SMARTPHONES and tablets are giving travelers a reason to wait until the last minute to book a hotel: discounts if you reserve a room for the same day using an app.
Kayak, Priceline, Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia all offer apps that let travelers search for available hotel rooms, often discounted 10 to 50 percent for stays that begin the day you book. The apps have different features -- and flaws -- but they basically use a device's GPS to show where you can find a room near you. The information is displayed on a map or a list that you can sort by price, distance or rating.
For travelers who are stuck in a city for an extra night or just planning a last-minute getaway, this mobile booking option is quite handy. I used a few apps on my iPhone on a recent driving trip and was surprised at how helpful it was to be able to zoom in on a map and choose a hotel that was affordable and close to a highway exit. Back in New York, these apps turned up hotels available in Manhattan in September for about -- and sometimes even under -- $200 a night. While your stay doesn't have to begin the same day, the best discounts tend to be for last-minute rooms.
Here are some pros and cons of the apps I've tried.
Expedia's hotel app (expedia.com/app) will detect your location and show you nearby hotels, or you can enter the name of a city. Results can be filtered by distance, price or star rating, or you can view them on a map where you select a pin to see the hotel's price and name. "Mobile exclusive" deals are marked with a flag indicating how much you're saving.
RECENT DEAL Element New York Times Square, $126 with taxes (versus about $462 booking through various online agencies two weeks in advance).
PROS The app scrolls through photos of the selected property; hotel descriptions include nearby attractions, guest ratings and a list of amenities. Check-in/checkout policies and fees for things like Internet access and parking are also displayed.
CONS You can't filter the list of hotels by neighborhood. Initial prices displayed do not include taxes.
AVAILABLE FOR iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad (all with iOS 5.0 or later), Android.
With Kayak's app (kayak.com/mobile), you can choose "Hotels near me -- Find a deal for tonight," or enter a destination. As with other apps that pinpoint your location, the results can include options that are nearby but not necessarily convenient (for example, New Jersey if you're standing in Manhattan), so choosing the map view lets you zoom in on a specific area like downtown or Midtown Manhattan. Robert Birge, Kayak's chief marketing officer, said mobile bookers can save 25 percent or more by using the app and booking at the last minute.
RECENT DEAL Park Central New York, $170 including taxes (compared with about $295 when booking through various online agencies two weeks in advance).
PROS The map view shows each hotel's base rate in balloons above the street where it is (most competitors show pins, without prices). Once you select a hotel, Kayak displays rates available from different travel agencies, including taxes and fees, making it easy to find the lowest price. There's also a "call hotel" link if you prefer to book by phone.
CONS Using the list view, you cannot sort the results by neighborhood and price at the same time.
AVAILABLE FOR iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows Mobile 7, Kindle Fire.
I tested the Orbitz Hotels app (orbitz.com/mobile) with my iPhone 4, but if you have a newer iPhone (iOS 4.3 or later) or Android device, you can download a version of the app that also lets you book flights and cars. Chris Brown, an Orbitz vice president, said all the company's apps display "mobile steals" -- last-minute hotel rooms that are up to 65 percent off regular rates. A funnel icon at the bottom of the screen lets you filter the results by amenities, area (one neighborhood at a time), hotel chain and rating, and then you can sort the list from lowest to highest price.
RECENT DEAL Sheraton TriBeCa New York, $232 including taxes (versus about $404 booking through various online agencies two weeks in advance).
PROS Orbitz automatically scrolls through a set of photos of the selected property, with descriptions of amenities.
CONS You can't see all the prices at once on the map. Instead, you have to click on each pin. Initial rates displayed do not include taxes. Before booking, you must agree to terms and conditions that cover things like "intellectual property," but the service just vaguely mentions that "Orbitz may charge a fee for the service."
AVAILABLE FOR iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, Android.
Priceline (priceline.com) recently introduced an iPhone app that features last-minute deals on flights and rental cars as well as hotels, but I tested its older app, which focuses on hotels -- and is available for more devices. If you search for a hotel with either Priceline app, you'll see "Tonight-Only Deals," which are available starting at 11 a.m. local time in 150 cities. Brian Ek, a Priceline spokesman, said these deals are up to 40 percent off regular online rates and that Thursday night tends to have the deepest discounts. For tonight-only deals, which can actually be booked for up to four consecutive nights beginning the day you make your reservation, Priceline displays the hotel's name (unlike its name-your-own-price blind bidding option). Priceline's apps also feature Express Deals, which can be better bargains, but the hotel's name is not revealed until after you book.
RECENT DEAL Hilton Garden Inn Times Square, $209, including taxes and Wi-Fi (versus about $312 booking through various online agencies two weeks in advance).
PROS Filters let you select a star level (for example, three stars and above), amenities and neighborhood, then you can sort by price.
CONS You can choose only one neighborhood at a time, so in New York, you cannot select both Midtown West and Midtown East. Initial prices displayed do not include taxes and fees.
AVAILABLE FOR iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android.
Travelocity's app (travelocity.com/mobile) lets you book flights, hotels and cars with "mobile exclusive" deals on hotels; discounts range from 10 to 55 percent off regular rates, said Jason Fulmines, Travelocity's mobile director. Another app, "Hotel Deals by Lastminute.com," was released in September by Travelocity's sister company, but it's available only for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch devices with iOS 5.0 or later, so I just tested Travelocity's main app.
RECENT DEAL Park South Hotel, $240 with taxes (compared with about $347 booking through various online agencies two weeks in advance).
PROS The option to select mobile exclusive deals to see which hotels are offering special same-day discounts; the list is sorted from lowest to highest price and displays each hotel's star rating and distance from your location.
CONS On my phone, which is just over a year old, the app crashed frequently or stalled when retrieving the latest prices after I selected a hotel. When it did work, I often got a message saying, "We're sorry. One or more rooms you have selected are no longer available." Prices were generally higher than those I found using other apps.
AVAILABLE FOR iPhone, iPad, Android, Windows 7, Kindle Fire.travel
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.