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Golden chains: 20 best franchises for travelers

By Dave Johnston, for CNN
March 21, 2014 -- Updated 2056 GMT (0456 HKT)
A cinnamon roll big enough to use as a pillow when you slip into a sugar coma. After this we're not sure we can do 19 more of anything, but here goes. A cinnamon roll big enough to use as a pillow when you slip into a sugar coma. After this we're not sure we can do 19 more of anything, but here goes.
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20. Cinnabon
19. Europcar
18. Outback Steakhouse
17. Panda Express
16. Marks & Spencer
15. Wagamama
14. Tim Hortons
13. Subway
12. Hilton Hotel & Resorts
11. DFS Galleria
10. Kidzania
9. Dunkin' Donuts
8. KFC
7. Muji
6. Mos Burger
5. Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
4. Starbucks
3. McDonald's
2. Din Tai Fung
1. 7-Eleven
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sometimes, it's not about a place where everybody knows your name. It's about a place where you already know theirs
  • Australian-themed Outback was founded in Florida and has more than 1,200 restaurants in 20 countries
  • Muji bases its brand on having no brand
  • 7-Eleven has more than 2,000 stores ... in Tokyo

(CNN) -- Yes, we know how chains and franchises ruin the world by gentrifying its every once-exotic corner.

But sometimes on the road -- maybe more often than we'd like to admit -- it's not so much about a place where everybody knows your name as it is about a place where you already know theirs. (By the way, we're employing "chains" and "franchises" loosely here, not in the strictest business operations sense of the words.)

Based on the hard miles that led the CNN Travel staff to where they are today -- namely, like you, sitting at a computer wishing they were somewhere else -- here's our list of favorite chains, franchises, blessedly familiar stops and "thank God there's a place where I know they've got a clean toilet" oases in unfamiliar places.

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20. Cinnabon

Country of origin: United States

Why we love it: A cinnamon roll big enough to use as a pillow when you slip into a sugar coma.

Why its brand is easier to remember than your mother's birthday: Using the sweet smell of cinnamon and sugar as an olfactory trap, Cinnabon has been luring customers since 1985.

Featuring a menu with seven variations on its classic cinnamon roll and iced beverages that typically feature whipped cream, it's found success in more than 30 countries and 750 locations.

Cinnabon mot: Cinnabon uses only its own trademarked Makara cinnamon.

More: 10 things the U.S. does better than anywhere else

19. Europcar

Country of origin: France

Why we love it: Freedom from buses, trains, scooters, bikes, pack mules, etc.

Why its brand is easier to remember than putting out the Do Not Disturb sign: Founded in Paris in 1949, Europcar has locations in more than 143 countries. Thanks to a buy-back business model with auto manufacturers, most Europcar vehicles are less than six months old, so if you like that new car smell, you're in luck.

Fast fact: Living up to its name, Europcar is the number one car rental company in Europe.

More: 49 journeys that'll change your life

Feels Australian, isn\'t Australian.
Feels Australian, isn't Australian.

18. Outback Steakhouse

Country of origin: United States

Why we love it: Since most people base their knowledge of Australia on "Crocodile Dundee," the restaurant feels completely authentic.

Why its brand is easier to remember than the capital of Australia: An Australian-themed restaurant founded in Florida and promoted, for a time, by a New Zealander (Jemaine Clement of "Flight of the Conchords"), Outback has more than 1,200 restaurants in 20 countries.

Known for its steaks but infamous for the Bloomin' Onion, a 1,948-calorie, one-pound crown of fried onion, Outback opened its first restaurant in 1988 and its first Australian restaurant in Sydney 13 years later.

Kooky name: When Outback Steakhouse came to Australia, its Kookaburra chicken wings were renamed Chookaburra to help differentiate them from Australia's kookaburra bird.

17. Panda Express

Country of origin: United States

Why we love it: Easy place to enjoy a Chinese banquet, even if you don't have any Chinese friends.

Why its brand is easier to remember than whatever she's gonna get mad at you for forgetting this week: Launched in southern California as Panda Inn in 1973, the operation was among the first to bring Mandarin and Szechuan flavors to the Cantonese-cuisine-dominated West Coast. It now operates 1,575 restaurants (no franchise stores, the Panda Restaurant Group runs them all) mostly in the U.S., where its Sweetfire chicken is an airport-meal standby for travelers hustling between connections.

Bear essential: El Panda opened its first international branch in Mexico City in 2011.

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16. Marks & Spencer

Country of origin: United Kingdom

Why we love it: For 129 years, Marks & Spencer has concentrated on selling only the best of British-made goods -- brushed nylon jump suits, for example.

Why its brand is easier to remember than the chronology of all those powdered royals: The place where you can buy eggs and underwear at the same time has 1,184 locations.

Change up: Until 1988, Marks & Spencer had no changing rooms, so customers couldn't try on clothes.

That's classy. Or, at least, it was.

15. Wagamama

Country of origin: United Kingdom

Why we love it: Nothing makes slurping noodles more acceptable than sitting on the same bench as 50 other noodle slurpers.

Why its brand is easier to remember than the Celsius-Fahrenheit conversion: Helping dispel the notion that ramen comes dried with a flavoring packet and eaten only by college students and poor vegetarians, Wagamama opened its first restaurant in London in 1992.

Inspired by Japanese ramen bars, it's since expanded to 118 locations around the world.

Fast fact: According to the Wagamama website, the company's name translates to "Naughty Child."

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Nine out of 10 Canadians will take a \
Nine out of 10 Canadians will take a "Timmies double double" over a cup of Starbucks' finest.

14. Tim Hortons

Country of origin: Canada

Why we love it: Founded by Tim Horton, a hockey player for the Toronto Maple Leafs -- unless you're talking Bill Shatner, Canadians don't come much cooler.

Why its brand is easier to remember than the name of Canada's prime minister: Having cornered 76% of the Canadian coffee chain market and expanded into the northern part of the United States, Tim Hortons recently took the next logical step and brought its signature coffee and donuts to 32 sunny locations in the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait.

It has 63 varieties of donuts, and coffee served within 20 minutes of brewing or, as the company claims, "not at all."

Raisin d'être: One of most popular Tim Hortons varieties is the dutchie, a square yeast donut with raisins.

13. Subway

Country of origin: United States

Why we love it: While many have asked "What is art?" Subway was the first company to answer, "Putting cheeses and meats on a sub roll."

Why its brand is easier to remember than packing your pajamas: The company's sandwich artists can be found applying a palette of mustard and mayonnaise in 40,319 stores around the world -- that's more than McDonald's with 34,000.

The company was started in 1965 by 17-year-old Fred DeLuca with a $1,000 loan from a nuclear physicist named Peter Buck.

Footy fact: Recently, in a response to an Australian man who complained that his "Footlong" sandwich was 11 inches long, Subway explained that "Subway Footlong" is just a descriptive name and not meant to denote actual measurement.

More: New sandwich heroes for the 21st century

12. Hilton Hotel & Resorts

Country of origin: United States

Why we love it: Hilton was the first company to put TVs in its rooms. Presumably before this people just spent their time in hotel rooms staring at the space where a television should be.

Why its brand is easier to remember than returning your room key: The first hotel to bear the Hilton name opened in Texas in 1925. There are now more than 550 Hilton locations in 79 countries with more than 190,000 guest rooms.

Legendary fact: John Lennon wrote the lyrics to "Imagine" on Hilton stationery while staying at a New York Hilton.

Fragrant standoff at DFS Hong Kong.
Fragrant standoff at DFS Hong Kong.

11. DFS Galleria

Country of origin: Hong Kong

Why we love it: Why buy one bottle of Piper-Heidsieck when you get three in a handy carry pack?

Why its brand is easier to remember than the metric system (or whichever aggravating one you don't use): In 1960, the first DFS location opened in Hong Kong and two years later the company brought the first duty-free shop to the United States.

This, of course, changed your friends saying, "Thank you for flying 12 hours to see me!" to "Glad you're here, can you just pop in and grab me a couple bottles of whiskey and a pint of Chanel No.5?"

Now with 420 locations, DFS Galleria has both airport and city center mall shops.

Big numbers: According to the company, 200 million travelers visited DFS stores in 2012.

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10. KidZania

Country of origin: Mexico

Why we love it: Seeing kids freak out about their paycheck seems only fair.

Why its brand is easier to remember than where the last Winter Olympics were held: If you feel your children are a little behind on the concept of capitalism, it might be worth a visit to KidZania.

Each KidZania entertainment center is a kid-sized replica of a city. On entrance, children get Kidzos, a currency they can use to purchase goods, services and play opportunities.

When they run out, they can earn more by "working" at branded activities, such as making food at McDonald's, bottling Coca-Cola or piloting an Air Asia plane.

Kiddie corner: Since opening in 1999, 25 million visitors have come to KidZania's 11 worldwide locations.

9. Dunkin' Donuts

Country of origin: United States

Why we love it: When the airline loses your luggage or you forget to print out the hotel address and now it's 3 a.m. and you have no idea where to go, nothing consoles like a coffee and an over-sprinkled ring of baked dough.

Why its brand is easier to remember than your favorite flavor: Dunkin' Donuts' orange and pink, taste-defying logo can be found adorning outlets at more than 3,000 stores outside the United States and more than double that inside, making it one of the world's most ubiquitous bakeries.

Digestible: "DD" offers more than 100 flavors of donut, the most calorific being the "chocolate coconut cake donut," weighing in at 550 calories and containing 125% of your recommended daily allowance of saturated fats.

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Comes with all-purpose, old man-certified bucket.
Comes with all-purpose, old man-certified bucket.

8. KFC

Country of origin: United States

Why we love it: The bucket -- social, reliable, easy to carry. Doubles as impromptu guitar-shredder hat.

Why its brand is easier to remember than the names of people you just met: Back in 1952, when Harland Sanders started selling his fried chicken recipe with its 11 secret spices (salt and pepper are two of them) to his first franchises, he probably didn't think more than 50 years later his company would be most successful far from the American South.

Yum! Brands, the parent company of KFC and Pizza Hut, currently holds 39% of China's fast-food industry.

Provenance problem: The very first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise opened in Utah, four states away from Kentucky.

7. Muji

Country of origin: Japan

Why we love it: The clean design, functionality, cleanliness and hyper-tissue packaging of Tokyo, without having to go to Tokyo.

Why its brand is easier to remember than the number of the flight you're on when filling out the immigration form: The first two Japanese characters on Muji labels mean "without" and "brand."

Muji, a retailer of minimalist furniture, housewares and clothing, has turned "no brand" into an ingenious piece of branding.

Focusing on simple, unadorned design, Muji offers neck pillows and lots of other products for travelers at its 205 outlets in 32 countries.

Auto reflex: In 2001, Muji collaborated on a car with Nissan. True to form, there were no identifying badges and it was only available in white.

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Funny name, good burgers.
Funny name, good burgers.

6. MOS Burger

Country of origin: Japan

Why we love it: After Spotted Dick, the most amusing name of a foreign food product out there.

Why its brand is easier to remember than the name of Japan's prime minister: The second-largest fast food franchise in Japan behind McDonald's, MOS Burger decided to offer a burger that was twice as expensive as anything else on the menu. So in 2003, the limited-edition Takumi burger was introduced, an item available only at select locations, it comes with a business card signed by the chef who prepared it.

MOS Burger opened its first store in 1972 and now has 1,749 locations in nine countries.

Burger trivia: MOS rice burgers feature a "bun" of rice mixed with millet and barley.

5. Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts

Country of origin: Canada

Why we love it: Riffraff-proof.

Why its brand is easier to remember than your mother's birthday. Wait, did we do that one already? If you were looking for a discount at your room at the Four Seasons, all you need to know is that the hotel is now owned primarily by two billionaires, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia and Bill Gates.

We can safely assume they're not handing out coupons.

One of the premier luxury hotel chains, there are more than 89 properties around the globe.

50 = 10 million: To celebrate its 50th birthday in 2010, Four Seasons began an initiative to plant 10 million trees around the world.

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How do you say, \
How do you say, "Triple venti, non-fat, whipped caramel macchiato" in Vietnamese?

4. Starbucks

Country of origin: United States

Why we love it: Transformed a drink that could be purchased with pocket change into a product worth almost four dollars.

Why its brand is easier to remember than your passport number:

Starbucks has introduced its polished take on coffeehouse culture around the world with 20,891 stores in 62 countries.

Bean a while: The first Starbucks location opened in 1971 as a coffee bean roaster and didn't sell drinks until years later.

3. McDonald's

Country of origin: United States

Why we love it: Despite paranoia, we've yet to be accosted by employees when we drop in just to use the toilet.

Why its brand is easier to remember than all the damn user names, passwords, PINs and security codes they keep forcing us to create: With 34,000 locations in 118 countries, McDonald's is the poster clown for globalization.

As the company that added the word "fast" to food and "Mc" to about everything else, McDonald's adapted quickly.

What started as a place to get an All-American burger and fries, now offers customers the chance to get a Bulgogi burger in South Korea, a Kiwiburger in New Zealand that includes egg and beetroot and a meatless McSpicy Paneer burger in India.

Toy-tastic: Thanks to the plastic playthings found in Happy Meals, McDonald's is the largest distributor of toys in the world.

2. Din Tai Fung

Country of origin: Taiwan

Why we love it: Transparent dumpling skin allows easy assessment of filling.

Why its brand is easier to remember than what you had for lunch yesterday: Proving that oil doesn't always lead to an abundance of riches, Din Tai Fung started as a cooking oils store that didn't find true success until half the store was converted to the production of xiaolongbao (small steamed buns) in 1972.

With more than 70 restaurants in 11 countries and customers complaining about hour-long waits at most of them, Din Tai Fung has taken something simple and turned it sublime.

Quality fact: The restaurant's two Hong Kong locations have each received one Michelin star.

More: Ultimate guide to Chinese dumplings

Slurpee indoctrination starts early.
Slurpee indoctrination starts early.

1. 7-Eleven

Country of origin: United States

Why we love it: If you can't find one, walk around the corner. There are probably two of them there.

Why its brand is easier to remember than the chain of events that brought you here at 3 a.m: Founded in a Dallas icehouse in 1927, 7-Eleven first gained success by offering "convenience" items such as milk, bread and eggs.

In recent years, the company's 7,700 U.S. locations have been pioneers in the field of over-sizing sodas, starting with the 30-ounce Big Gulp and moving on to the Super Big Gulp and Double Gulp.

However, the company's true success can be best found at 7-Eleven's 15,831 more upscale Japan locations that include 2,075 stores in Tokyo alone.

Naming legacy: While the company's stores are open 24 hours, the name 7-Eleven came from the store's one-time hours of operation.

Originally published October 2013; updated March 21, 2014.

What's your golden chain? Share your best in the comments.

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