By Rick Steves
Europe has many traditional old hotels — dingy, a bit run-down, central, friendly, safe, and government-regulated, offering good-enough-for-the-European, good-enough-for-me beds. In a typical budget European hotel, a double room costs an average of $100 a night. You'll pay about $80 at a pension in Madrid, $90 at a simple guesthouse in rural Germany or a B&B on the Croatian coast, and $130 for a two-star hotel in Paris or a private room in a Bergen pension. This is hard-core Europe: fun, cheap, and easy to find, particularly in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and Greece.
A typical room in an old-fashioned, low-end hotel has a simple bed (occasionally a springy cot, so always test it out before accepting the room); a rickety, old, wooden (or new, plastic) chair and table; a freestanding closet; a small window; old wallpaper; a good sink under a fluorescent light; a mysterious bidet; a view of another similar room across a tall, thin interior courtyard; peeling plaster; and a tiled or wood floor. The light fixtures are very simple, often with a weak ceiling light. Naked fluorescent is common in the south. While non-smoking places are increasingly common (and, in many countries, legally mandated), a lot of cheap rooms still come with ashtrays. You might have a TV, but likely not a telephone. While more and more European hotels are squeezing boat-type prefab showers and toilets into their rooms, the cheapest rooms still offer only a toilet and shower or tub down the hall, which you share with a handful of other rooms.
You'll climb lots of stairs, as a hotel's lack of an elevator is often the only reason it can't raise its prices. You'll be given a front-door key because the desk is not staffed all night. At some hotels, you'll need to press a button to be buzzed into the lobby.
Cheap hotels usually have clean-enough but depressing shower rooms, with hot water normally free and constant (but, in very rare cases, available only through a coin-op meter or at certain hours). The WC has toilet paper, but might have a missing, cracked, or broken lid. At a few hotels, you might be charged $3–5 for a towel and a key to the shower room. The cheapest hotels are run by and filled with people from the Two-Thirds World.
I want to stress that there are places I find unacceptable. I don't mind dingy wallpaper, stairs, and a bathroom down the hall, but I won't compromise when it comes to safety and being able to get a decent night's sleep.
The hotel I'm describing may be appalling to many Americans; to others, it's charming, colorful, or funky. To me, "funky" means spirited and full of character(s): a caged bird in the TV room, grandchildren in the backyard, a dog sleeping in the hall, no uniforms, singing maids, a night-shift man tearing breakfast napkins in two so they'll go further, a handwritten neighborhood history lesson on the wall, different furniture in each room, and a willingness to buck the system when the tourist board starts requiring shoeshine machines in the hallways. An extra $40–50 per night will buy you into cheerier wallpaper and less funkiness.
Unfortunately, cheap hotels are becoming an endangered species. As Europe becomes more affluent, land in big cities is becoming so expensive that cheap hotels can't survive and are bought out, gutted, and turned into modern hotels. More and more Europeans are expecting what were once considered "American" standards of plumbing and comfort. A great value is often a hardworking family-run place that structurally can't fit showers in every room or an elevator up its spiral staircase. Prices are regulated, and regardless of how comfy and charming it is, with no elevator and a lousy shower-to-room ratio, it is — and will remain — a cheap hotel.
Modern Chains: Good Value, Less Character
More and more hotel chains — offering cheap or moderately priced rooms — are springing up throughout Europe. Hotels that allow up to four people in a room are great for families. You won't find character at chain hotels, but you'll get predictable, Motel 6-type comfort. The huge Accor chain offers a range of options, from the cheap Formule 1 Hotels (mostly in France) to the mid-range Ibis Hotels (sterile, throughout Europe) to the pricier, cushier Mercure and Novotel Hotels (owned by Accor Hotels). Britain has Travelodge, Premier Inn, Holiday Inn Express (a Holiday Inn lite with cheaper prices and no restaurant), and Jurys Inn (also found throughout Ireland). The easyHotel chain — based on the pay-as-you-go business model of their sister airline, easyJet — rents cheap and extremely basic rooms in major European cities, including London, Berlin, Zürich, and Budapest.