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.

Photo Of The Day: Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn


Today’s Photo of The Day is a photo shot from the rear-view mirror of a car in the elusive Greenwood Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, which borders Gowanus. Along the industrial 2nd Ave. that borders the waters of the Gowanus Bay, abandoned lofts and factories are sandwiched between those that are still in use. A fenced parking lot houses for-sale cars. Semi-trucks sweep in and out of the area for deliveries. I walked down to the water in this neighborhood shortly before Hurricane Sandy struck; I watched the powerful wind churn up rough waves within the normally stagnant puddles on the street. It’s a ghostly area, flush with industrialism and views of the Manhattan skyline. This photo was taken by Ben Britz. If you’d like to contribute a photo to our Photo of the Day, just upload your shots to the Gadling Flickr Pool.

[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]

Brooklyn's Finest (Threads)

Sunset Park’s Sunset Park: Brooklyn, New York

Finding the right apartment in New York City isn’t always easy, especially not when you’re looking for amenities that are luxuries in a city so dense – like a private back yard or a washer/dryer in unit. When I found what I was looking for, including those prized extras, I snagged the place without much thought and soon started venturing to my nearest dog park-included, city park. That park is Sunset Park and although I’m now on my ninth year of living in New York City, I’d never been to the park before living near it.

The little pocket of Brooklyn I’m now living in is home to the two highest points in the borough, one of which is inside of Sunset Park. Sunset Park shares its name with the surrounding neighborhood, which can be a little confusing to outsiders at first. What makes Sunset Park so special though is that elevation – the view of Manhattan and beyond is breathtaking. Atop the park’s centered and large hill, you can see the Freedom Tower, the Statue of Liberty, Staten Island, New Jersey and much of Brooklyn all at once. Since moving to the neighborhood, I’ve taken in this view a dozen times or so. I saw Hurricane Sandy’s ominous clouds creeping over the city’s skyline and I later saw Lower Manhattan blackened from the storm.

[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]

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The park’s dog park is impressive in size and, unlike so many other NYC public areas for dogs, it’s completely covered with grass. In addition to the gorgeous views and the grassy fields, trees and benches that accompany those views, the park also houses a large pool that has been open since 1936. A recreation center and playground keep the kids coming with their parents in tow. Sunset Park also offers a Computer Recreation Center, a dance room, a library and a workout room. Suffice it to say I’ve been pretty impressed with this modest park. No matter where you’re staying in NYC, this park is worth checking out for the view alone.

Undiscovered New York: Sunset Park

You don’t just stumble upon Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood by casually walking around New York City. It takes effort. And you’re also not going to find any world famous buildings or iconic parks while you’re there – those are elsewhere. But for all the things Sunset Park lacks (like tourists), it still manages to have plenty to offer. This little neighborhood-that-could has been surprising visitors and residents alike with its outstanding city views, rich immigrant communities and unique architecture.

Sunset Park was first founded as a shipping port, set conveniently along New York Harbor in the far Southwestern edge of Brooklyn. By World War II, the area was shipping out more than 80% of all American supplies and equipment destined for the fronts overseas. It was also a neighborhood of surprising diversity, housing one of New York’s largest communities of Scandinavian immigrants. As the shipping industry began to decline after the War, the area began to house a new wave of residents, today composed of a rich swath of Latino communities and one of New York’s three different Chinatowns.

The effects of Sunset Park’s distinct geography, history and immigration have combined to give the area a unique mixture of off-the-beaten path attractions. Want to have some of New York’s most authentic tacos and Chinese food on the same day? What about a visit to a park that might have one of the city’s best views? And why in the world did Elvis make this tiny neighborhood his only visit to New York City? Get ready to step off the beaten path as Undiscovered New York investigates Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. Click below for more.
New York’s best view?

In addition to its location along the Brooklyn waterfront, Sunset Park is blessed with some pleasant green space at the neighborhood’s namesake park. As luck would have it, Sunset Park is also among the highest points in all of Brooklyn – meaning on most days you can see the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street, the Empire State Building, Staten Island and New Jersey. They don’t call it “Sunset” Park for nothing – make sure to stop by one evening at dusk for a truly outstanding view. Aside from the heart-stopping vistas, Sunset Park also boasts a swimming pool, volleyball court and plenty of walking paths.

Melting pot of authentic food
Manhattan’s Chinatown might have the best soup dumplings. And Roosevelt Avenue in Queens might have some of the best Latin American food. But Sunset Park has them both beat. It is, after all, hard to compete with a ‘hood where within a few blocks you can eat so well, for so cheap from such diverse immigrant cuisines. Start your trip with one of Sunset Park’s many taco trucks along Fourth and Fifth Avenues. Not full yet? Head a few blocks over to Eighth Avenue, where you’ll find one of New York’s three Chinatown districts. Take a walk past buckets of still squirming fish at the seafood market, have some freshly made noodles, or bite down on a fresh Banh Mi sandwich.

Iconic buildings
As we mentioned earlier, Sunset Park played a pivotal role as a key shipping port during World War II, providing thousands of jobs for the area’s residents. Though not much remains of Sunset Park’s illustrious maritime history, there is one hugely obvious reminder at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. This massive 95 acre complex, located between 53rd and 66th Streets, once served as a staging center for goods and men on their way to battlegrounds in Europe. It is also, through a strange twist of fate, the only place legendary rocker Elvis ever set foot in New York. The King swaggered through Brooklyn Army Terminal in 1958 on his way to his military service in Germany.

Undiscovered New York: Exploring New York’s Chinatown(s)

Welcome to Undiscovered New York. Considering this past Monday was the traditional start of the Chinese New Year, now seems as good a time as any to celebrate one of New York City’s most interesting and diverse neighborhoods: Chinatown.

Upon moving to New York, my initial impression of Chinatown was an overwhelming feeling of the unfamiliar and mysterious. Everything about it seemed so at odds with what I knew and what I understood: huge piles of fish and strange produce glistening on the sidewalk in cardboard boxes, the pungent smells, impenetrable language and strange customs.

Yet as I grew more comfortable with this intriguing neighborhood, its many charms were slowly revealed. It was no longer an area of cheap designer knock-off handbags and pork-fried rice. I saw it as an indispensable part of my city – a neighborhood that was just as integral to my view of New York as the Statue of Liberty or the East Village.

What I also soon discovered is that the Chinatown in Manhattan is only one of three distinct Chinatowns in New York City, with another in the Flushing section of Queens and the newest slowly expanding in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Each of these three Chinatowns is a unique city-within-a-city, offering a completely diverse array of regional cuisines, interesting stores and unique sights.

Want to learn about some out-of-the-way spots in all three Chinese enclaves? Step inside Undiscovered New York’s guide to exploring the Chinatown(s).
Manhattan’s Chinatown

Centered just east of Broadway and Canal, Manhattan’s Chinatown is definitely New York’s biggest and also its best-known. But there’s still plenty of secrets waiting for the interested visitor. Given the timing of this post, it’s only fair that we mention the Chinese New Year festivities taking place this coming weekend. The big event is arguably the Dragon Parade on Sunday 2/1, which features dancers parading in elaborate dragon costumes down the area’s sidestreets.

Anybody with a hankering for some authentic Chinese food need only point his nose towards one of the area’s many eateries. Dim Sum is one Chinese tradition that’s not to be missed. The meal typically features a variety of small plates like dumplings, spare ribs and Jin deui served in a communal, buffet-style setting. Head over to the Golden Unicorn, grab a seat and watch the servers roll by in a constant parade of carts with interesting foodstuffs. Joe’s Shanghai is another area favorite – they’re known for their soup dumplings filled with steamy broth. Make sure not to put the whole thing in your mouth all at once!

It’s often said that the Chinese are experts in non-traditional herbal medicines. If you’ve ever been curious about Chinese herbal remedies, Chinatown is a great place to learn more. Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy markets itself as the “Largest on the East Coast.” The store feaures over 1,000 different traditional Chinese herbs and ingredients as well as treatments from a licensed acupuncturist.

Queens’ Chinatown
Though Manhattan may have the most famous Chinatown, Queens’ Flushing area may have its most diverse. The area boasts residents from neighboring Taiwan and Korea as well as areas of China as far-flung as Fujian to Lanzhou. One of the best ways to experience it all is by stopping in to one of the area’s numerous food courts. The Flushing Mall features a particular favorite – this otherwise mundane shopping mall features a mouth-watering food court in its basement spanning Sichuan, Taiwanese and Cantonese cuisines.

Flushing also boasts all kinds of quirky shopping sure to please even the most jaded visitor. Magic Castle is a Korean (one non-Chinese pick, sorry!) pop culture store that sells Korean pop music as well as stationary and toys like Hello Kitty. World Book Store features all the latest magazines straight from the Shanghai newsstand.

Brooklyn’s Chinatown
New York’s “newest” Chinatown is probably also its least-visited. Tucked into Brooklyn’s more remote Sunset Park neighborhood it tends to escape notice from visitors but is still well worth a visit.

Like the other Chinatowns, one of the principle attractions is the amazing, authentic Chinese cuisine. Start your visiting by gawking at some strange Chinese foods at the Hong Kong Supermarket, one of New York’s biggest Chinese supermarkets. Sea Town Fish & Meat Market is another interesting local retailer, offering one of Brooklyn’s biggest selections of Chinese specialty seafood items. When you get tired of “looking” at Chinese food and want to eat some, make sure to visit one of the area’s many street vendors for some authentic street food.