What to do when you need a hotel, right now

Last minute hotel rooms at bargain prices are not that easy to find. Illustration: Michael Mucci
Last minute hotel rooms at bargain prices are not that easy to find. Illustration: Michael Mucci 

Is there a secret to getting a hot deal on a same-day hotel booking?

When you find yourself away from home with no accommodation booked, how do you go about finding a bed?

Jump on the internet, start making phone calls, or walk into a reasonable-looking hotel and start negotiating?

If you believe the hype from overseas, same-day hotel booking apps have changed the game, providing quick access to deals for that night and promising discounts of up to 70 per cent.

In the US, travel search provider Hipmunk is now offering metasearch on same-day hotel bookings, via iPhone and Android smartphone apps.

The same hotels came up at exactly the same price over and over again, with no bargains anywhere.

Metasearch is the ability to search deals from a range of providers at the same time.

The Hipmunk app draws information from a huge range of mobile-specific and general deal listings to find the "best" rate for that night.

This approach takes same-day hotel bookings beyond the offerings of stand-alone apps by not being limited to specially negotiated rates.

The problem in Australia is that we don't have Hipmunk or most of the other leading same-day booking apps.

Many online booking providers, such as Wotif and the Expedia-owned Hotels.com, offer smartphone apps but they mirror the content of their main sites rather than offering app-specific or dedicated same-day deals.

In a mock search for a hotel in Brisbane, I compared a wide range of websites, apps and same-day booking apps and found few variations in prices.

The same hotels came up at exactly the same price over and over again, with no bargains anywhere.

Many big-name apps, such as Hotel Tonight, had no Australian content (although you might want to try them out when you're overseas if you have reasonably priced data roaming).

Hotel Quickly opened its bookings at noon but claimed to be "booked out" of Brisbane rooms when I checked at 12.10pm.

The metasearch provider Kayak was looking like a good option, apart from its rates being in US dollars, until I clicked to book and the price went up more than 15 per cent, thanks to fees and taxes.

I hoped to have more luck with the "local" same-day deal provider Stay Today, which opened in Australia and New Zealand just over a year ago – but it came up with only two options.

One was certainly a good deal, at $28 cheaper than Wotif, but I found it hard to determine the value of the other, as the hotel was not listed on mainstream booking sites.

My next theory was to go with Hotels Combined, which is a leading metasearch engine that claims to compare prices from hundreds of websites.

The company has a smartphone app that is easy to use, with simple filters for star rating, price, facilities and other factors, but failed to come up with the best available price on one of the hotels I checked.

By the time I had done all that, my phone was cluttered with apps, I'd lost several hours and I had failed to find a one-stop solution.

My advice is to pick one or two booking sites and download their (free) apps so you can use them if you need to make a booking on the run.

Prices vary little from app to app and you have to weigh up the amount of time you spend searching for a better deal.

You might also want to try the old-fashioned method of walking into a hotel and asking what price they can do on a room that night.

Negotiating in person is not for everyone but it has its benefits, one of which is that the hotel can offer you a discount without officially dropping its rates or being seen to discount.

If you prefer to stick to technology, there are two things to watch.

First, ignore all claims such as “60 per cent off” or a comparison with the “full rate”, neither of which means anything.

Like houses, hotel rooms are worth what they sell for, which will vary according to the day, season and luck.

You're not really getting a discount on the full rate if no one is paying that rate; the only useful comparisons to make are with other booking sites and similar hotels.

The other thing to watch is push notifications, which allow apps to send you deals and information from nearby hotels or businesses.

I always select "don't allow" and also block my location, which you can do in your phone settings or on each app as you open it.

The apps still work, without annoying you with constant interruptions.

jane.fraser@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Have you found a good website or app for booking last-minute accommodation? Post your comments below.

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