Most of us recognize such names as Motel 6, Super 8, McDonald's, Wal-Mart, and Ponderosa. Basic to the budget traveler, they are American chains that provide reliable goods and services at easy-to-afford prices. But what are their equivalents in Europe? Here's your chance now to increase your essential travel vocabulary. I'm just back from three weeks on the Continent putting together Budget Travel's updated dictionary of useful names you won't find in any of the standard guides. I talked to tourism officials, travel agents, hotel and hostel staff, restaurateurs, car- rental clerks, and other travel experts. As best I could determine, no other list like this is available, not even from European tourist information offices.
Use this list, and stay in clean, decent motel rooms for less than $35 a night for two. Dine with the local folks for no more than $10 per person. Lots of Europeans travel in their own countries on tight budgets, and this is how they do it.
I first spotted Flunch in the food-loving city of Strasbourg on place Kleber, the main square. At lunch, the sprawling, nearly half-block-long restaurant was thronged by local shoppers and office workers who obviously know a good deal. A fresh green salad from the salad bar costs about $1.70, including bread. When I was there, hot entrees included grilled fish ($4.90) and a small grilled steak ($6.50). Help yourself to as many vegetables as you like at no extra charge. Details: www.flunchtour.com.
And Now Get Set For More
In Europe as here, one of the big selling points for budget chains is that-along with cheap prices-they provide consistency. You know what you are going to get. You suffer no unpleasant surprises. What they lack-and this is an important consideration-is any semblance of romance.
Little bed-and-breakfasts, the kind the budget-minded have sought out for decades, can be charming; chain motels seldom are. And dining at Flunch, with its assembly-line operation and stripped-down decor, is not the same as sipping wine by candlelight at a cozy cafe on the Champs-Elysees. When you go, give both a try. Here are Europe's new big names in budget travel.
The Lodging Chains
Most properties are located on highways or in suburban areas, inconvenient unless you have a car. But some, like the 97-room Formule 1 at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, are more strategically located. It sits next to the pricey Hyatt Regency, offering a cheap alternative if you're landing late or have to catch an early-morning flight out. Note that the reception desk is open only during morning checkout and late afternoon/early evening check-in. Accor, the parent company, also operates Motel 6 in the United States. By comparison, though, a Motel 6 is near luxury. Details: 011-33/892-685-685, hotelformule1.com.
Etap Hotel, operated by the same parent company (Accor), is much like Formule 1, except each room features a private bath. This boosts the room rate to a still-easy average of about $31 a night for one person; $33 to $39 for two or three people. Currently, 185 Etap Hotels have been opened in France, and there are 60 in Germany, two in Great Britain, and one each in Austria, Hungary, Spain, and Switzerland. Like Formule 1, many Etaps are inconveniently located outside the city center. But others are quite accessible to rail travelers. In Strasbourg, one of the city's three Etaps faces the central railroad station across the place de la Gare. In this 82-room city-center property, the price is about $42 a night for two; on the city outskirts, another Etap charges about $31. Details: 011-33/892-688-900, etaphotel.com.
Ibis, yet another Accor chain, more closely resembles what Americans expect to find at home in a Super 8 or Comfort Inn. Ibis makes this list as a somewhat pricier (but more centrally located) alternative to Accor's bare-bones motels. In Heidelberg, one of Germany's most popular tourist cities, the 170-room Ibis is located just outside the railway station entrance. A room for two is around $75 a night, about par for a prime city-center site. More than 300 Ibis hotels can be found in France, 69 in Germany, and dozens more in 16 other European countries from Scandinavia to Portugal. Details: 011-33/892-686-686, ibishotel.com.
Nuit d'Hotel, another bare-bones budget chain, is operated by a second major French hotel company, the Groupe Envergure. A Nuit d'Hotel most closely resembles a Formule 1. The difference is that rooms feature a private toilet, although most share a shower. And a central reservation number is provided. In France, 28 properties have been opened, mostly outside the city centers. Rates range from about $21 to $32 for up to three guests. Details: 011-33/892-688-123, nuitdhotel.fr.
Hotel Premiere Classe is Groupe Envergure's equivalent of an Etap, meaning it offers full in-room bath facilities. They number 180 in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Rates range from $27 to $38 for up to three people. Details: 011-33/892-688-123, premiereclasse.fr.
Kyriad Hotel, also operated by Groupe Envergure, is a 180-property chain based in France that actually provides charm for higher but still affordable rates. Unlike the places listed above, each Kyriad is different-some occupying historical buildings. All boast private baths, and most are centrally located. The 70-room Kyriad Hotel Strasbourg Centre Gare stands just across the square from the railway station. Most are in France, with a handful scattered in Great Britain, Italy, and Portugal. A room for two ranges from about $41 to $76. Details: 011-33/164-624-662, kyriad.fr.
Mister Bed/Mister Bed City is yet another stripped-down budget-motel chain similar to Etap and Hotel Premiere Classe; that is, all rooms offer a private bath in each room. All 23 properties are located in France, including seven in the Paris area-though none are really convenient for nonmotorists. Rates: from $26 to $55 for up to three people. Details: To book, call the individual hotel directly; misterbed.fr.
Citotel is a network of 141 two- and three-star French hotels offering charm, individuality, and prime locations for a very reasonable price. I had a chance to check out the lovely little 24-room Hotel des Arts, a Citotel in Strasbourg just steps from the Cathedral, and I was much impressed. A two-star property, it occupies an eighteenth-century structure that looks like the France a visitor hopes to see. Rates here range from $48 to $58 for two; elsewhere from $30 to $130. Details: To book, call the individual hotel directly; citotel.com.
Currently, 47 have been opened, offering a total of 5,354 apartments in major European cities in five countries. Paris claims 17; London, 4; Brussels, 2; and Barcelona and Berlin, l each. The other 22 are in French cities such as Nice, Cannes, Strasbourg, Marseille, Tou-louse, and Aix-en-Provence. More Citadines are planned for Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Frankfurt, Munich, Milan, Rome, Budapest, Prague, Vienna, and Warsaw, among other places.
Although you can book into a Citadines apartment on a nightly basis, they are aimed primarily at travelers-business and leisure-who plan extended stays of several days, a week or a month, or more. The longer you stay, the less you pay on a daily basis.
My wife and I checked out the six-story, 106-apartment Citadines in Strasbourg, located just off place Kleber in the heart of the historic area. We were quickly sold on planning a future long-term stay at one or more of the firm's properties. In Strasbourg, a studio apartment (with compact kitchen) rents for $71 to $79 a day for two people for a one- to six-day stay. But if you book for seven to 29 days, the daily rate for the entire stay drops to $64 to $75 a night. If you linger for 30 days or more, the daily rate for the entire period is $46. Prices vary by location. In Paris, the beautifully situated, 204-apartment Citadines Saint-Germain-des-Pres (overlooking the Seine) charges $173 to $195 a night for a studio when you stay one to six days. For seven to 29 days, $155 to $175 daily; 30 days or more, $142. A bit less convenient, the 168-apartment Citadines place d'Italie is priced at $104 to $120 a night for a studio for up to six days; for seven to 29 days, $93 to $103; and for 30 days or more, $85.
For the price, you get a kitchen with pots, pans, and dinnerware; sitting room; dining area; and TV, CD player, and phone. Bed linens and towels are changed once a week, and a vacuum cleaner, iron, and ironing board are provided for do-it-yourself housekeeping. Details: 011-33/141-057-905, citadines.com.
The Restaurant Chains
Paul, a chain of French boulangeries-a blend of bakery and cafe-serves up tasty light lunches and early dinners in often quite romantic settings. After a day of Paris sightseeing, we relaxed at the very appealing Paul at rue de Buci and rue de Seine in bustling Saint-Germain-des-Pres. We may have been the only non-French in the room. Unlike Flunch and Nordsee, Paul provides table service. I ordered a dish of baked vegetables au gratin served with french fries and bread; my wife chose a nice omelette and green salad. Each of our plates, plenty enough for us, cost just $8. More than 200 Pauls can be found throughout France.
Other inexpensive French chains with table service: Buffalo Grill and Hippopotamus, which feature steak and french fries; Courtepaille, for traditional French fare; and La Taverne de Ma"tre Kanter, specializing in Alsatian food. In the walled city of Avignon in southern France, we shared Ma"tre Kanter's heaping plate of sausages, potatoes, and sauerkraut for $11.90.
Brek, Italy's chain of high-class cafeterias-where they cook or prepare each dish for you on the spot at just $1 to $3 each-has spread to 21 cities across the country, including Rome, Milan, Venice, Turin, Padua, and other popular tourist destinations. Find them at brek.com.
Where to shop
This is the place to go if, for example, your suitcase rips open-as mine once did-and you need an inexpensive replacement to get you home. I priced a suitable duffel bag at $22. Years ago I spent six months traveling in Europe; I could have used a Carrefour back then to replace worn-out clothing. A pair of men's jeans sells for $12.90. Too frequently, you read about travelers whose luggage has been ripped off from a parked car. Cheap replacement clothing-parkas for $49-will get you through the rest of the trip. Go just to see the offbeat kitchen utensils with a sleek, ultramodern design you won't find at home.
Carrefour outlets tend to be located in suburban areas, so you might need a car. In Avignon, the tourist information office advised me which city bus to take-an easy $1, 10-minute ride each way. Details: carrefour.com.
On the Road
Cheap Car Rentals British budget car-rental company easyCar is offering daily rentals, sometimes beginning at under $6. Improbable, but true-though these cars aren't for everyone. The company, which has 29 locations in Great Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, is affiliated with easyJet, Europe's largest discount airline. To keep costs low, it rents only subcompact cars, such as Smart Car and the Mercedes A-Class. Details: easycar.com.