It's a low-cost bed boom under Big Ben as four top-quality hoteliers open bold new facilities (as cheap as 40!) across London Town
Throw away that outdated guidebook to London-it's full of stodgy hotels with shared bathrooms, cigarette-burned carpets, nosy proprietors, and walls as thin as Yorkshire pudding. Tear out this article. It's the only guide you're going to need, because right now, the paint is drying on a sleek, new breed of American-style budget-lodging options, many undercutting their neighbors with rates around $100 per room to match London's stature as a capital of European commerce. Your savings salvation comes from four titans of tightwad accommodation: the French-owned global bedder Ibis (ibishotel.com); the common-man chain Travel Inn (travelinn.co.uk); Premier Lodge (premierlodge.com), noted for its spacious six-foot-wide beds; and the motorway sleeper hit Travelodge (travelodge.co.uk).
As hotels, they're cut from the same cloth-the better to enrobe travelers with reliable comforts. Expect cheery if simple northern-European design and exacting corporate-quality standards (both Ibis and Travel Inns tout money-back guarantees). Count on vibrant colors and well-trained staff; a double bed even if you're alone; a complete bathroom; a phone; a TV that may double as a wake-up alarm; a built-in desk; soundproofed windows with blackout curtains; tea and coffee supplies with a kettle (this is England, old chap); and downstairs, a bustling breakfast area that doubles as a pub at night. Each morning, a lavish continental spread is served for £4.25 to £5.25 (some properties also do cooked breakfasts for £6.25 to £8.40; Travel Inns feed kids under ten for free).
Since all are company-managed (not franchised), of comparable quality, and new, they're somewhat interchangeable. So decisions hinge on location, especially considering London's sprawl. I've selected the best based on smart locations, low prices, and nearness to the easiest-to-use Underground lines; all can be reached with a two-zone Travelcard ($6.50 to $8 per day) or a four-zone one ($7 to $11 per day). To telephone these inns from North America, first dial 011-44 and then drop the first zero, and remember that as of press time, £1=$1.60, so £62.50=$100.
On the Thames
1. Travel Inn County Hall, Belvedere Rd., 0870/238-3300, 313 rooms, £80 weekends, £83 weekdays. The most expensive on my list, it's also the most dazzlingly located: in colossal County Hall at the London Eye, across the Thames from Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. The hotel (which opened in 1998) is on the wrong side of the building for river views-although rooms facing the courtyard can watch the Eye in the sky. But when you've got Big Ben bellowing on one side and trains boarding for Paris on the other, niceties like views pale in importance. For the first-time visitor to London, there may be no finer setting.
2. Travel Inn Putney Bridge, 3 Putney Bridge Approach, 0870/238-3302, 154 rooms with shower and bath, £70 weekends, £75 weekdays. In 1999, the hotel spruced up an incongruous six-story concrete office tower (yards from the Thames' north bank) in a city-village of red-brick pubs and jumble stores. Now, it hosts a pip of a breakfast room-cum-lounge, done in vibrant yellows and burgundies with inviting leather armchairs and a fireplace. Twelve of its topmost rooms have panoramic views of the Thames-the day I inspected this hotel, Oxford and Cambridge were holding their annual rowing race-but a third of its rooms are in a low-level annex, with dreary, fortress-like slits for windows, so ask for a tower room. Putney Bridge, which starts at the hotel's driveway, is ideal for evening strolls, and the outdoor District Line station, seconds away, retains many original architectural touches.
In the city
3. Travel Inn Euston, 1 Dukes Rd., 0870/238-3301, 220 rooms with shower and bath, £75 weekends, £80 weekdays. Carved from a former office building in 1998, it's smack on busy Euston Road (fret not-the windows are double-glazed to seal out noise), just a little closer to the West End than the Ibis, virtually across from the spectacular British Library, and a ten-minute walk to the British Museum. It's a cookie-cutter atmosphere, to be sure, but there's nothing half-baked about that location.
4. Travelodge London City, 1 Harrow Pl., 0870/191-1689, 105 rooms with shower and bath, £80. Purpose-built for businessfolk in 2000, it's squeezed among office buildings in the City section of London, which means it's dark during the day and absolutely dead quiet on weekends. (I mean it-nothing's open.) You'd never guess that this charmless area, rebuilt after the Blitz, was once Jack the Ripper's slashing ground; nightly walking tours parade past the hotel's doorstep. In an unrelated twist, guests use key cards to get past the lobby. It's a ten-minute walk to the Tower of London. Call 08700/850-950 for frequent specials, especially for weekend stays.
5. Travel Inn Tower Bridge, 159 Tower Bridge Rd., 0870/238-3303, 196 rooms with shower and bath, £70 weekends, £75 weekdays. Take a seven-minute/half-mile walk down a pleasant, tree-lined avenue from the southern flank of London's most famous bridge and you're home. This hotel's proximity to that iconic crossing means tourists tend to book it early. There's a small supermarket across the street, but the on-site restaurant, Slice, makes meals for £5.95 (stuffed peppers) to £10.95 (minted lamb).
6. Travel Inn Kensington, 11 Knaresborough Pl., 0870/238-3304, 184 rooms with shower and bath, £70 weekends, £75 weekdays. Near a phalanx of megahotels (a prideful Marriott gloats nearby), the TIK is beastly outside (five stories of mud-brown tedium) but a beautiful bargain inside. Rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows, while the dining area is viewless but convivial. The hotel is actually two buildings joined by a walkway; there's no discernible difference in rooms. Environs are Victorian chic-high-hat houses with wrought-iron gates, like something out of Mary Poppins-but hardly lively. Still, it's just one stop from Harrod's, so you could do worse.
East London and Dockland
7. Ibis Stratford, 1A Romford Rd., 0208/536-3700, 108 A/C rooms with shower and bath, £60 weekends, £65 weekdays. Stratford? No, not Shakespeare's crib, but up-and-coming northeast London-the four-year-old Jubilee line extension ends here, and engineers are burrowing a tunnel so Eurostar trains to Paris can board here by 2007. This Ibis anchors Stratford's main square, from which guests can experience a typical London neighborhood thriving with the boisterous malls and markets of London's multicultural hurly-burly (South Asians, West Africans, skateboarders, and pensioners fill out the mix). From the curb, catch Bus 69 to City Airport. Best of all, it's well served by the Tube: four stops from St. Paul's, three from the Dome.
8. Ibis Docklands, 1 Baffin Way, 0207/517-1100, 87 A/C rooms with shower, £65 weekends, £72 weekdays. Free parking. Built three years ago for Canary Wharf businesspeople, it's pleasant if not exactly gripping-although a few low-slung brick pubs nearby testify to the area's bygone sailoring days. Steps away, the DLR provides a straight shot (five stops) to Tower Hill. It's also an Ibis, which means prim, Gallic quality. Docklands' airiness makes you feel a bit marooned, but trust me, it's near the action.
8. Travelodge Docklands, Coriander Ave., 0870/191-1691, 232 rooms with shower, some with bath, £50. This business-travelers' hive has dronelike employees to match, but £50 is a steal for such proximity to town, and it's suited to drivers (parking is 6). An inert slab built among Utopian corporate canal-side developments, it has all the appeal of a highway hotel, but then again, the only times you'll be in it, you'll be asleep.
9. Travel Inn Beckton, 1 Woolwich Manor Way, 0870/1977-029, 90 rooms with shower and bath, £55 weekdays, £50 weekends. After a 27-minute scenic coast through the London that Captain Cook knew best, the DLR ends in Beckton, a modern bedroom community of superstores and multiplexes. Alight here, for beside the platform (trains every ten minutes) is this find. No in-room phones, but wide-open spaces and quiet. There are few restaurants handy, but a gargantuan ASDA (owned by Wal-Mart-baked beans for 12p a can!) awaits across the street. Parking is easy here, too.
10. Ibis Wembley, South Way, 0208/453-5100, 210 A/C rooms with shower, £40 weekends, £50 weekdays. Parking: 4. A bleak ten-minute walk past the Premier Lodge and the Wembley events complex rewards you with the cheapest of my picks, this purpose-built, 15-story tower opened last October. It's also seven minutes from Wembley Central (12 stops to Baker Street), and feet from Wembley Stadium station on National Rail (nine minutes from Marylebone, twice hourly). The lobby's American kitsch is creepy-Blues Brothers mannequins, Elvis cutouts-but the staff, removed from the hubbub of central London, is sweet. Ask for a "stadium view" room so you can glimpse the City in the distance and, on Sundays, the stadium's thronged market. Rooms have showers, not baths-but since this Ibis is half the price of its sisters, you won't mind the gap.