Over the years many apps and websites have come along to provide some kind of last-minute hotel booking experience, but few have had much staying power. HotelTonight seems to be bucking the trend, building up momentum as more people use the service and are happy with it.
The first thing you’ll notice when you visit the HotelTonight website is that there’s not really a website. You need to download the program to your Apple or Android mobile device (no Windows version) to even see what’s available. Once you do that and sign up though, it’s smooth sailing. The only quirk I noticed in using it is it’s not real intuitive how to book more than one night—it’s not on the “book” screen but on the one before that.
Think of this app as something in between opaque bargain options like Hotwire or the bidding side of Priceline and the normal hotel sites like Expedia or Booking.com. You get the transparency of the latter (the hotel you book is no mystery), but a better deal that still takes advantage of hotels not liking to have lots of empty rooms. Since you’re willing to wait until the day of to book, you get extra savings.
You really do have to book the day of, and usually after 10:00 for that time zone. Otherwise you get this screen to the left telling you to check back later. You also don’t know how many hotels will be available. If it’s a big city like Chicago or New York, you’ll have loads of options. In a mid-sized city in the USA, maybe 5-10. In international locations, probably less than that.
I wanted to try it in central Mexico, so for the last few weeks I’ve been pulling up Guadalajara, San Miguel de Allende, and Puebla. Selection in Mexico’s second-largest city was usually 5-7 hotels, but in San Miguel I was lucky to see one. So I waited until I was headed to Puebla with my family and the morning we were getting ready to head out, I booked a $68 room. It turned out to be a lovely place: Hotel Palacio San Leonardo right in the historic center. That’s the lobby at the top and you can see the view from their terrace below.
You can see some of the other options that popped up the day I booked in this screenshot.
You’ll notice the savings on that place weren’t overly dramatic—less than 10%—but I was booking on a holiday weekend. A week before it was $10 cheaper. I’ve seen savings up to 40% on some properties. With taxes and fees though it came out to $80 per night, for a hotel that did indeed look like a palace. It’s an evocative historic property and at least three of the staffers spoke fluent English. That includes the bellman, which is a rarity outside the main tourist centers of Mexico.
The Wi-Fi was complimentary and worked great and the hot shower had excellent water pressure. The room was kind of small and didn’t have a lot of extras, but we were taking what we could get because there were three of us. We needed to have three beds. If you were coming as a couple, try to get a higher floor room (it goes up to 7) with a view.
My main worry with HotelTonight was the clear disclosure on the app that they can’t guarantee any certain room configuration. As with Hotwire, you’re taking a chance if you have a kid with you like I did. I wrote off one of the hotels that kept popping up because it was a boutique hotel that looked short on tw0-bed guest rooms. The savings were more dramatic (they were at the Holiday Inn as well), but I didn’t want to take a chance. On the travel day, I wrote an e-mail to the hotel right after I booked though and it worked out fine at check-in. Figure if a hotel is advertising on this app, they’re probably not close to being full.
The other key is that this is a pay in advance service. Your credit card on file is charged when you book. So be sure you’re going to make it and not have a canceled flight. Better yet, just wait until you land and then grab a room then. I enjoyed the two nights in the Hotel Palacio San Leonardo in Puebla though and would use it and this app again.
Review and photos by travel author and editor Tim Leffel. I used a complimentary credit supplied by HotelTonight to try their service but all opinions are my own.