LONDON — Tiny-roomed "pod hotels" have sprouted like button mushrooms around the world in recent years, encouraging travelers to sacrifice floor space for lower rates and micro-facilities. But Britain's new Yotel -- part of London's Yo! Sushi restaurant empire and a venue launched in June at Gatwick Airport's South Terminal -- is among the first to target airline passengers.
Aimed at bringing light relief to travelers in transit or those who want to relax before or after their sweaty long-haul flights -- you can stay for as little as four hours, starting for about $50 -- the concept offers a sci-fi-style sleepover with cozy compartments and handy high-tech flourishes.
The tranquillity begins as soon as you take the elevator to the terminal's subterranean, ambient-lighted lower level. Here the airport's madding crowds are replaced by Yotel's purple-hued corridors and a glass-encased check-in desk where staffers greet you in what appear to be Star Trek uniforms.
Like a sleeper compartment in a futuristic train, my 75-square-foot windowless room had a bathroom along one side -- a minimalist affair with a powerful raindrop shower, square toilet unit and a sink not much bigger than a finger bowl.
Opposite the bathroom, the bed was half-enclosed in a vinyl-lined shell -- part padded cell, part doorless cupboard -- accessed several feet off the ground via a flip-out step. On the wall, between the bathroom and bed, was a mirror, folding table and an overhead luggage rack.
It would have been a tight squeeze for two, but there are pricier premium rooms. With more space, storage and features, these are ideal for couples who don't want to constantly bump into each other.
There are no on-site restaurants, bars or common areas at Yotel, so most guests spend their time either in their rooms or wandering the terminal building. If you're feeling really lonely, the friendly desk staff's members seem open for a chat anytime.
In your cabin, you can while away the hours on your bed flicking through cable channels on the wall-mounted TV. Through the keypad, free Internet is available via this screen, although gratis wireless is offered for those packing their own laptops.
You also can order room service from this screen. Oddly, sushi isn't available, but there are plenty of drinks ($2.65 to $7.20) and snacks (all $4.10) plus entrees like steak pie or Singapore noodles ($12.35 to $17.48).
For a wider food selection, I took the elevator back to the terminal level and trawled the sandwich sellers, coffee shops and doughnut joints. There was also a bar and a smattering of mediocre restaurants; the Pizza Express may be your best bet for a decent meal.
The airport's village shopping area has a standard selection of book, perfume and electronics retailers, and all are accessible by foot from your room; I covered the terminal's highlights in 20 minutes.
PEEVES AND PERKS
My standard room's main drawback was lack of storage, with no dedicated space to stow larger suitcases. Also, the bed would have been too narrow for most couples.
There was no rail for hanging wet towels (I improvised by stringing mine between the soap dispenser and shower controls). Some well-placed wall hooks would have alleviated this problem.
In contrast, the larger premium rooms provide under-bed stowage and wider mattresses. They also include iPod docks and a chair for their folding tables, ensuring that travelers don't have to prop themselves up in bed to use their laptops.
On the plus side, Yotel's front desk service was warm and helpful, and my room had a cocooning, cave-like ambience that was ideal for snoozing.
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Yotel: The Yotel that opened in Britain last month is in the international arrivals hall, South Terminal, Gatwick Airport; 011-44-20-7100-1100, www.yotel.com. Rooms start at $51 for four hours, $113 for an overnight. Premiums start at $82 for four hours, $170 a night. Yotel is scheduled to open a Heathrow Airport outlet in August, and rumors persist that its first overseas foray will land at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport later this year.
Qbic: Amsterdam is already home to Qbic, a designer pod property with a similarly futuristic look. Rooms start at $54, and upcoming outlets are planned for Antwerp, Belgium, and Maastricht, Netherlands. 011-31-43-321-1111, www.qbichotels.com.
Pod Hotel: Not to be outdone in the tiny stakes, New York's East 51st Street is home to the Pod Hotel where lounge-y, mod-style rooms start at $89. (800) 742-.5945, www.thepodhotel.com.
Base2Stay: A little more high-end, central London is home to the recently opened Base2Stay, which offers small rooms with designer flourishes, optional kitchenettes and rates from $165 a night. www.base-2-stayhotel.co.uk.
EasyHotel: London also has three small-format, low-cost easyHotels combining windowless rooms and basic amenities from $51 per night. There's also a Basel, Switzerland, property and another planned for Budapest, Hungary, this year. Information: www.easyhotel.com.