Thursday, 24 October 2013

Paying the Piper: Is Australia's First Tune Hotel Worth the Price?

At the risk of sounding trite, I want to suggest there are two types of traveller - those who spend a lot of time in their hotel room and care about its comfort and decor, and others who don't give a damn as long as the room is cheap and there's a clean bed.

I'm the second type.

On my first trip to London with my wife in 1990, I chose a pokey, joyless tourist hotel near Russell Square, where the only tip you felt inclined to give the gloomy staff was "Cheer up, it might never happen."

And during the recent AGM of the Australian Society of Travel Writers, held at the Gold Coast's extravagant Palazzo Versace, I stayed at a YHA hostel 200 metres down the road and walked between the two in my suit for the formal evening events.

Tune Hotel, Melbourne
In tune

If you're on the same wavelength as me, Tony Fernandes thinks he has your number.

The Malaysian businessman founded budget airline AirAsia. Following the lead of Ireland's Ryanair and the American Southwest Airlines, it made a success of selling cheap seats topped up with a variety of nominally optional charges.

Fernandes later applied the budget airline formula to a hotel chain, Tune Hotels, which now has numerous properties across South-East Asia and the UK, as well as footholds in Japan and India.

The basic offer of a Tune Hotel is a simple room with a low tariff, the guest able to add extra options for a fee. Each (squeezy) room includes a bed and what the chain likes to call a "power shower".

In Tunes Hotels in Asia you generally pay extra for airconditioning, TV, wifi, towels and toiletries; in Western countries the aircon is standard but the other options are in play.

We're about to find out if this airline-sourced model will fly here, as Australia's first Tune Hotel opened earlier this week in Melbourne's inner-city suburb Carlton.

With access to a tram line and within walking distance of the city centre, it looks on the face of it similar to the London Tunes - close to public transport though not in the heart of the city.

Room interior, Tune Hotel Melbourne
Tune test

So far, so good. But will Australians see Tune's "tariff plus extras" approach as a reasonable way to score a cheap hotel room, or a sneaky means of quoting an unrealistically low price which which becomes unavoidably more expensive?

As a test, in mid-October I dummied up a booking on the Tune website for a Wednesday in late November, after the Melbourne Cup Carnival but before school holidays. I was offered a double room for $85.

Clicking through, I found these optional extras: $2.20 per person for towel rent and toiletries, $4.40 for 24 hours of Foxtel TV, and $6.60 for 24 hours of wifi access per person. There were also options for early check-in and late-check-out, each covering both guests for a single charge of $22.

I know what my other half and I would choose if we were visiting Melbourne as an interstate destination: two lots of towels and toiletries (when would you ever bother packing these?), and two serves of wifi. Television we could live without. I hardly ever switch the set on when travelling, and there's plenty of interesting stuff to watch on our iPads.

If we were paying for the room and two lots of towels, toiletries and wifi, that'd be a grand total of $102.60 for our November night in Carlton.

But wait! An alternative choice is a Comfort Package of $11 per person combining all three options. That'd add up to $107 with the room rate. Without TV, therefore, we'd still be better off going a la carte.

Reception area, Tune Hotel Melbourne
Tunes may vary

But would we be better off overall? I consulted the sites of three inexpensive central Melbourne hotels (City Garden, Ibis Budget and Causeway Inn) with compact rooms for the same November night, to try to match type if not precise location.

At first glance they seemed competitive, with an average rate of $97.70 including towels, toiletries and TV. The cheapest (Ibis Budget) was in fact $71.10, significantly less expensive than Tune and with more amenities.

Where they fell down, however, was by offering sky-high Internet access. For 24 hours, one hotel charged $20 and another $24.95. The Ibis Budget threw away its lead by offering Internet access at an astronomical $20 per three hours.

So it comes down to personal preference. If you see Internet access as an essential, Tune stands out. If you can do without wifi, there are competitive choices which don't involve paying a fee for a towel.

Time will tell if the Tune Hotels model works in Australia. Personally, I've never minded Ryanair's way of doing things; I once flew from London to Poland for a penny plus taxes.

If nothing else, Tune's reasonable Internet rate may finally force down the insanely high price of Australian hotel wifi. We can only hope.

Details of the Tune Hotel Melbourne can be found at the Tune website.