Amsterdam is a good place to try new experiences. Sleeping in a shipping container is unlikely to be top of every visitor’s list, but when I wake up after my first night at citizenM Centraal, the city’s newest designer hotel, I feel like I’ve seen the future of international travel — and it’s a 14-square meter steel box.
The hotel, made up of 215 shipping containers welded together over five floors, is one of a new breed of budget hotels that aim to make life easier for the cash-strapped 21st century traveller. It’s a particularly Dutch idea – the lack of affordable housing in Amsterdam has meant local students have been living in homes made of shipping containers for years – but now it’s becoming a huge hit with international travellers.
As we’re being asked to spend more on air taxes, checking in our baggage and even the privilege of using a credit card to pay for it all, hotels like this are springing up across the globe.
The first budget hotels, such as Yotel and easyHotel, were constructed around airports and aimed at business travellers, but they’ve become so popular with tourists that branches have started opening in city centres. They cater to those who travel light and don’t mind forgoing a bit of space and privacy in exchange for affordable luxury in the world’s most expensive cities.
As I wash my hair in our room’s “rain shower” cubicle before breakfast, I’m able to watch my other half still asleep, curled up in our duvet, three feet from my navel. It feels a little strange, but it’s all part of the experience, or so we’re told. “citizenM understands that mobile citizens want luxury without unwanted extras,” says its self-consciously hip brochure, published on newsprint. “That means great locations and great showers, big beds and big towels, free films and free Wi-Fi. In other words, big expectations for not so big prices.” Those prices start at €79 a night – a snip compared to other Amsterdam hotels.
“Over the past year, we’ve definitely noticed an increase both in the number of these hotels opening and also the number of bookings for them,” says Andrew Warner, senior director of marketing at Expedia. “They aren’t just offering you a value-for-money proposition, but they’re also giving you that sort of designer style you might expect from a more expensive hotel but at a very accessible price.”
“This is the hotel equivalent of easyJet and Ryanair,” says Nigel Pocklington of Hotels.com. “The middle is getting squeezed. There’s clearly a market for five-star luxury, and the expectations consumers have of that are ever-increasing, and the segment of consumers who are much more value-conscious are less happy to pay for a bog-standard three-star hotel.
“From what we can see, people who are staying in them are smarter and more experienced travellers because they’ve figured out they can pay for things that are important to them, but not necessarily everything,” he adds. “It was a very clever concept when Ikea brought it to home furnishing, and frankly there are quite a lot of parallels there.”
He predicts that these kinds of hotels will start being rolled out across “all of the classic weekend-break destinations over the next few years”.
citizenM certainly has global ambitions. There are two in Amsterdam – one at Schiphol airport and the new one in the city – while Britain’s first branch opened its doors in Glasgow in September, and the first London citizenM will open on the South Bank next year. Another is being built in east London in time for the Olympics. Two sites in New York and Paris are also in the pipeline.
Yotel, run by Simon Woodroffe of Yo! Sushi fame, is also cashing in on the trend. It has been offering rooms near airports since 2007 starting at £25 for a four-hour stay. They’ve been so popular that Yotel is opening a branch near New York’s Times Square next year, which will house nearly 700 cabins. Its rooms are styled to look like first-class aeroplane cabins, with the biggest pods just 10 square metres.
The easyHotel chain owns 13 budget hotels across Europe and one in Dubai, with five branches in central London. These are less about luxury – the cheapest rooms have a tiny six square metres of floor space and no windows – but with prices starting at £25 a night, you get what you pay for, including easyJet’s trademark screaming orange.
“It’s really important that anyone who’s thinking of staying in one of these hotels checks the reviews,” says Warner. “In some of the chains you might have to pay extra if you want your room cleaned. Some of them charge if you want toiletries or towels in the room. You need to be a little bit careful in terms of where some of the hidden costs might lie, which might push the price up beyond what you thought you were going to have to pay, for things you take for granted.”
Of course, these hotels aren’t going to suit everybody. If you like a human being to check you in and help with your baggage, this certainly isn’t for you. You need to be happy using gadgets and obviously not prone to claustrophobia.
More than anything, you need to be sure you’re very comfortable with the person who’s sharing your room. While our toilets at citizenM had customisable light and temperature settings, the designers still hadn’t figured out how to make them soundproof. If the future of international travel is affordable luxury, the traveller of the future might have to sacrifice a little bit of dignity to get it.