I'm not accustomed to staying in places like Room Mate Emma, a slick boutique hotel in Barcelona. But there I was one Sunday in May, and for only 74 euros (about $99 at $1.33 to the euro). That rate, which I got through the last-minute hotel booking app Blink, was 15 euros less than the price listed on the hotel's Web site -- and a full 65 euros less than the lowest rate for several Sundays later. It was an irresistible deal.
There are lots of ways to save money on a hotel room, but all require some sort of sacrifice: go in the off-season, stay outside the city center, share a bathroom. Now there's a new one: book at the last minute. Over the last couple of years, the market has been flooded by apps offering discounts for travelers willing to wait until the day of their stay and reserve on their smartphones. Most consumers still prefer to book their rooms in advance at full price, of course (which is why hotels are willing to grant last-minute discounts), but the apps are a boon for impromptu or emergency trips and for the admirable breed of traveler that shuns rigid itineraries. And sometimes they pay off big. (The actual Blink price was 79 euros; I used a 5-euro voucher available to first-time customers.)
Before a recent trip to Europe I downloaded 10 of the apps to my iPhone -- including ones from major sites like Booking.com and Kayak, as well as Europe-only apps like JustBook, Hot Hotels and Blink, and used them to book eight hotel stays just hours before check-in. (Most apps are also available on Android.) On most attempts, I had many appealing rooms to chose from, and prices were lower -- 10 to 40 percent -- than those available on the hotel's own Web site or a standard search site like Hotels.com. As with any sale, be wary of making a decision just for the savings: 20 percent off a room you don't want isn't better than regular price at a place you do. Still, I got some excellent deals.
The apps saved me money even compared with booking in advance. When I checked room rates a week ahead at each hotel I booked, the last-minute rate was the winner seven of eight nights. But it's not an easy process. I spent at least two hours every morning going through the apps, usually with a computer at my side to check user reviews, to look at locations and to see if there was anything better available through standard sites -- safe to say that's not the way most people want to spend their vacation. (The market is just begging for a meta-search app that combines all the deals in one place, as Trivago does for regular hotel searches and Kayak does for flights.)
Though the apps work on the same principle, specific features turned out to be make-or-break. Take selection. Hotel Tonight, which claims to be the original and is certainly the most ballyhooed, offers rooms daily in what it says are carefully selected hotels. But, at least in the cities I visited, those fell mostly above the 100-euro-a-night maximum I had set; perhaps for that reason, I never took one of its deals. (A Hotel Tonight spokeswoman later told me it often features deals in my price range.)
The Europe-only apps had the same curated feel as Hotel Tonight, but with better deals. And Kayak, Hotels.com and Priceline, which integrate day-of deals nicely into their regular apps, and Booking.com's Tonight app have a wider variety of selections, better suited to budget travelers.
Hotels Now, an app that offers deals in 22 European countries and Turkey, provides a nice middle ground between curated and kitchen sink, with a wider but not overwhelming selection; not surprisingly, it's the app where I booked three of my eight stays.
For example, a room booked through Hotels Now at the central and comfortable (if not chic) Sansi Diputació in Barcelona cost me 98 euros including taxes -- compared with about 160 euros on Booking.com at the same time. At the front desk, I asked the receptionist what the absolute best price she would have given me if I had walked in off the street. Her answer: 120 euros plus taxes (about 132 euros in all).
There are a few issues. Some of the apps don't release their deals first thing in the morning -- JustBook releases at 10, Blink at 11, Hotel Tonight at noon -- which makes for difficult comparison shopping, especially for someone who might be on a plane as the deals come online.
The way apps presented deals in map form was irritatingly inconsistent. I far preferred the ones that showed all available hotels on one map (like Booking's Tonight, JustBook and Blink), rather than just one hotel at a time. (It also drove me crazy that the iOS 6 version of most of the apps I tested use Apple Maps, which doesn't show public transportation routes, a vital factor in most lodging decisions. Android versions use the far superior Google Maps.) Blink also often forced me to choose a neighborhood first, instead of seeing deals for the whole city; what if I don't know my way around?
More frustrations: only certain apps gave me the option of saving my credit card information (JustBook, Hot, Blink, Hotel Tonight), which made the booking process much smoother. And they vary on how many extra nights you can book (sometimes at higher prices) when you take a last-minute deal.
But the biggest flaw in using these apps is that there is simply no guarantee of a decent room, let alone a deal.
That's what happened on the day all the apps failed me. On the Thursday morning I was to fly from Barcelona to Berlin, I was unable to find anything resembling a bargain; in fact, there were barely any hotels in my price range at all. As 11 a.m. approached, I found myself on the bus from the city center to the airport, with nowhere to sleep that night. I frantically tapped away, finally finding a vaguely satisfactory deal on Booking.com's Tonight app, a single at the Hotel Potsdamer Hof Berlin -- a mediocre-looking place in a mediocre location for 59 euros.
Six minutes remained before the Blink offers for that day went online. I decided to risk losing the Potsdamer and wait as Blink's countdown clock ticked away. As the bus pulled into the airport, the last 15 seconds were counting down. I jumped out with my bag and crouched on the sidewalk. Five, four, three, two, one and ... what? Blink had no deals available that day for Berlin. I frantically tapped back to Tonight, hurriedly typed in my credit card number and booked, and unleashed a tweet berating Blink. Mentally drained, I wheeled my bag into the terminal.
By the time I reached my last stop, Brussels, I was sick of packing up and checking out every morning (not to mention fearing a repeat of the Berlin fiasco), so I took advantage of Hot Hotels's multinight option, booking four nights at Hotel Centrale for $61 a night, booked in dollars. But I was socked with a 30.32-euro city tax upon checkout, a detail that had been buried in the small print that I had not scrolled down to. (Many apps put the city tax front and center before you book.)
But there were more ups than downs. Even better than that Room Mate Emma deal was the room I landed my second night in Berlin: the stylish Q! Hotel through Hotels Now for 73.50 euros. (It was listed at 105 euros on the Booking.com site.) I could tell you about the great bathroom or the quality Internet connection. But what confirmed for me that I had gotten a deal was what the desk clerk told me: "Breakfast is not included, but you can decide spontaneously to have it for 20 euros."
Too pricey for me, of course. But for under $100 a night I was staying in a place where breakfast costs as much as a bed in a nice youth hostel. Now that's a deal.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.