Finding inexpensive, small-town accommodations in Europe poses some different challenges than in the U.S. By coincidence, last week’s question about domestic travel was followed almost immediately by this one: “We’re planning a three-month trip in Europe. What is the best way to secure B&Bs, hotels, and motels?” Although you find significant country-by-country differences, many of the basics are the same wherever you go.
The European small-town hotelscape
Overall, multinational budget chains have taken over less of the hotel business in Europe than they have here in the US. You still find lots of independent or local-chain establishments, as well as many B&Bs, “zimmer freis,” and such.
Still, chains have made inroads in recent years, especially in France. There, you now usually have a choice between a new cookie-cutter budget motel and a small, older hotel almost everywhere you go. As in the U.S, your choice is often charm versus efficiency.
European budget motels
Here in the U.S, we really have no equivalent to the new breed of sub-budget motel that first took root in France and is now expanding elsewhere in Europe. Rooms are as small as 100 square feet (about 9 square meters), with one standard (not queen) double bed, a cot of some kind for one child, and not much else. Rooms in the very bottom-end chain, Formule 1, have only a bed, small-screen TV, and a small sink. A shared toilet and shower are across from your room or down the hall. Check-in and checkout are totally automated, done by credit card. You can stay for several nights without encountering a single employee. Prices in the countryside start at around 25 euros (about $30, see xe.com for current rates); rates in city centers are higher. Add five euros or so and you can get a private—if small—bath in the Premiere Classe chain.
Among the sub-budgets, Formule 1, owned by Accor, has by far the widest distribution, with lots of locations in France and at least a handful each in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.K. Moving up Accor’s corporate ladder, first to Etap, then to Ibis, provides accommodations closer to U.S. budget motel standards. Although both Etap and Ibis are concentrated in France, they have significant numbers of locations elsewhere in Europe. Accor’s major competitor, Groupe Envergure, includes Premiere Classe, as well as the more upscale Campanille and Kyriad brands.
Still higher up the economic latter you find hotels comparable to mainline U.S. chains (although rooms tend to be smaller). Holiday Inn Express is moving into Europe in a big way; in the U.K., the two big moderate-price chains are Premier Travel Inn and Travelodge.
You find comparatively few multi-location budget chains elsewhere in Europe. You have to try other approaches.
Traveling by Michelin Red
When my wife and I want to take a free-form driving trip through the European countryside, we usually “travel the Michelin.” For more than 30 years, we’ve found it to be a wonderful—and efficient—way to search out low-cost accommodations in any country for which a Michelin Red guide is available. Currently, that list includes Benelux, France, Germany, Italy, Spain/Portugal, Switzerland, and the U.K and Ireland.
Michelin uses a highly stylized and abbreviated system for packing a lot of information about a hotel into just a few lines of text and symbols. With this system, the guide can list hotels in any small hamlet likely to have a hotel at all—as well as countryside spots that aren’t even in hamlets.
Depending on your preferences, look for smaller “one doghouse” or “birdhouse” hotels for minimum cost, or look for hotel symbols in red for especially comfortable places. A little man in a rocking chair denotes hotels that are exceptionally quiet, and there is a special symbol indicating hotels with a view.
You’ll find symbols or numbers for just about anything you need to know: prices, address, phone, credit card acceptance, whether there’s a swimming pool or air conditioning—it’s all there. Guide entries are coordinated with Michelin roadmaps, and the guides themselves have detailed maps of larger towns and cities that show the locations of listed hotels and restaurants.
My wife and I have especially enjoyed finding “restaurants avec chambres,” a particularly French combination of a country restaurant with up to a half-dozen or so guest rooms. The emphasis is almost always on the food; the rooms are usually a bargain.
Most European towns have tourist offices that can help you find local accommodations—and sometimes even book them for you. In larger towns, they’re often near the main rail station; in small towns, look near the central plaza. They’re especially good at locating lower-priced accommodations. Also, those offices can usually direct you to available weekly rentals.
My wife and I have had excellent results traveling around Europe with no advance reservations and booking through those local tourist offices. That system works best, however, when you’re traveling off-season. Don’t try it in lake, mountain, or seaside locations during July and August.
These days, it’s hard to find a corner of Europe that doesn’t have a good guidebook or two, with information on hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, and sightseeing. Most of them list a wide range of accommodations, from hostels to luxury resorts. You can’t go wrong with Fodors or Frommer’s, but you have plenty of other choices, too.
Traditional guidebooks such as these typically don’t cover as many small communities as Michelin, but they’re fine for many trips. And, of course, they’re your best option for traveling in countries that don’t yet have their own Michelin Red guide.