, they feature modern perks like flatscreen TVs with iPod and MP3 sockets, plus stylish bathrooms with monsoon showers. Using turquoise as a signature color, the room décor is both functional and funky. Ditto for the public lounges. Best of all, prices start at €49 ($60) with spots in Berlin, Munich and Cologne all listing rooms this July for $73.
Another top pick is Travelodge (www.travelodge.co.uk), a hugely popular chain with 390 hotels across the UK and Ireland. Taking minimalism to the max, its rooms lack pizzazz. In fact, Travelodge prides itself on paring back "non-essentials" in the name of price. However, you do get a room big enough for a duvet-topped king bed along with a private bath, a flatscreen TV, and unbeatable rates. Rooms in select hotels start at £19 ($28) when booked three weeks in advance. Even premiere sites are a deal. In July, for example, you can snag a double at the Travelodge Tower Bridge (one of 14 London venues) for under $130 a night.
The Little Guys
If you are pining for the good ol' days when the lodging landscape was filled with intimate, idiosyncratic spots managed by mom-and-pop teams, don't despair. There are hotel networks (not chains per se but rather groups of independents banded together for marketing purposes) ready to help you out. Take Citotel (www.citotel.com). It lends Francophiles a hand by bringing more than 200 French two- and three-star options under one umbrella. Whether you want to test the waters in Vichy, get mellow in Marseille or live out your Peter Mayle fantasies in Provence, Citotel has a spot that is easy on the wallet. Nightly prices start around €45 ($55).
Meanwhile, a chain you're already familiar with promises continent-wide coverage: Best Western (www.bestwestern.com). The brand encompasses roughly 1,300 privately-owned hotels in Europe (over 86,000 rooms in total) and among that number are many budget gems. As with the stateside choices, some Best Westerns abroad are admittedly bland. But others—like the historic Hotel Plaza in Naples or boutique-y Hotel Medicis in Barcelona—provide character at a reasonable cost. This July they list double rooms for €57 and €67 ($70 and $83) respectively. If you collect Best Western reward points, you might even stay free. Sweet dreams indeed!
Photo credits: (1) courtesy Formule 1 (2) courtesy Motel One