NEW YORK - What does $276.58 buy? Plenty, right? Not in New York, where that princely sum is merely the average cost - as of September - of

one night

in a hotel. Factor in food and entertainment and the message is clear: For the traveler of modest means, these are desperate times indeed.

But exactly what desperate measures do they call for? In other words, could it possibly be time you swallowed your pride, locked arms with the penniless student and the dusty backpacker, and took a chance on a room with - gulp - a shared bath? We offer three Manhattan establishments with loos down the hall, and, believe it or not, we'd even let our mother stay in two of them.

Chelsea Lodge

318 W. 20th St. between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

1-800-373-1116,

» READ MORE: www.chelsealodge.com

.

What we paid.

$138.42, including tax. Rooms are $119 single, $129 double.

The property.

We walked past the Chelsea Lodge, a cheery brownstone wedged in the middle of West 20th, twice before we realized it was our destination. That's a

good

thing. There was no blinking vacancy sign in the window, no doorman waited impatiently for the next guests. We found just a couple of twentysomethings sitting on the front stoop.

Inside, we weren't bowled over by the musty Grandma's-house- decor (tired but tidy, and those ducks have to go), and there's little public area to speak of, save for a few chairs at the foot of a staircase.

But what's not to love about the neighborhood? Chelsea is a happy glut of restaurants, shops, galleries and entertainment, and Greenwich Village is minutes away. Around the corner, we could have checked out performances at the Joyce Theater (

» READ MORE: www.joyce.org

), a premier venue for dance, while restaurants on Eighth run the gamut, including Italian, Chinese takeout, and good ol' American Everything at numerous diners.

Our room.

Though we were offered a free upgrade to a first-floor double facing the street, we opted for more privacy and stuck with our dinky single. We're glad we did. The next morning, sidewalk construction seemed to rattle every pane of glass in the place.

The first things we spotted in our second-floor room, which looked down on a pretty, tree-packed courtyard, were the Hershey kisses on the pillow. Nice. A twin bed against one wall was neatly made with soft sheets, and a flat-screen TV sat on an old chest of drawers. A fan on the tall ceiling moved the air nicely, and a sink had just enough space for all our toiletries.

The toilet itself was down the hall, but no complaints here about the surprisingly spacious in-room shower. (We wouldn't have been surprised if 13 clowns had tumbled out of it.) OK, we had to shimmy a little to avoid dripping all over the bed when we stepped out, but we're fine with anything that avoids that awkward trek to a shared shower.

The bathroom.

Our floor had a pair of well-stocked WCs, both of which were predictably tiny, with nondescript tile, sparkling fixtures and a fan/light on a timer. Neither one was ever occupied when I needed it, though I could hear people bumbling about late at night when they were skipping to the loos, about 20 feet from my room.

Would we go back?

Absolutely. Our single room had the twin virtues of being both comfortable and cheap, and that location was ideal.

Would we let our mother stay here?

If Mom could get a quiet room on the first floor, perhaps. But because there's no elevator, and voices carry in the halls, and those steps are steep, we'd steer her elsewhere.

- John Deiner

Pod Hotel

230 E. 51st St. between Second and Third Avenues.

1-800-742-5945,

» READ MORE: www.thepodhotel.com

.

What we paid.

$162.24, including tax, for a single pod with a shared bath. (Rates can go as low as $89 for the same unit.) A bunk-bed pod with a shared bath starts at $99, and queen pods with a bathroom start at $149.

The property.

With a lobby much swankier than we'd imagined (sleek furniture, soft lighting) and a more sophisticated, older crowd than the prices would suggest, the Pod Hotel - formerly the Pickwick Arms - makes a good first impression.

A large sitting area was packed with guests pecking away on laptops; in warm weather, they can venture out to tables arranged on a balcony or the landscaped patio below. We paid a quick visit to the rooftop deck (nice view, and fresh air in a Manhattan hotel is always welcome), then explored the 'hood a bit. The streets surrounding the Pod, in Midtown East, are relatively sedate, and you're more likely to bump into worker bees than other tourists.

Brisk walkers can get to Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, the United Nations, Times Square and Grand Central Terminal within 15 minutes or so. For meals, consider Second Avenue, just around the block, with its wide range of markets and ethnic eateries at non-tourist-zone prices.

Our room.

The hallways at the Pod Hotel are ultra-narrow, which prepares you for the rooms. Ours was a sleek little affair - too big to call a closet, too small to use for batting practice. A built-in couch/bed took up most of one side and was attached to a desk holding an iPod docking station (sweet). The 15-inch flat-screen TV embedded in the wall was larger than we'd expected, and the wood shutters on the small window were a classy touch.

A tiny sink in the room was perfect for tooth-brushing and shaving, but all the mirrors - no doubt to make the room seem bigger - were a bit much. We loved the copious storage space (an open-air closet, hooks everywhere, large drawers tucked under the bed) and the free safe.

Coolest touch: Lighted numbers above our door indicated which bathrooms (there were four on our floor) were available, so we didn't need to pace around in our flip-flops.

The bathroom.

We walked about five seconds down an empty hallway in shorts and a T-shirt to shower; a generous pile of soft towels is provided in each pod.

Never thought we'd say this about a shared bath, but - wow. Clean, moodily lit, spotless and odor-free, the bathroom boasted gorgeous tile and was awash in New Agey music from hidden speakers. We spent way too much time in the huge shower, which featured rain showerheads and little massage jets - and water that remained at the temperature desired. No scalding downbursts or quick freezes.

Would we go back?

You bet, though we'd like to try a pod with an in-room bath next time - that $149 rate for a queen is just amazing.

Would we let our mother stay here?

Absolutely. Mom loves a clean house, and the Pod Hotel manages to be modern and homey at the same time.

- John Deiner

Chelsea Star Hotel

300 W. 30th St. at Eighth Avenue.

1-877-827-6969,

» READ MORE: www.starhotelny.com

.

What we paid.

$115.74 for a double, including tax, but rates range from $29.99 for a dorm room to $359 for a deluxe apartment suite with private bath (taxes extra). Doubles with shared bath start at $99 (Jan. 1-March 31).

The property.

From the outside, the Chelsea Star, a skip from Penn Station and not much more to Midtown's main attractions (Times Square, Central Park, Rockefeller Center, and more), has minimal signage and a speakeasy mystique. We briefly wondered if we needed a secret password to enter. ("The tourist has landed.")

Yet once inside, we realized that the three-story hotel is hardly an underground operation. International guests pulled from a Benetton ad were checking in, logging on (two computers are available for $2 per 20 minutes; also free WiFi) and vegging out in the lived-in lounge, which comes with a TV, books and hot coffee until 11 a.m. An outdoor deck with umbrella-covered tables stays open year-round.

Our room.

The 16 single and double rooms with shared bath are campily decorated, with such themes as Coney Island, Esther Williams, and

The King and I.

For both of our stays, we were assigned the Shakespeare room, which had a romantic sweep of curtains over the bed and etched prose on the wall. (Insomniacs can memorize the ceiling-to-floor sonnet.)

The room was mostly about the mattress (covered in thin white sheets); a TV suspended from the ceiling, a tiny alcove with hangers, and a nightstand with a clock took up the remaining space. In a rare New York moment, we actually were able to open our window, a good idea that turned tragic once rush hour kicked into gear. Otherwise, the hotel was nearly as quiet as a nunnery.

The bathroom.

The bathroom-to-guest-room ratio is about 1 to 4, and the distance between the two was close enough that we could make a mad dash in our jammies without getting busted. Each guest-room floor has one bathroom, which is a reasonable number for late-evening visits but unbearable during the morning crush. (The lobby floor has two half-baths and one full bath.)

Indeed, during one of our stays, we were so desperate we actually considered going to Penn Station to use its facilities. Thankfully, we heard the shower turn off and aggressively positioned ourselves to be next in line.

When you do get into the bathroom, however, you may never want to leave. The checked tile is very mod, the sink large enough to sail toy boats in, and the overall sanitation level high enough to pass Mr. Clean's test. We also had space to set up our mobile toiletry station, which stayed dry even when the shower was on full force. We did find some shampoo and conditioner in the shower, which may have been orphaned or included. Of course, this being New York, they were by Bumble & Bumble. Our hair never looked so shiny.

Would we go back?

In a snap. However, we would like to sleep in Orbit or with Cher next time - no offense, Shakespeare. We may also slightly adjust our bathroom habits - maybe shower in the evening and forgo our midnight glass of water.

Would we let our mother stay here?

Mom does not do shared baths, even if they are trimmed in gold. So while Mom would enjoy the droll decor and international vibe, in the end she would slap down the extra cash for a deluxe room with private bath.

- Andrea Sachs