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.

Expedia Adds Itinerary Feature To Mobile App

expedia appExpedia has today announced the redesign of their mobile application to allow for user-friendly visual itinerary capabilities.

Using location awareness and time zone updates, the app displays the most relevant part of the itinerary and related information like airport maps, flight status, confirmation codes and addresses at the appropriate times.

“Unlike other itinerary applications, we’ve built what travelers really want. We are giving them live access to the most up to-date travel data and wrapped it in a beautiful experience. This is our biggest mobile launch ever,” said John Kim, Senior Vice President, Global Products, Expedia in a release.

This new itinerary feature, in addition to simple technology like flight and hotel booking and mobile only deals make this app one of the most useful we’ve seen for on-the-go travelers. The app also shows airport terminal maps for more than 200 airports – an extremely useful feature we’ve often seen only “for pay” on other applications.

Itineraries are also available for cruises and destination services.

The itineraries encompass 30 countries and 16 languages for both Android and iOS.

[Image Credit: Expedia via HL Group]

Google Translate Adds Phrasebook To Save Your Most Common Phrases

Google Translate now saves items to PhrasebookGoogle continues to be one of the most innovative companies in the world, developing everything from wearable technology to self-driving cars. And while they’re incredibly busy inventing the future, the Internet search giant also continue to upgrade some of their existing products and services, bringing useful new features to the tools we already use.

Take, for example, Google Translate, the fantastic service that gives us the ability to translate text from more than 50 languages. The web-based version is indispensable for reading foreign websites, while the mobile app is great for translating while on the go. Both versions offer the ability to speak the phrases out loud, which can be a handy feature for those of us who happen to be linguistically challenged. The service can be very helpful for anyone looking to learn a new language too, providing help with pronunciation, spelling and more.

Recently Google Translate was updated with a new feature called Phrasebook, which actually lets you save your most commonly used sentences for quick access in the future. To add something to your Phrasebook simply type in the text you want to use and when the phrase appears in its translated form a small star will appear on the screen. Clicking or tapping on that star will then add it to the Phrasebook for quick referral later on. It doesn’t get any simpler than that, but Google has conveniently provided us with step-by-step instructions none the less.

Frequent users of the Google Translate service will no doubt appreciate this addition, particularly if they are using the mobile app while traveling. It can definitely save a lot of time if you find yourself regularly asking the same questions. In the age of cloud services and account syncing, I would have liked to have seen my personal Phrasebook saved across multiple devices, but perhaps that is something we’ll get in a future update. It would be great to type in important sentences on my laptop and have them automatically appear on my smartphone as well.

Travelers will love Google Translate as it obviously applies nicely to what we do. But the addition of the Phrasebook will no doubt come in handy too, saving time and effort while visiting a foreign land.

[Photo Credit: Google]

Viber: The Free Solution To International Talk, Text And Picture Sharing

viberWhile traveling, the expenses of long-distance communication can be difficult to handle. Spending $20 for a call that is less than five minutes is absurd, but without the use of outside apps and tools, is often the case when abroad. Luckily there’s Viber, a 100% free mobile app that allows you to talk, text and share photos without spending a cent.

I learned about the mobile app during a backpacking trip in Argentina. Eating lunch in a Buenos Aires cafe, I noticed my travel companion sending texts and uploading photos without abandon, while my phone sat turned off and untouched in my bag. Unfortunately for me, calls from Argentina to the United States cost $5 per minute with texts being $1 each. When I asked her how she was able to communicate so freely without worrying about the costs, she told me about Viber. As long as you’re in a Wi-Fi zone and the person you’re communicating with uses Viber, the communications are completely free. Moreover, even when using 3G, you will only be charged the rate of your 3G plan and not for roaming.

“Viber-to-Viber mobile calls and texts will always be free and ad-free,” explains Daniel Twigg, PR Consultant for Viber. “We plan to offer premium services for even more customization, such as inexpensive calls to people who don’t yet have Viber, as well as ringtones and wallpapers.”
So how does Viber differ from the other free international calling services that exist? According to Twigg, their main competitors are What’s App, Skype and Tango. While What’s App has a great platform for texting, Viber places more of an emphasis on multiple communication platforms. In terms of Skype, Twigg believes the multiple changes in ownership and late jump on the mobile app scene have made it hard for them to stay ahead in the market. For example, most people still see Skype as a desktop product. Tango features an excellent video experience; however, Viber offers voice and text, which has helped their growth greatly.

Viber is available on iPhone and Android. Once downloaded, you will be able to immediately see who from your contacts is also using the app. According to Twigg, the app has over 60 million users and is growing by more than 200,000 new users each day. It’s completely free, so you have nothing to lose by trying it for yourself on your next trip. To learn more and download the app, click here.

Travel Smarter 2012: Use your mobile apps better

It should come as no surprise that owning a smartphone in 2012 is a traveler’s perfect tool to better explore, organize and record their travels. And by now, there are literally thousands of app roundups out there to help lead you to the good ones. But this isn’t another one of those roundups. Instead, today Gadling is taking a closer look at how to use your existing apps – the ones you already have in 2012 – to travel smarter.

Consider the issues you typically face on the road. You’re hungry, or lost. Perhaps you’re simply trying to communicate with someone in a foreign language. The truth is you don’t always need to spend $1.99 on the newest “travel app” to do these things. Sometimes the best app is the one you already have on your smartphone.

Based on hundreds of hours on the road, both here in the U.S. and abroad, testing various mobile apps, we’ve compiled the following travel tips to help you get the most out of the apps on your smartphone. Are you a travel app pro? Click through for our tips.Use Your Camera to Save Important Information
Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently, you’re probably already aware of the huge boom in mobile travel photography apps and tips in recent months. And certainly smartphones (iPhones in particular) have proven themselves as clear winners for traveling photographers.

But are you using your phone’s camera to its full potential? Truth is, your smartphone’s camera makes a great storage and communication tool. Don’t want to carry around your map with directions to dinner? Take a photo. How about a snapshot of the street where your hotel is at so you can show the taxi driver? Voila. Have a food allergy? Take a photo of the food to show at the restaurant.

Get a Recommendation from a Local
Many travel apps claim to help you find cool things to do in new places you’re visiting. Problem is, they don’t deliver. The secret is that locals in your destination don’t use them. The trick to getting good recommendations is to use what the locals use, and right now those two apps are Foursquare and Yelp.

If you’re not already using Foursquare, it’s quietly become the new killer travel app. Most people think of Foursquare as “that service that lets you check in to bars to try and look cool.” But with a series of great recent updates, including an ability to share and make lists and the new explore feature, Foursquare is now a powerful tool to help you find good stuff to eat, see and do in unknown places. Check out their Foursquare Cities account for some great user-created tips in cities like Berlin, Milan, Sydney, London and more.

Yelp is another app many of us know from our daily wanderings in our hometown. Ever tried it on the road? Open the app and click on “Nearby” on the bottom menu, then “Hot New Businesses” to find out what local users are talking about right now.

Store Your Travel Research on Your Phone
Now that the vast majority of travel research happens on the web, there’s no reason for all that research to get stuck on your computer when you leave for the airport. Take it with you – use your smartphone to collect it all in one place.

Many people already use mobile reading apps like Instapaper (for iOS) or Read it Later (for Android) to collect long articles for offline storage – why not create a folder of great articles for your trip? Don’t forget to install the app’s “bookmarklets” on your web browser for easy adding. Another great free source of info is Wikitravel – try uploading the whole destination guide for the city you’re visiting to your Instapaper or Read It Later app for easy offline reading. Evernote is another great document storage app you may already have that lets you store everything from web links to photos to audio recordings.

Make Cheaper Phone Calls and Pay Less for Wi-Fi
If you’ve ever placed a phone call from abroad using your cell phone, you probably remember the sticker shock that came with it when you got the bill back. That’s where Skype’s suite of mobile apps can be a real lifesaver. Use your mobile phone over a Wi-Fi connection to make phone calls (and send texts) while abroad to any phone number. Did you know Skype also has an app that lets you pay-by-the-minute for Wi-Fi at over 1 Million locations worldwide? Skip the $8 daily Wi-Fi rate at the airport and login using your existing Skype credit.

[flickr image via Cristiano Betta]