Sweet dreams in London, Paris & Rome

The owner's dog sleeps on a chair in the lobby. You could grow old waiting for the crotchety cage elevator, and the keys look like something out of Nancy Drew. The beds sag, the plumbing sings and the carpet could use a shampoo.

Recognize this? It's a budget hotel in London, Paris or Rome, as basic as a Days Inn or an Econo Lodge in the U.S. but far more idiosyncratic. The kinks and character are part of the fun. The challenge is finding a budget hotel that's not only endearingly quirky but also affordable, clean, secure, convenient and well-run.

That's a tall order these days. The dollar is still weak compared with the pound and the euro, although it has improved recently, and room rates are through the roof in all three capitals. The average daily rate in London is $193, according to PKF Consulting, an international travel consulting firm. In Paris it's $227, and Rome, where the inventory is more limited, takes the gold with an average daily room rate of $272.

Prices are high even at modest places. When I first started assessing European budget hotels a decade ago, you could find an acceptable room for about $90 a night. Now you're lucky to get a decent double with a private bath for $120.

Many of my old budget standbys have been discovered, keeping them booked almost solid. Others have redecorated and added amenities, driving up the price.

In the last few months, I have toured dozens of budget hotels in Paris, my home base, and traveled to London and Rome, inspecting familiar places and looking for others. My favorites remain small, family-run inns. In all three cities, economical apartment rentals and bed-and-breakfasts are available, but I concentrated on hotels with five or more rooms that were close to the city centers.

Although the star rating systems in these three European capitals are not always reliable (see tips box Page 11), I used them to identify places with doubles for $150 to $180, the price range for most two- and three-star hotels. I sought accommodations with such basic amenities as private baths, telephones and TVs, but I didn't consistently find others, such as double-glazed windows, air conditioning and elevators.

You can spend more for a room you never want to leave or less for a chamber so basic and depressing you hate going back to it. My mother always said accommodations in glorious places shouldn't matter. But those who think the hotel is part of the travel experience want more than bare-bones.

That's what I looked for, though my methodology wasn't scientific. What separates the pearls from the paste is largely intangible: upkeep, architecture, history and décor; friendliness and personal touches that show someone cares; location in a neighborhood with its own flair — in short, all the things that reward a frugal traveler and make the best budget hotels at least as appealing as the more expensive accommodations.