Get a Room: Last-Minute Hotel-Booking Apps Compared
With summer quickly coming to an end, many of you might be in the midst of enjoying one last vacation before the kids head back to school and the balmy beach breezes turn into bone-chilling winds. Maybe you’re even having such a good time that you want to extend your holiday another day or two.
Or maybe you’re trying to make your way home, but your flight’s been cancelled and now you’re stuck another night with no place to stay. Whatever the reason might be, booking a hotel room at the last minute can be a stressful experience. But it doesn’t have to be.
Rather than calling around to different hotels, or trying to find a computer to log onto travel sites, there are now apps that can help you find and book the best deals around town, right from your mobile device. Two that I’ve been checking out over the past couple of weeks are Hotel Tonight and Booking.com’s Tonight app.
Truth be told, I’ve been using Hotel Tonight for several years now, but I was curious to see how Booking.com’s app compared in terms of selection and deals. There were certain aspects of it I liked, but Hotel Tonight is the better app.
Hotel Tonight is free, and there are versions for iOS, Android and Windows Phone. The app serves more than 500 destinations across 28 countries. A full list of supported cities is available on the company’s website.
Unlike some travel sites that pull from a large database, Hotel Tonight selects the hotels it works with, vetting them through online research and site visits. Currently, it has about 10,000 hotel partners.
Each day, hotels enter any vacancies they might have into Hotel Tonight’s system, along with details about their rates and any special offers, and then Hotel Tonight picks 10 to 15 of the best deals for each city. These are published to the app daily at 9 am local time, so everyone has a fair starting point.
When you first use the app, you’ll need to sign up for an account. It doesn’t take very long, but you may want to do this ahead of time to ensure that a deal doesn’t sell out while you’re entering all your information. By signing up, you also receive a $10 credit to use toward a future booking.
The app’s interface is intuitive and very sleek. It automatically shows you results based on your current location, but you can also do a manual search. The listings page shows you a picture of the hotel, along with the discounted rate and the normal rate, so you can see how much you’re saving. Results are also designated by category — Luxe, Hip, Solid, Basic, Charming or Crashpad — to give you a general idea of the type of hotel. Selecting a particular hotel will show you even more information, such as amenities, user photos and ratings, maps, and a description of why Hotel Tonight likes it.
The first time I used the app, I was moving from New York back to San Francisco. With my stuff already shipped off and a new tenant anxious to move in, I was without a place to stay for a night, so I thought I’d book a hotel room.
Now, as any of you who have visited New York know, hotels in Manhattan are ridiculously expensive. And anything remotely affordable probably means you’re going to end up in a room the size of a closet, or out by JFK Airport. But with Hotel Tonight, I was able to book a basic but good-size room at the Flatotel in Midtown for around $100 less than the normal rate.
The process was simple and quick, and I felt that the app provided enough details for me to make an informed decision. If I had one complaint, it’s that there weren’t enough budget picks.
For example, a few weeks ago, I was running a race in Santa Cruz, Calif., which is about 75 miles south of San Francisco. Rather than having to get up at 4 am to make it down to the race, I debated staying at a nearby hotel — if the price was right.
I fired up Hotel Tonight the day before the race and was presented with about 10 different results. All were out of my price range, at $250 and up. Of course, part of this is due to location and availability, and sometimes the app even warns you that rates may be higher than normal due to a particular event happening in the city. When I did a random search for Las Vegas, I found hotels starting at $50.
This is one area where I thought Tonight by Booking.com was a little better. Tonight is a free app, but it’s a bit confusing, because there’s also a separate Booking.com app where you can find last-minute hotel deals. The latter is available for iOS, Android and Windows Phone, but Tonight is only available for iOS, which is what I tested.
The app’s interface isn’t as striking as Hotel Tonight’s. The main page has a very basic menu where you can search for accommodations based on your current location, or by searching for a particular city. I did appreciate that Tonight gave me the option to filter results by most popular, nearest, best price and star rating.
Because Tonight pulls from Booking.com’s database of more than 450,000 hotels in 65,000 locations, the app was able to provide a much larger and broader selection of hotels. On the one hand, I liked that there were more budget-friendly results. On the other hand, it was a bit overwhelming, and I didn’t feel as confident about booking a place, knowing that this was more of an aggregation app. More importantly, Tonight didn’t provide the same amount of savings as Hotel Tonight did.
I was actually on vacation in Southern California last week, and having lived in the area before, I had numerous friends I could stay with, which I did. But I wanted to splurge one night on a hotel in Laguna Beach.
Using both apps, I looked at the last-minute deals, and found one I liked at The Inn at Laguna Beach. On Hotel Tonight, the room was offered for $259, with the bonus of free parking, which usually costs $29 per night. Meanwhile, the rate quoted on Tonight was $449, without any bonuses.
Booking.com will match competitors’ pricing, but you have to go through the process of submitting a ticket. Needless to say, I booked through Hotel Tonight. (In the interest of full disclosure, I paid for the hotel out of my own pocket, and did not receive any comps from Hotel Tonight or Booking.com.)
Curious to see if this was just an isolated incident, I compared a number of other hotels between the two apps, and more often than not, Tonight was more expensive.
Given the better rates, the company’s vetting process and its intuitive interface, Hotel Tonight is the go-to app for any last-minute hotel bookings.