In recent years, universities have cottoned on the fact that when their halls of residences are empty of students during the long university holidays, they can rent those rooms out to travellers as budget holiday accommodation. They are the perfect places for Slow Travellers who get centrally located rooms, a cheap price and the knowledge that they making good use of empty space rather than contributing to an increase in hotels or the socially damaging Airbnb's which can decimate neighbourhoods. At Slow Travel we have stayed in several of these, and here we rank our favourites.
How it works
Students, particularly first years, tend to stay in university accommodation, otherwise known as Halls of Residence. These are only ever for one year, and as universities have shorter academic years than schools, this leaves their Halls empty from June - October or thereabouts, after one year has moved out and the next year is yet to move in. Occasionally the universities will use the rooms for summer schools or conferences, but most of the time the rooms sit empty.
With the infrastructure already in place, it is easy for them to rent these out to holiday makers. They work just like a normal hotel, with many providing a full breakfast, and as most student accommodation these days has en suites, they are far more comfortable than you probably expect. Some rooms will be a modern magnolia painted room with a basic bed, desk and shelves, others can be a self-contained flat with a kitchen in a venerable and ancient institution - it all depends on the university.
You can find which universities rent out rooms with a basic google search, or look at UniversityRooms.com. Some even advertise on Booking.com.
Advantages of University rooms
They are cheap and can cost as little as £30 per night for a room with an ensuite
Most big cities have universities or colleges, and the student accommodation tends to be in the centre - giving you access to all of the main attractions of the city by foot, no cars or public transport required.
All rooms tend to have desks, shelves and plenty of power points for laptops
They can give you a unique way of experiencing the place you are staying in, seeing sights that other visitors will not get the chance to see. This is particularly beneficial in places like Oxford and Cambridge, where you can explore the college you are staying in, usually a beautiful and ancient building with extensive grounds.
You are making good use of empty space and not putting any additional burden on the infrastructure of a city.
Many of these halls use their additional income to keep prices low for the students.
Disadvantages of University Rooms
Obviously not all cities/towns have universities so you are limited as to where you can go using them.
You are very unlikely to find a TV in your room, but there many be a common room where you can watch one, and they will certainly have the power points required for laptops.
They are no-frills accommodation - don't expect luxury, silk sheets or bathrobes. The paintwork will be chipped, the beds may be iron single beds with simple duvets and pillows, the walls may be thin.
They rarely provide parking, as first year students do not take cars to university with them.
Some will not allow children to stay in the rooms.
As far as I am concerned, the advantages far outweigh any disadvantages, and the slight thrill of never quite knowing what you are going to get makes a trip far more exciting than just staying in some bland hotel.
St. John's College, Cambridge
Absolutely the best accommodation we have stayed in, even compared to hotels. The college is over 500 years old and has extensive grounds of immaculate manicured lawns, walled gardens and a river running through it. St. John's is home to the Cambridge Bridge of Sighs, one of the most recognisable landmarks in the city, and as a staying guest, you get to be one of the few people who can walk over it.
We had a two bedroom flat with a small kitchen and views over the city on one side and the college on the other. One of the rooms had a fireplace, a small blackboard, armchair and all sorts of nooks and crannies. We were in easy walking distance to other colleges, restaurants, museums and other attractions of the city. The porters were just how you imagine college porters to be, and one morning we even saw the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, walking past us on his way to a service, black gowns billowing out behind him. We absolutely loved our stay there.
What you get: Breakfast included, free Wifi, bar on site
Book your stay: St. John's College, Cambridge >>
St. Hugh's College, Oxford
Alma Mater of ex Prime Minister Teresa May, Emily Wilding Davidson and Amal Clooney, St. Hugh's may not be a traditional Oxford college with a quad, but is nonetheless one of the largest colleges in the city with extensive grounds. Unusually for Oxford, parking is possible on site.
Rooms can be in the older parts of the building where you share a bathroom, or in the more modern part which gives you an en suite. There are 14 acres of gardens which even have a croquet lawn. Breakfast is included in the price. Located in the north of the city it is best to get a bus, but it is only a 15 minute ride to the centre with all of its many attractions.
The rooms are simple but have everything you need.
What you get: On site parking, breakfast included
Book your stay: St. Hugh's College Oxford >>
Bankside House, London School of Economics
The best thing about Bankside House was its location - just behind the Tate Modern, on the banks of the Thames and central to all of the major London attractions. There are countless shops and restaurants within an easy walk and it was also just a short walk to Waterloo which suited us perfectly for trains. The room was basic and the walls paper thin, but it had everything we needed - except a fan. We stayed in the middle of a heatwave and you can't open the windows more than an inch, so we did suffer a bit with that, but otherwise it was fine.
They serve a huge buffet breakfast in the dining room each morning where you can have a fully cooked breakfast as well as fruit and pastries. There is a room where you can leave luggage before you check in or after you check out which is guarded by an attendant and which was really helpful.
What you get: Breakfast included, luggage storage
Book your stay: LSE Bankside House >>
University of Bath, Somerset
The Bath halls we stayed in the centre of town no longer seem to be open to the public, but they do still open several of their halls on their Claverton Down campus. The campus is 200 acres of landscaped grounds and also includes a fitness centre which you can use for an additional cost. It is just a five minute bus journey to the city - the University runs its own bus service which departs every 20 minutes. The city is packed with restaurants, shops and of course the world famous attractions such as the Roman Baths, Pump Rooms, Bath Abbey, Sally Lunn's Restaurant, Jane Austen's House, The Crescent and many more.
You can get everything from a single room with shared shower to a thirteen bedroom house with all sorts of variations in between. Some rooms even have balconies overlooking the pretty grounds.
What you get: Parking, Wi-Fi, Restaurant
Book your stay: University of Bath >>
Although not all cities or towns have universities, it is still worth looking to see if you can find something similar. For example, Salisbury has a theological college within the walls of its famous Close, just a few steps away from the cathedral. You don't need to be on one of their courses or theologically minded, you can just book to stay in their rooms. Prices are very reasonable, particularly if you are happy to share a bathroom, and you get the unique opportunity to actually stay inside the Close with views over medieval rooftops or the cathedral.
What you get: A comfortable room, Wi-Fi included
Book your stay: Sarum College >>
There are plenty more university rooms to stay in across the UK, have a look to see what you can find. Many won't open their bookings until it's near the summer holidays so if you can't find anything at first, try again a few months later.