Chic boutique hotels on a budget

Like airlines, low-cost hotels are changing the way we travel. David Whitley discovers how to stretch your travel dollar without killing the buzz of a hip stay.

When rifling through accommodation options in big cities, choosing budget hotels can be a miserable exercise in bullet-dodging.

It’s a netherworld of threadbare towels, mould-dashed showers in the hallway, sweaty box rooms more suited to prison-based fever dreams, and mattresses with the weight-bearing capabilities of a soggy cardboard box left outside in a thunderstorm. It doesn’t take many visits to the curiously interchangeable budget hotels in London’s King’s Cross area, for example, to make the Tune Hotels concept sound relatively attractive.

Tune Hotels is a Malaysia-based chain that has expanded voraciously over the last few years. Its first Australian hotel is due to open in Melbourne in November. The concept is loosely based on budget airlines – no surprise given that Air Asia founder Tony Fernandes is the one bankrolling it.

In short, base rates are low, while you pay for any add-ons – be it air-con, wi-fi, in-room safes, a TV or towels and toiletries. That’s not quite as annoying as it may sound. With rooms in London starting at $60, I don’t mind paying an extra $5 a day for 24-hour web access and $2.50 for towels and toiletries. (I’d not use the safe or TV anyway.) The rooms are undeniably small, but crucially, they’re furnished to a high standard with comfortable beds, power showers and an overall sense of clean, smart slickness.

CEO, Mark Lankester, reckons that low-cost airlines have conditioned travellers to recognise that spending less doesn’t have to equate to poor quality. And paying extra for some amenities is a matter of choice.

But he also points out a new breed of traveller – known in marketing speak as the ‘Millennial’. “They’re voracious travellers and world citizens,” says Lankester. “For them, the size of the room is less important as long as it’s affordably priced, comfortable and – importantly – has great internet connectivity.”

Over the last decade, a handful of other design-focused budget chains have cropped up – all pushing a variation on the quality, cool and affordable shtick.

Motel One – all egg chairs, trendy lamps, iPads and rates from $73 a night – is expanding out from its German base. Its Edinburgh hotel is the first of six planned UK properties.

The artier, minimalist Chic&Basic has invaded Amsterdam from its Spanish hub, while Citizen M will open in New York this year after tagging Glasgow, Paris and London to its Dutch properties. The latter has buzzy common areas and canteen-style self-service restaurants to complement pod-style rooms where all electronics – mood lighting, electronic blinds, the works – are controlled from a bedside screen.

Each brand has its quirks, but in common is the assumption that guests will trade space and supposedly outdated services for affordability, connectivity and centrality.

Natasha McLaughlin, Land Product Manager for STA Travel, says these hotels aren’t just appealing to budget travellers – guests are being pinched from mid-range chains. “The likes of Novotel and Holiday Inn have their appeal as they are internationally consistent. However, everyone wants something boutique, stylish, and something a bit special, so I can understand why these hotel styles are trending.”

The big boys are now getting in on the act – Marriott has joined forces with IKEA for the Moxy chain, which will debut in Milan later this year.

Even legendary luxury designer Philippe Starck is dipping his toes in, collaborating on Mama Shelter, which kicked off in Paris in 2008. The brand recently expanded to other French cities and Istanbul, while a Los Angeles property is planned for 2014. GM and co-owner, Jeremie Trigano, uses terms such as “urban kibbutz” and “sensual refuge” to describe the hotels. All come with free movies, an overload of in-room technology and high-end bedding. But rates start at $73.

With all of these up-and-coming chains, however, suitability depends on mentality. For wallet-conscious solo travellers and those who use hotels as a necessary base for exploring the city, they’re ideal. For couples, the rooms can be a squash if spending more time in them beyond sleeping and getting changed. Full-on city break or non-expense account business overnighter? Yes. Romantic weekend? No.

But getting a cheap big city room no longer needs to be a grim game of Russian roulette.

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This article appeared in issue 7

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  • '100 Best Hotels and Resorts in the World' countdown
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