YOUTH hostels with luxury bedding and free beauty products? Motel-priced rooms with flat-screen TVs? Poolside cocktail bars in the middle of Times Square?
Surprisingly, all are now available, suggesting that penny-pinching travelers finally are being given respect. Outfitting low-cost hotels with smart twists -- a trend some call "trickle-down boutique" and "no-frills chic" -- has been gaining ground for a few years, but because many of the advances have happened abroad, they're news to most Americans.
The international leader in hip, low-cost lodging appears to be the Accor Hotel Group, a French business that's responsible for two modern-design hotel chains, Ibis (www.ibishotel.com, with more than 700 hotels) and Etap (www.etaphotel.com, with more than 300 hotels).
Although neither has made an appearance in the U.S., they're well established in Europe, Asia and Australia, where they attract cost-conscious customers who seek efficiency and streamlined design. Accor's latest cheap-chic venture is Base Backpackers, www.basebackpackers.com, with seven locations in New Zealand and Australia. It offers niceties such as hair dryers and plush beds made with feather pillows and duvets.
Another newcomer to the world of no-frills chic is EasyHotel, www.easyhotel.com, which recently opened franchised locations in London and Basel, Switzerland. Rooms have pay-per-view televisions and double beds. Prices start at $44 per night for a double room in London and $25 in Basel.
Despite these burgeoning chains abroad, America still has no low-cost chain hotels that boast a 21st century look. Granted, a few hoteliers are dabbling in properties that, although not cheap, are priced lower than their neighborhoods might dictate.
Last year, as an example, Andre Balazs, owner of the trendy Standard hotels, opened his Hotel QT off Times Square in Manhattan. With a 22-foot pool-and-cocktail bar area in the lobby and stainless-steel bunk beds wedged into the tiny rooms upstairs, it's priced from $175 -- a good price for New York. See www.hotelqt.com or call (212) 354-2323.
Hotel QT is not poised to spread across the country, but it's a sign that hoteliers have seen the value in presenting stylish fare to budget travelers. Can it be long before a savvy corporation builds a hip budget brand to dot America's interstates?