Hotel Tonight: Testing The Last-Minute Hotel Booking Service In New York City

Hotel Tonight logoI just finished renovating my one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, an experience that has driven many a New Yorker to drink, or even better, to a hotel room. With my husband and me both working from home, a toddler at heel and not many friends with “extra” room for us to crash, we were forced to decamp while our apartment was without a kitchen or bathroom. Looking for options, I first turned to Airbnb, my preferred source of accommodations now that I travel with a baby, and while it’s recently been ruled semi-illegal in NYC, there are still plenty of listings. Most neighborhood options were either sketchy (I’d rather not share a bathroom with “several” other bedrooms, even if it was featured in a film) or comically overpriced (though cheers to the creative thinker who includes their own Netflix account as an amenity). Searching the major booking engines for hotels yielded either insulting (uh, Brooklyn is still part of NYC) or downright offensive ($400 for a La Quinta in the middle of nowhere?!) offerings, so I turned to what would become my new obsession: hotel hopping with Hotel Tonight.

Hotel Tonight is a mobile-only app service that provides daily hotel deals for one (or sometimes a few) night only with sometimes stellar discounts, but only available starting at noon for the same day (sometimes for multiple nights). It’s ideal if you are, say, out and about and decide you’d rather sleep at a hotel rather than home, or like playing it fast and loose with your vacation bookings. Prior to my “staycation” week of hotel hopping, I had used it only once for a last-minute hotel room in Boston, discovering a hotel I’d never heard of, at a price far lower than anything else available. I liked its well-curated stock of hotels, sleek interface, to-the-point reviews and especially the fact that you get to “trace” a hotel bed to confirm your room purchase, an odd kind of satisfaction akin to a scratch-off lottery ticket.The first day I excitedly logged in at exactly noon, using the Wi-Fi from outside my local library with suitcases at the ready to head to my home for the night. I did some cross-referencing with individual hotel sites and booking engines, finally settling on the new-ish Hotel BPM in Sunset Park. Though it’s less than five miles from my apartment and I consider myself to be a fairly intrepid New York explorer, it’s not an area I’m familiar with or would think of for a hotel. Even my car service driver was bemused and curious about the location, just off the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and quite handy to Costco, if, say, you wanted to bring your own extra-large package of toilet paper. I was pleasantly surprised with the room, a spiffy green-and-white design with some hi-tech touches like a smart TV that can connect to Hulu and Netflix. The DJ/music theme was sort of lost on me, as well as its connection to the neighborhood.

The immediate area of the Hotel BPM can feel a bit desolate and industrial if you walk the wrong way, but my toddler enjoyed a nearby playground with the questionable feature of being located right under an elevated highway. Though I imagine the front desk could have given me tips, I followed a friend’s recommendation to the nearby Kofte Piyaz, where I had some of the best Turkish food I’ve found outside Istanbul. Walking back past many Mexican and Spanish delis and diners, I had to wonder what would drive a tourist out here, other than low room rates? The hotel’s website is very “rah rah, Brooklyn!” which feels a bit disingenuous when you discover the beautiful “Brownstone Brooklyn” or trendy Williamsburg is nowhere in sight, and our borough’s famed bridge wouldn’t even be visible from the roof (if I could get on it, not sure they have granted access to the public yet). The hotel hosts happy hour downstairs on weekends, but on my Tuesday stay, you were on your own if you wanted a drink.

On day two, we went down to breakfast, where I had the interesting experience of understanding all of the hotel staff’s conversations (including local references), but none of the (mostly foreign) guests’. We didn’t know where we’d spend the night or even the few hours between hotels and checkout time coincided with Hotel Tonight’s rollout of daily offers. I hesitated a minute too long and missed out on the Nu Hotel (well located by Smith Street, although next to the county jail) and decided to gamble on waiting to book anything until 3 p.m. check-in time, when rates sometimes go down further while hotels still have empty inventory. We hauled our suitcases and child to the excellent Green Fig coffee shop, where my husband spent a few hours on conference calls and I repeatedly checked for rooms, and we both gorged on Italian sandwiches made on buttery garlic bread. Waiting didn’t help with prices, but we booked the Super 8 Park Slope and hopped on the subway to Union Street.

The “Park Slope” in the hotel’s name is technically correct (maybe Gowanus is more apt), but a bit of a misnomer as Prospect Park is a good mile away. I’d still recommend the hotel for location, being an easy walk from newly hip 5th Avenue, getting-cooler 4th Avenue, and right on almost-there 3rd Avenue. There’s a pretty stellar dive bar across the street and a few cute, bordering on hipster, restaurants a block away. Rooms are small but fairly nice for a Super 8 (hotel is brand new), with slow but free Wi-Fi (you can pay a few bucks per day for high speed, that’s how they get you). In retrospect, it was probably our favorite of the Hotel Tonight stays – a solid option if you want to save some money and hang out in a residential area with lots of nightlife.

On day three, I willfully ignored the sign informing me that breakfast was only to be eaten in the sad breakfast room, and took a yogurt and a poor excuse for a croissant back to my room and sleeping baby. Checkout was an unusually early 11 a.m., but we managed to stall for an hour before heading for Wi-Fi with suitcases and all to a series of 4th Avenue coffee shops. I was stymied again by the Nu Hotel with an $80 jump-in room rate, but decided on a lower price for the Union Hotel a few blocks away. I had walked by the Union the night before and was intrigued by its minimalist logo and optimistic website renderings.

The Hotel Tonight description had warned me it was “basic,” but I still burst into laughter when I couldn’t even open the door to our tiny room without hitting the bed. New York might be infamous for small hotel rooms, but if you saw this in a movie, you’d think it was over-the-top cliche. With maybe a foot-wide swath between bed and doors, the room would necessitate coordination of exits of multiple people. Still, points to the Union Hotel for a good location with a bevy of food and bar options, breakfast vouchers for a local diner and a sleek decor (with a bathroom very similar to my own in progress a few miles south).

The next day, we checked out and headed back to the Two Moon Cafe (go for the big backyard and Wi-Fi, stay for the rosemary-and-sea-salt shortbread), our favorite from the previous day, and killed time before our contractors cleared out. Returning home to a semi-finished apartment with no sinks or hot water, my fingers itched to check what Hotel Tonight might offer up. A few days hotel hopping in my own city had given me a different perspective on a place I already know well, some good advice for friends visiting in the future and some much needed hot showers. Every day at noon I think about checking for hotel offers like Pavlov’s dog, and depending on the destination, I might try for an all on-the-fly trip, booking rooms every night or two. It’s just a hi-tech version of walking into a hotel and asking for a room for the night, with a lot less legwork, and without that nifty hotel bed to trace.