Travel: Tour de France: The new nights of the road: Hi-tech hotels are revolutionising budget accommodation in France, and offering bargain breaks for travellers. Report by Rob Davidson

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The Independent Travel
You're driving through France and decide to stop for the night. The question is: how do you break your journey without breaking the bank? The answer is the budget hotel, a wonderful French innovation that offers excellent bargains for people travelling around the country by car.

These ample, modern, no-frills hotels can be found on the outskirts of most towns, usually just off the motorway. A clean, quiet room for up to three people sharing costs from pounds 15 a night.

I have been a great fan of France's various budget hotel chains since they began about three years ago. The hotels are loosely based on the American motel concept, but have been adapted with characteristic French flair and ingenuity. Not only are they conveniently situated for motorway driving, but parking is also free, breakfasts reasonably priced and the rooms stylish, comfortable and adequately furnished. In some budget hotels (depending on the chain), you have to go down the corridor to the shower or lavatory, but many provide these facilities en suite.

The bargain prices, which traditional, family-run hotels cannot match, have attracted many French people to this new style of accommodation. The manager of one budget hotel told me that his room rate, divided between three people, works out cheaper than a youth hostel, or even a campsite.

How are overheads kept so low? Most cost-trimming is achieved by reducing services to a bare minimum. Guests carry their luggage to the rooms. There is no room service (tea and coffee are available from vending machines) or table service in the restaurant. Breakfast, which is often the only meal provided, is a self-service buffet. However, other meals can be taken nearby, since budget hotels are usually situated close to restaurants or pizzerias.

Hi-tech, manpower-saving devices also help to cut costs. A good example are automatic check-ins, which are placed at entrances for use when reception areas are unattended. La Reception Automatique works like a cash machine: you insert a credit card and 'converse' with the facility (in French, English or German) about the room you want, how long you plan to stay and whether you want breakfast. The machine then debits your card and issues a key and room number.

French technology is also applied in the automatic cleaning systems installed in the showers and lavatories of the hotels. Every time the facility is used a powerful spray of a water-disinfectant mix ensures that it is left spotless for the next user.

The labour-saving devices and basic services mean that budget hotels can be run by just two people plus cleaning staff. The savings in wage costs are passed on to guests.

British visitors can take advantage of the convenience and excellent value offered by these hotels. Most of the couples who run them speak English, and the free guides published by the budget chains are printed in both French and English. The hotels are generally open every day of the year. Booking in July and August is a good idea.

Here are my favourite budget hotel chains. Prices quoted are per room, for single occupancy or two or three people sharing.

Formule 1: Fr130 ( pounds 15). This is the original French budget chain and still the cheapest. The architecture is dramatically modern - stark white cubes several storeys high - but the bedrooms are comfortable and soundproofed, each with a double bed and single bunk bed, colour TV, alarm clock and washbasin. Self-cleaning showers and WCs (one for every four bedrooms) are just along the corridor. Continental breakfast at Fr22 ( pounds 2.50) per person consists of as much bread, butter and jam as you can eat, with hot and cold drinks.

There are 250 Formule 1 hotels in France, including several in the Paris region, and a new one opens somewhere every week. The chain is expanding overseas, with hotels in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Switzerland, and Britain: there are now four hotels just off the M1. For a guide, ring 081-741 1001.

Nuit d'Hotel: Fr135 ( pounds 16). Higher marks for architecture: each Nuit d'Hotel has an attractive gabled roof and porch entrance. The chain has 50 hotels around France, each with bedrooms furnished similarly to the Formule 1 hotels, but with the great advantage of a private en suite lavatory. You still have to leave your room for a shower, however. Breakfast costs Fr21 ( pounds 2.50) and is much the same as Formule 1's, though with a croissant and orange juice thrown in.

For a guide, telephone 010 33 164 460505, fax 169 285848, or write to Nuit d'Hotel, 5 avenue du Cap Horn, Z A de Courtaboeuf, B P 93, 91943 Les Ulis Cedex, France.

Premiere Classe: Fr149 ( pounds 17.50). The chain has 102 hotels, including 17 in the Paris region. Closest to the motel concept in appearance, these hotels miraculously manage to fit an en suite lavatory, shower and washbasin into a two- square-metre space just off every bedroom. Otherwise, the furnishings are standard: a double bed and a bunk bed, colour TV with alarm clock, desk and chair. No soap, though, so take your own. The generous self-service breakfast costs Fr20 ( pounds 2.50).

For a guide, telephone 010 33 164 624951, or write to Societe Premiere Classe, 31 avenue Jean Moulin, Marne- la-Vallee, 77200 Torcy, France.

Fasthotel: Fr160 ( pounds 19). With their distinctive architecture and wood construction, Fasthotel's 66 properties all look like neat Louisiana farmhouses transported into French out-of-town locations. All their rooms come with an en suite shower, WC and washbasin. One advantage of this chain is that each hotel has its own restaurant, which provides lunch and evening meals, as well as the breakfast, at Fr25 ( pounds 3).

For a guide, telephone 010 33 139 735960, fax 139 738975, or write to Groupe Creotel, 12 rue de Fourqueux, 78100 Sainte Germain-en-Laye, France

Balladins: Fr189-213 ( pounds 22- pounds 25). Slightly more pricey, but it is worth paying the extra money just to have a direct-dial telephone in the room and the Canal Plus television channel for recent films in English. Each room has its own bathroom with shower. But the biggest advantage are the smart restaurants with mouth-watering buffets.

For a guide, telephone 010 33 146 865193, fax 146 876860, or write to Balladins, 20 rue du Pont des Halles, 94656 Rungis Cedex, France.

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