Until recently "capsule" or "pod" hotels were a distinctly Japanese accommodation phenomenon. Although originally introduced to satisfy the humble needs of Japanese businessmen while traveling, these miniscule, almost coffin-like sleeping spaces have also served the budgetary needs of many a traveling student or curious tourist -- myself included. To be honest, I found the experience somewhat interesting, but by no means uncomfortable. However I believe that people who suffer from claustrophobia may not share this view.
The original Japanese version of the capsule was first introduced in Osaka in 1979 and then spread throughout the country. The capsule hotel is a humble sleeping experience offering a space of usually only three to four feet high and wide and about six feet long, and costing between $25 and $50 a night. Capsules are often stacked on top of each other and sometimes privacy is only ensured by a curtain, so noise (particularly from a snoring neighbor) may be an issue. Each capsule usually comes equipped with its own mini TV, radio, alarm clock and lamp and guests have access to a public lounge space, including a public bath. Some capsule hotels feature private bathroom that are often no larger than an aircraft toilet with a shower on top of a toilet and a sink that pulls out of the wall.
The man behind Malaysian discount airline AirAsia (www.airasia.com), Tony Fernandes, is bringing the capsule concept to Malaysia with a slightly different spin -- offering visitors a chance to stay in small, comfortable and above all very affordable rooms.
Advertising itself as Asia's first no-frills hotel, Tune Hotels (www.tunehotels.com) has rooms priced from a strangely unbelievable $3 a night to $30. The distinctive red and white ribboned design may not win any subtle design aesthetic awards, but it certainly is distinctive and looks more like a tail of an aircraft than a hotel. The first few locations in Kuala Lumpur are in key strategic areas for tourism, business and access to public transport -- including the recently opened flagship property in Kuala Lumpur's downtown business district at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. Future hotels have been slated at KLCC (under the Petronas Towers), KL Tower, Petaling Street Chinatown, Bintang Walk and Jalan Sultan Ismail, with ten expected in the KL metropolitan area alone over the next five years.
These stripped down simple room are certainly larger than their Japanese counterparts but are conceptually similar. The first hotel offers 172 rooms with king sized beds and tiny showers. Extras or upgrades offered come at various prices so things that would normally be considered standard, i.e. television, a window, housekeeping services, air-conditioning etc. are all paid for separately. For example five hours of air-conditioning runs at a little less than $1.50 or 12 hours for $3. Towels aren't provided but if you don't have one with you, they will supply them from $3 (basic) to $5 (superior) -- and you get to take them home if you like. A simple coffee and toast breakfast is less than $0.90. Instead of a restaurant, gym or pool, Tune Hotels will have a simple lounge area and paid advertisements on the rooms' floors and stairways as a revenue earner.
Tune Hotels plans are far more grandiose than its room sizes, with several more hotels planned in the coming months and years in Malaysia and across Asia -- including Penang, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu, Singapore, Bali, Bangkok and Siem Reap. Its long term plans include building hotels at all AirAsia destinations globally, including a 250-rooms hotel for transit passengers at its home base -- Kuala Lumpur International Airport, to be completed in 2008.
A New York City variation on the capsule hotel theme is The Pod Hotel (tel. 800/742.5945; www.thepodhotel.com). Formerly the Pickwick Arms, the hotel is located in the heart of New York Ciy's Midtown East neighborhood. Individual pod-sized rooms feature single beds, bunk beds, a double or queen sized bed and are priced accordingly. Rooms are decked out with efficient, stylish furniture, iPod docking stations, dimmer control lighting systems, a safe, open closet, WiFi Internet access and LCD TVs. Although some bathrooms (rain-head showers) may be shared, there is an in-room bath signal that lets guest know when the bathroom is vacant -- very convenient indeed. Room rates (summer, 2007) start from $109 for a single, $119 for bunk beds, $179 for a double and $189 for a queen. In spring and fall, when hotel room prices in New York tend to soar, rates start from $149 for a single, $159 for bunk beds and $249 for a queen sized room. Taxes are additional.
Across the Atlantic, the Europeans are also taking note. Yotel (www.yotel.com) will be opening its first capsule style hotel inside Gatwick Airport's South Terminal next month and another inside Terminal 4 at Heathrow this summer. Yotel bills itself as a Business Class accommodation experience at an affordable price, in fact the inspiration for Yotel came from a combination of British Airways first class cabins and Japanese capsule hotels. So rather than making the rooms basic, they are in fact high tech and quite luxurious, despite their size. Cabins will be bookable in four-hour blocks (with extensions by the hour thereafter) making them especially appealing for delayed and transfer passengers.
Passengers leaving on early morning flights can also stay the night at Yotel, check in online from the comfort of their rooms and only have a short walk to their departure gate. Designed by Priestman Goode, the design firm collaboratively responsible for the Airbus A350, the 108 square foot rooms feature a techno wall workstation, flat screen LCD TV, free Internet access, on-demand movies, comfort cooling, hand sprung mattresses, luxury bedding and bathroom fittings, toiletries, eat in 'Grazing' menu with cabin service, automated check in/out, luggage storage and a novel concept in window design -- the internal window. With the European high design aesthetic and the U.K pound sterling comes the British prices --Standard cabins will be priced from $110 overnight and Premium cabins from $160 with four-hour time slots priced from $50.
Qbic Hotels (www.qbichotels.com), currently in two European cities (Amsterdam and Antwerp) with a third opening this fall in Maastricht (Netherlands) are known as low budget design hotels, offering "cube" or "pod" rooms with high design touches like Hästens four-poster beds, LCD TVs, safes, Internet access and Philippe Starck bathroom elements. All of these amenities are within the budget traveler's reach for less than $55 per night.
And of course easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou's offers his signature orange futuristic cabin-like rooms at easyHotel (www.easyhotel.com). With properties currently in London and Basel, two further hotels are due to open in London this year (this month in Victoria and June in Earl's Court) plus Budapest in October, 2007. Room rates start at $50 per night in London and $44 in Basel and anyone who has been to London will know that $50 is an absolute bargain. The easyHotel franchise is planning to extend into the Middle East, the Levant, North Africa, India and Pakistan with the first property in Dubai scheduled to open in early 2008. The rooms, designed by leading international architects Harper Downie, will all be assembled at a single manufacturing plant, described as 'the world's first hotel room assembly line'. In total, over the next five years, easyHotel is expected to create no less than 38 properties in 17 countries.
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