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.

The Worst New Hybrid Words In The Travel Lexicon




This is the age of hybrids. We drive hybrid cars, we consume hybrid vegetables and our favorite love-to-hate celebrity couples have hybrid names.

The travel industry is rife with hybrid words. In every segment of travel, from backpacking to luxury travel, there lurks a new word ready to please with its practicality (voluntourism) or annoy with its clever mash-up of disparate terms (glamping).

We here at Gadling are always on the look out for new travel trends. But just because we report on trends like glamping and flashpacking doesn’t mean that we like the way these words sound when they roll off our tongues (not to mention the way they activate the red squiggly lines on our spell-checkers). Following is a list of the Gadling crew’s least favorite hybrid travel terms along with definitions:

[Photo: Flickr/Horia Varlan]babymoon, minimoon
Some travelers have adopted the “moon” suffix to describe vacations taken to celebrate a huge life event. A babymoon is the vacation that parents-to-be take before their first child is born. Meanwhile, a minimoon is a shortened honeymoon – sometimes only a weekend. A babymoon is sweet; a minimoon is just sad.

brocation, mancation
Men going on a trip together to do manly stuff like eat steak, drink whisky and smoke cigars? I thought that was called a bachelor party. Apparently these days it is called a mancation – or, brocation if you’re a total (pardon my French) douchebag.

fakecation, oblication
These two travel terms have amusing definitions but depressing concepts. A fakecation is when a real vacation is invaded by work, while an oblication is a trip planned around a chore one must do, such as helping a relative move or going to your aunt’s wedding.

flashpacking
Backpackers who travel with flashy digital gear, such as iPads and smartphones, and can afford a slightly higher budget than the $5-a-day travelers of yesteryear are said to be flashpacking. One reason you may not hear this term for much longer is that it describes the reality for a large swath of budget-minded travelers. Here’s hoping “flashpacking” is a flash in the pan and flashpackers can go back to being regular backpackers again.

glamping
Travelers who want a just a taste of the outdoors without losing too many comforts are going glamping these days, much to the chagrin of this writer, who strongly dislikes the term and is not sold on the concept of “glamorous camping” yet. Still, Gadling has covered the glamping beat with this Glamping 101 primer should you wish to try it for yourself.

gramping
Sending the kids on a trip with their grandparents is a splendid idea. But do we really need to call it gramping? Really?

staycation
No list of most hated hybrid travel terms is complete without the much deplorable staycation. Exploring one’s hometown is honorable, fun, educational and budget-friendly, but it is not a vacation. It may end up being a fakecation, though.

Is there a new hybrid travel term that you love to hate that we haven’t covered above? Tell us in the comments!

10 travel resolutions to make in 2012

ecotourism It’s the beginning of a new year and the time when people start thinking of ways to improve themselves in 2012. Instead of just focusing on how to make yourself better, why not think about ways to make your travels more worthwhile? Here are 10 travel resolutions to make this year.

Go green

Eco-tourism is a hot topic in the world of travel right now, and for good reason. There are myriad global issues facing the planet right now, from climate change to resource depletion to land pollution and damaged ecosystems. Instead of just wandering through a region and potentially having a negative impact on the land, educate yourself a bit and participate in environmentally-friendly travel. There are tons of Eco-friendly accommodations, tours, and even entire cities, such as the new Yoyogi Village in Japan. Find a destination and try to educate yourself on how to travel while leaving as small a carbon footprint as possible.Learn a new language

Instead of using obscure gestures and stuttering your way through a translation dictionary, why not take the time to actually learn a new language? Going to Spain? Take a cultural immersion class and learn Spanish. Taking a trip to Ghana? You’ll feel a lot more comfortable interacting with Ghanians if you can speak Twi. Locals respect you more when you speak their language, and it opens up the chance to have more meaningful interactions.

romeKnock something off your bucket list

Most people have bucket lists, even if they only exist in their minds. “I would love to go skydiving one day” or “I wish I could take a trip to see the Colosseum and learn about Roman history”. What are you waiting for? This year, instead of just letting that bucket list grow, why not scratch some things off. Don’t let work and family hold you back but instead, use your vacation days and include your family in your plans. Also, certain activities, like extreme sports or taking a romantic getaway, don’t always require long-distance travel.

Visit an endangered site

Don’t expect sites like the Belize Barrier Reef, the Tropical Rainforest in Honduras, or the crystal glaciers of the Swiss Alps to be around forever. If you want to see them, go now before it’s too late. Just recently, in October 2011, the beloved Cinque Terre in Italy was damaged by flash floods and landslides, and while it is currently being rebuilt at a swift pace, it is a good example of the unexpected disasters that can happen. You can also check out the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites that are in danger to learn more.

volunteer Volunteer abroad

I’m a big fan of volunteering abroad for many reasons. For one, you get to help people in need as well as support a cause you’re passionate about. Moreover, it gives you a unique perspective into the culture, especially since many times you get the chance to live with locals. Each time I’ve volunteered abroad, I’ve used International Volunteer Headquarters as a middle man and found them extremely reliable and affordable. You can also contact NGO’s abroad directly using SE7EN or go on a trip with an international volunteer organization from your home city that plans trips abroad, for example, Habitat for Humanity or UNICEF.

Go out of your comfort zone

You can learn a lot about yourself and what you’re capable of when you try something that’s out of your comfort zone. Are you afraid of heights? Try bungy jumping. Scared to visit a city where you don’t speak the local language? Buy a plane ticket to Brazil (unless you speak Portuguese…then buy a ticket to China). Think you can’t handle the “strange” foods in Asia or Africa? Go there and eat as many new dishes as possible. It may sound crazy, but it’s really inspirational when you realize you can handle uncomfortable situations, as well as eye-opening to people, places, and situations you may never have experienced. I am actually terrified of heights, and when I was in Australia my friends made me go bungy jumping. Literally, they pulled me screaming and crying. While the jump itself was terrifying, I also realized it was a lot of fun. By the end of that year, I’d gone bungy jumping (again), skydiving, and cliff diving, all things that I didn’t think I would ever do but now love.

hiking Take a staycation

By taking a staycation, you can actually add to your vacation time. Instead of waiting until you’ve saved up enough money for a plane ticket somewhere far, you can enjoy a budget-friendly trip for the weekend. Not only that, but it can help you experience your own city and nearby towns, places that often have a lot to offer but many people take for granted. For example, while I often try to hike as much as possible while traveling, I barely go outside when I’m home. Last summer, I decided to change that and began going on local hiking trips around my home state of New York. It’s not only helped me make new friends, but has also helped me to explore a lot of areas that I didn’t even know existed.

Turn off the technology

Thinking about it, this could actually go under “Get out of your comfort zone”. People are literally addicted to technology nowadays. Not that it’s their fault, it’s the world we live in. Business is conducted via Skype and teleconferencing, singles meet their future spouses online, and people post their entire lives on social media. However, turning off your smartphone, ditching your laptop, and turning off the TV can be a really powerful experience. You will learn about a city in a deeper way, without distractions, and will be able to focus on exploration instead of wondering who texted you in the last five minutes. If it’s something you could lose your job over, try doing it for just a day, or even a few hours, and learn what it feels like to be completely disconnected from the rest of the world while being in tune with yourself.

food Stop being cheap

There’s a difference between being budget-conscious and cheap. You don’t need to stay in a 5-star hotel to have a great trip, however, you do need to experience the culture, and that means spending a little cash. If there’s something you want to do or see remember that you’re only a visitor in the city, meaning you only have limited time to see the sites. Don’t let cash, or lack of, ruin your entire trip. If you’re really having issues with money but still want to travel, visit a budget-friendly destination, like Thailand or Ghana, and help stretch your dollar further. When traveling through Germany, I was with a girl who was so cheap she would literally hoard bread from the hostel breakfast and eat it for the entire day, and wouldn’t enter anything, a church, castle, museum, or park, if there was any kind of charge. In the beginning I felt bad leaving her, but eventually decided that just because she didn’t want to spend money didn’t mean that I should miss out on great food and interesting museums. We ended up parting ways, and I ended up having a more worthwhile experience.

Attend a major festival

Burning Man, the Full Moon Party, the New York Film Festival, Calgary Stampede, the Winter Music Conference. Whatever you’re into, find a festival that celebrates it and go. I’ve gotten to attend numerous festivals, from Mardi Gras in Sydney to Carnival in Sitges to Crankworks in Whistler, and they’ve all allowed me to be part of enormous celebrations. You meet all kinds of interesting people and get to attend something that people fly from all over the world to attend, sometimes returning year after year. This year, add being a part of something really big to your to-do list.

10 tips for planning your next trip on a budget

grapes As someone who is constantly traveling, my friends are always asking me how I can afford to go on trips so often. Traveling doesn’t have to mean spending a fortune, and if you’re willing to forgo the 5-star hotels and Michelin starred restaurants, it can be pretty simple to have a full travel experience without going broke. Here are tips that I use to get the most out of my travels while spending as little as possible.

Exchange labor for food and accommodation

While some people may think of labor as a quick way to ruin a vacation, it shouldn’t. A network called WWOOF allows travelers to work on organic farms in return for housing and food. Don’t think that farming has to mean cleaning up after animals and pulling up weeds. Vineyards, chateaus, olive groves, holistic massage and yoga retreats, and balsamic farms can also be found on the list of WWOOF hosts. Working with a family on their property will not only save you money but will also give you first-hand insight into the local culture (now when does a 5-star hotel give you that?).Plan a staycation

Many times, people take their home cities for granted. It’s funny, because when I travel I am constantly trying to do and see as much as possible, but at home I always figure I’ll get to seeing the sites “someday”. Why not make that someday today and plan a trip without leaving home? Look up local theme parks, restaurants, museums, art galleries, historical sites, and festivals and make a “trip” out of it. And if you want a little change of scenery, you can always try venturing to a nearby town that’s drivable and do a long weekend trip.

laos Travel to countries with favorable exchange rates

When planning where you will go on your next trip, try to take into account the exchange rate and how expensive it will be to travel there. How far will your dollar go once you switch currencies? Are accommodations, food, and transportation costly? For example, while in some countries you can get a hostel for under $10 there are others where you will pay $60 a night for a bare bones room. Think about what it is that draws you to a certain country and then try to find a more budget friendly alternative. Always wanted to go to South America? Instead of heading to Brazil, which tends to be more on the expensive side, head over to Peru or Bolivia, which will be a lot easier on your wallet. Are you the outdoorsy type who thinks somewhere like the Outback in Australia or the Alps in Switzerland would be a fun vacation? Places like Laos (above) and Ghana also offer many outdoor experiences for travels on a budget.

Use memberships to your benefit

Are you a student? Bring your student ID with you. I’m not a student anymore but I still bring my student ID everywhere, and it has saved me hundreds of dollars throughout my trips. Better yet, if you have an International Student Identity Card you will get recognized as a student all over the globe. Senior citizen? Make sure you always carry proof. AAA Cards, Hostelling International Membership, Eurail Pass…go through your various memberships and make sure you don’t neglect the perks they can give you. For example, a Hostelling International Membership will give you special rates in their hostels as well as discounts on tours and attractions. Moreover, having a Eurail Pass will not only make train travel in Europe more convenient and affordable but will also give you discounts on buses, ferries, and attractions.

Signing up for a travel rewards program and having a rewards credit card can also work to your benefit. Personally, I use the Capital One Venture Card, which gives me double miles for every dollar spent, doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees, and includes auto rental and travel accident insurance. I also make sure to signup for the free frequent flyer programs that many airlines offer.

Travel during shoulder season

It’s amazing how much money you can save avoiding traveling to a destination during its peak tourist season. Flights, accommodation, and tours all go down in price, sometimes by hundreds of dollars. For example, when flying from New York to London in the beginning of April, you’ll probably pay around $750-$800. However, when flying the same route in the beginning of June, you should expect to pay around $1,150. Traveling during a country’s low season also opens up the possibility of taking advantage of worthwhile deals and incentives offered to try to boost tourism numbers. Another great thing about traveling during shoulder season? You won’t have to deal with the crowds, making your trip more hassle-free.

sydney australia Make a list of free and budget-friendly activities in the city

No matter where you travel to, there are free and inexpensive things to do that are still fun and worthwhile. Just check out these guides on free things to do in New York, London, and Sydney, which are all cities that people think to be extremely expensive. For example, one of my favorite things to do in Sydney was to wander the Sydney Univeristy campus and its adjoining Victoria Park (shown right), which was not only relaxing but completely free. Most times, parks, beaches, public art, open-air events, monuments, and many museums and galleries are free to enjoy. Also, many cities are now giving free walking tours, such as SANDEMAN’s New Europe walking tours throughout Europe and I’m Free Tours in Sydney, Australia. And for a night out, find places that offer good happy hour specials and nightly promotions, as full price cocktails can really wreck all your saving efforts.

Try Couchsurfing

Do you want free accommodation? Try couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is a network of travelers and hosts who offer up their couches to people staying in their city, free of charge. What’s also great about this is that staying with locals helps you to see the destination from their point of view, from hidden coffee shops to non-touristy bars and restaurants to attending actual parties and events thrown by people living in the city. If you’re not comfortable staying on a stranger’s couch you can also opt to stay in a hostel, which can help stretch your dollar a lot farther than a hotel would.

Visit cities where you know locals personally

Try to think of cities where you have family and friends who already live there. This type of trip can cut costs significantly, as it can give you a place to stay as well as make traveling a bit more convenient as you’ll have someone to show, and hopefully drive, you around. Plus, access to a stove cuts down costs considerably. Doing a trip like this will not only will you get a change of scenery, you’ll get to spend time with people you haven’t seen in awhile.

red redAvoid the “English menus”

When going out to eat, make sure to avoid any restaurant that boasts having an “English” menu, as this usually equates to “touristy”. Going to a “mom and pop” type establishment will not only save you money, it will also give you a more authentic culinary experience in the country. When in Ghana, I loved eating at little no-name places and getting my favorite dish, Red Red with Plantains (right). If you’re staying at someone’s home or in a hostel with a kitchen, another option is to cook for yourself. Buy groceries from the supermarket or, better yet, an open air market where you can barter for your purchases.

Do less traveling while you’re traveling

All of those train trips, cab rides, flights, and cruises will start to add up. Instead of seeing ten different cities on your trip, choose only a couple you really want to see and spend more time getting to know those better. This will also help you feel less travel fatigued, keeping you excited and energetic on your trip. And, when navigating the city, try to forgo public transport and walk. You’ll get to see a lot more of the city that way and will have a better chance of discovering something you likely would have missed riding on a bus.

The ever-evolving language of travel

new travel terms and wordsWhile it is clear that travel itself has evolved in many ways in the past decade or so, it appears that travel language has, too. It is something that seems to happen overnight, without anyone really noticing that new vocabulary words are being invented but using them anyway. Check out this list of some relatively new lingo that has stuck in the language of travel.

Couch Surfing

While at one time we would have just said that we were “staying with friends”, there is now a global resource for travelers that has really made an impact on the niche. Couch Surfing allows backpackers and budget travelers to stay with local people in the regions they are visiting, as well as host travelers who come to visit their native land, for free.

Voluntourism

This is a specific type of trip that allows travelers to not only visit another region, but also help out a cause or organization while they are there. Some of my favorite resources for voluntourism include International Volunteer Headquarters and SE7EN.Agritourism

This type of travel involves staying with locals in a rural area. Basically, it is a farm stay or rural retreat.

WWOOFING

Related to agritourism is World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOFING). It is a global network that connects travelers with organic farms. The gist of the program is that in exchange for room, board, and the chance to learn about organic farming and local lifestyle, travelers help out with the daily work.

Digital Nomad

This term is used to refer to someone who is location independent and can work from anywhere in the world using technology such as smartphones, laptops, iPads, WiFi and other gadgets. Actually, an entire separate article could be written on the new technological terms for travelers that have come about in the past decade or so (hmmmm…).

Flashpacker

Staying on the topic of technology and travel, this term refers to the more affluent type of backpacker. While most backpackers are thought to be on a tight-budget, flashpackers tend to have a large disposable income and also carry lots of tech gadgets with them, such as laptops and smartphones.

Staycation

This type of travel became popular during the financial crisis of 2007-2010 and refers to relaxing at home or taking trips to nearby attractions.

Glamping

This is a type of trip for those who want to experience the great outdoors while not roughing it too much. For example, instead of staying in a basic tent, someone who is glamping will use more high-end camping gear, such as a tent with electricity and an air mattress.

Slow Travel

Slow travel is the idea of traveling more slowly to enjoy each place and experience it in more depth by, for example, spending a week in one city or opting for a vacation rental home.

Mancation

This term refers to a “men only” vacation (think girl’s weekend or all-girl’s getaway for guys). With the trend catching on, travel packages are now catering to this type of travel. Interested in a mancation of your own? Urban Navigator can help you book packages that include things like golf, camping, and hiking.