Motels are typically at 1 or 2-star level with few shared amenities. Guest rooms typically have designated parking spaces; lobby and community areas are absent, or very basic. If there's a pool, it will be outdoors and (depending on the climate) usable only seasonally. A minority have an on-site restaurant; there is no room service. As the original architecture had rooms opening directly onto a car park, rooms are self-contained with a private WC, wash handbasin and shower/bath "en suite".
A motel building boom accompanied the expansion of highways in the United States and Canada during the mid-20th century. As an icon of motoring culture, the motels of the 1950s and 1960s represented a lower-cost alternative to the grand old hotels of the railway era. Most were independently owned and were low-end when they were constructed. As the original owners retire, some have withstood the test of time better than others.
Increasing land cost and the growth of cost-competitive economy, limited service hotel chains which began in the late 1970s and early 1980s have halted new motel construction, but many existing properties remain in operation. While a well-operated and properly-maintained motel in a good location may still represent good value for money, a motel in a bad neighbourhood will attract crime, adultery or other illicit activity as the ability to enter the rooms directly from the car park confers privacy.
Rarely, motels have been restored as part of a larger effort to market a destination for nostalgia tourism; U.S. Route 66 is the most common example, although a few historic motels have been saved from demolition and redevelopment in Wildwood (New Jersey)'s beach district.
North American motels are usually designed with one or two floors and a hallway on the outside of the building. By contrast, the economy, limited service hotels which have supplanted motels at the low end of the market might be very tall structures with interior hallways.
Germany and Austria
In Germany, "motel" (also referred to as Rasthaus, Raststätte oder Autohof) has come to signify any low-end property built to 'one-star' service levels; these would be classed as economy, limited service (ELS) hotels elsewhere. In Austria, the term (and its German equivalents) is a category recognized officially.
In these budget motels, the rooms are typically very basic and small with a small desk, a television (with cable and international channels dependent on location), a double bed (or a double bed with a single bunk above), and a sink. There is no toilet or shower in the room; facilities are provided by single-person showers and toilets accessible from the common hallways, automatically self-cleaned after every use.
Most motels in Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji and New Zealand would be called "efficiencies" in North America. They include a kitchenette equipped with cooking utensils, crockery and cutlery together with a table and at least two chairs, a microwave, cooking rings, toaster and fridge. They thus offer opportunities for self-catering.
In Lusophone, Latin America and other Hispanic countries
The term motel in Latin America and some other parts of the world usually refers to a place of accommodation where the rooms are rented on a short term basis, typically for romantic assignations. Hotels, by contrast, are places of accommodation for travelers and are typically family friendly. Many hotels will not permit persons who are not registered as guests to go beyond the reception area. This is for the safety of both the guests and hotel staff and also to protect the hotel's reputation in what may still be a culturally conservative and Catholic part of the world. So visitors looking for a place to enjoy the physical company of another will often use motels. Also privacy is something of a premium in Latin America, with children often living at home until they are married. For this and other practical reasons, couples, even married couples desiring a little intimacy, sometimes rent a room at a motel. These motels are common in Latin America and do not carry the social stigma that used to be associated with so called "no tell motels" in the United States or Canada. The quality and price of motel accommodations varies, sometimes drastically, with most being clean and well kept. Rooms are booked anonymously with the bill usually being paid in cash.