Last summer, with her husband and 10-year-old twins, Hallie Cotnam, an Ottawa-based journalist, booked two rooms at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, during the busy Royal St. John’s Regatta boat race. Costing about 138 Canadian dollars, or roughly $103 a night, their quarters included a kitchenette — allowing them to save on meals — and access to a pool, gym and convenient public transportation.
“While there, we met other travelers in the common areas and I was struck by their friendliness,” she wrote in an e-mail. “In that sense it had a hostel vibe, but was clean and bright and staffed 24 hours a day.”
When students are away on summer break, many universities and colleges rent rooms to travelers at affordable rates that reflect their lack of frills. School groups, Scout troops and students frequently check in, but increasingly, independent travelers, families and thrifty businesspeople are finding the joys — economic and otherwise — of hitting campus.
Accommodations range widely, from bare dormitory singles where you must bring your own linens to hotel-like rooms and furnished apartments.
“There is variation among the rooms, but a friend of mine walked into her room to discover that it had a grand piano,” said Bonnie Crail, 66, a small-business owner in Austin, Texas, who stayed at the University of Oxford in England last summer.
Chekitan Dev, a professor of marketing and management at Cornell University’s SC Johnson College of Business in the School of Hotel Administration, called these seasonal options “pop-up hotels” from non-hoteliers, where guests risk lackluster service, rooms and food. “As long as travelers make this choice with eyes wide open to expect a college-like experience, they will not be disappointed,” he said.
The following services provide bargain accommodations on college campuses.
A global service
While most rental services are regional or national, UniversityRooms.com, founded in 2007 with rooms at six colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, now offers accommodations at more than 100 universities in roughly a dozen countries, with particular strength in Britain and continental Europe.
The service tends to draw budget travelers of all ages, as well as visitors on an academic or business trip, or those simply interested in a university’s history, according to Laura Border, a spokeswoman for UniversityRooms.com.
Most rooms are summer-only and universities set their own rates and provide amenities, so inclusions of things like towels may vary. For simple single rooms with en-suite bathrooms and supplied linens and breakfast, rates start at 65 pounds at Cambridge, the alma mater of Charles Darwin; 48 pounds for a single with breakfast at Durham Castle, which dates back to the 11th century, at Durham University in northeast England; and 49 euros for a dorm single with access to an outdoor pool at the Colegio Mayor Jaime del Amo in the university district of Madrid, Spain, about 2 miles north of the city center.
UniversityRooms.com lists just two U.S. locations — at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas (from $20 a person), and four schools in Worcester, Mass. (from $50 a person), including Worcester State University.
In addition to UniversityRooms.com’s listings in Australia, the suburban Sydney-based University Stays offers accommodations in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. While some are designed for group bookings, most are available to individual travelers during the Southern Hemisphere summer holidays between November and February, with some available year-round.
In mid-March, a double room at Robert Menzies College in the Sydney suburb of Macquarie Park was recently going for 148 Australian dollars, or about $97, a night, with meals, linens and a private bathroom. A single in a five-bedroom apartment at Western Sydney University Village in Penrith was 75 Australian dollars a night, without meals but including a fully equipped kitchen and linens.
By comparison, I found a boutique hotel in the center of Sydney for the same period for $78 on Airbnb; as always, it pays to shop around.
Many Canadian schools make their residences available to travelers in summer. More than 100 of them are listed on ConnectOnCampus.ca, a website that acts as a central listing service linking travelers to the schools’ direct booking sites.
Through it, I navigated to McGill University, with rooms in downtown Montreal from May 15 to Aug. 3 starting at 49 Canadian dollars, or about $37, for a single in a dorm, and 119 Canadian dollars, in hotel-like rooms.
The University of Toronto campus downtown has more than 900 bedrooms available in summer at its New College Residences, which average 50 Canadian dollars a night. By comparison, STR, a hotel industry research firm, found Toronto’s average daily hotel rate was 196 Canadian dollars in 2019. The basic dorm arrangements include linens and free Wi-Fi and access to common rooms with kitchen facilities (bring your own utensils).
Residence & Conference Center operates 21 campus residences primarily in Ontario with one in British Columbia and one in Alberta. During summer break, it offers its suites, most equipped with kitchens, to groups as well as independent travelers. Its location at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary offers amenities like a fitness center and accommodations ranging from studios to four-bedroom suites (starting around 110 Canadian dollars for a studio that sleeps two in June, including breakfast).
London for less
Last year, the average daily rate for hotels in London was about $197, according to STR. Compare that with a stay at a University of London room, ranging from singles in a dormitory with a shared bathroom (helpfully labeled “not for light sleepers”) at 46 pounds, or about $59, to one-bedroom furnished apartments with kitchens at 105 pounds (rates include linens, weekly housekeeping and breakfast in residence hall dining rooms).
Most of the school’s roughly 3,500 rooms lie in the central Bloomsbury area near sights including the British Museum and Covent Garden.
Only 30 rooms are available year-round with the majority on offer from the end of June to early September. Peak times, in July and August, are popular with U.S. university groups and are often booked a year in advance.
In the United States, travelers will find university housing scarce. Many schools reserve their accommodations for summer school students, conference attendees, summer camps and researchers.
Among those renting on a short-term basis in summer, the University Center Conference Chicago, a residential building serving several universities in downtown Chicago, primarily leases its apartments and suites to summer interns or groups for periods of 30 days or more. Its short-term rentals become available after May 1 by signing up for notifications at the website (from $65.72 a person a night, in a shared suite, including breakfast).
The University of Southern California in Los Angeles rents its one- and two-bedroom Cardinal Gardens apartments across the street from the main campus between June 1 and July 31 for stays from one to 29 nights, from $57 a person, double occupancy, per night. Expect to share a double room in one- and two-bedroom apartments with linens and kitchens but no cookware. Outdoor amenities include a basketball court and furnished courtyard.