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Thursday, June 23, 2005

Traveling to France? Don't Forget the Soap.

What's up with cheap hotels that don't provide soap? This is a common practice in France and other European countries. Last week I stayed in a bed & breakfast in rural France that was very nice, and a real bargain at 37 euros ($45) a night. It was relatively low-end, I suppose (no TV, no 24 hr front desk, 3 flights of stairs to my room) but they provided a clean, attractive room with a private bath, and it was certainly no youth hostel. The one guest I chatted with seemed to be an old-money, wealthy Brit. But no soap.

As a good economist, I've got to consider the possibility that the hotel is striking an efficient bargain with its guests. In the U.S., lots of half-used hotel soap bars are probably wastefully thrown out at the end of a stay. Suppose that the little soap bars cost a dollar a day, but that European hotel guests can supply their own soap, taking it home at the end of their stay, for only fifty cents a day. Then an economist might speculate that the typical American is happy to pay the extra half-dollar for the convenience, while Europeans prefer to pack a bar of soap and save a few euros. The average European is poorer than the average American, after all.

But as I've said, the guests at this "chambre d'hotes" didn't seem particularly hurting for money. Further, why not offer a choice? For American hotels where the default is to provide little bars of soap, this might be difficult, requiring the maids to be informed of the different preferences of each guest: high "transaction costs" might prevent American hotels from offering fewer services to their guests who'd prefer that. I guess that's why I can't get a discount by offering to re-use unlaundered towels a second time, or even a third.

But soapless European hotels could just sell bars of soap at check-in (and how about little bottles of shampoo as well). I'd certainly buy one, even at an inflated price, rather than have to run out to the convenience store to pick up a bar of my own. Is it possible that cheap European hotels actually do this, but no one's told me?

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