These days, smartphone apps are offering new ways to pay your taxes, learn a language or even check your blood pressure. Tech entrepreneurs love industries ripe for "disruption," and many are targeting the travel business.
So with a growing number of companies promising savings on hotel stays, restaurant reservations and limo rides, I decided to give them a run for their money -- and treat my wife to a high-tech date night.
First up was HotelTonight, which, as its name implies, lets smartphone users book last-minute deals at a number of boutique hostelries.
Founded in 2010 and backed by some of Facebook's earliest investors, HotelTonight boasts a partner network in more than 50 U.S. markets and half a dozen foreign countries. Participating hotels get to fill their unbooked rooms, and HotelTonight takes a cut of each sale.
I was a little nervous that landing a reservation in San Francisco on a Friday night would be a pricey challenge. But CEO Sam Shank, who previously founded travel search engine DealBase.com, assured me that weekend rates are only slightly more expensive than those midweek.
Armed with the app, which I downloaded for free from Apple's (AAPL) App Store (it's also available for Android phones), I checked out my options. Shortly after 2 p.m. the day of our planned stay, HotelTonight offered six alternatives near tourist-friendly Union Square. They were grouped into three price categories: Basic, Solid and Hip. (There's also a top-shelf Luxe category, but apparently no such rooms were available on this particular evening.)
Paring the choices was relatively easy: The priciest was $129 before taxes, while another looked on the app's map to be a bit too close to the Tenderloin for my liking. The Hotel Union Square's special rate was just $14 below its standard price, which didn't seem like a very good deal. Meanwhile, the $109 at the Villa Florence turned out to be $142 with taxes and fees. (HotelTonight lets you compare the full costs, including optional valet parking, before making a decision.)
The search for lodging
That left the Powell Hotel, in the "Basic" category, and the Hotel Abri, which was intriguingly listed as a "Hip" property. (I mean, who doesn't want to be hip?) The former was going for just $58 a night before taxes, down from what the app said was regularly $99. Aside from being dirt cheap, the 40 percent discount was also much healthier than the 17 percent offered by the Hotel Abri, where the pretax rate was $109.
Still, I hesitated when a quick TripAdvisor check showed that the Abri gets far better reviews from travelers -- and that the Powell, situated right at the Market Street cable car turnaround, could be noisy. Besides, I told my wife, this was a date night; why not splurge? The choice became moot when I discovered that while we were debating, somebody else had snapped up the last room at the Powell. He who hesitates in cyberspace is lost.
Our lodging decision made, I then set my sights on dinner. Shank had recommended Savored -- an app that's a bit like reservations site OpenTable, but with a focus on last-minute discounts. The New York company, which was recently bought by daily deals pioneer Groupon, says more than 1,000 Zagat-rated restaurants in 10 cities have signed up for its service.
Savored's business model is akin to HotelTonight's, guaranteeing restaurant owners that their tables won't sit empty and giving diners as much as 40 percent off. The results, though, were much spottier, at least on this night. My wife was in the mood for seafood, so we scored a reservation at La Scene in the nearby theater district, which touted goodies such as oysters Rockefeller and crabmeat risotto. Best of all, the app promised a 30 percent discount off the final bill, including booze.
The problem? Just after the app told me my reservation was confirmed, it seemed to crash -- and when it came back, our reservation was gone. Worse, La Scene no longer appeared among the choices when the app refreshed. The next-best option in our neighborhood of choice was the Velvet Room at the Clift Hotel.
I like the Clift a lot -- for a drink. But I worried that the hotel's restaurant would play second fiddle to its popular bar. Despite an ambitious menu that included lamb two ways and stuffed quail, we were disappointed by the results and the long waits for service. (To the maître d's credit, he took a scallop appetizer off the bill when we told him it had arrived cold. Interestingly, he also told us that while Savored brings in a couple of tables every day, the Clift was about to switch to Gilt City, a rival service for finding flash deals on dining and other services.)
An unsavory taste
Compounding my unhappiness with Savored was that when the company finally sent me an email to explain that my reservation at La Scene had been canceled because the restaurant's tables all were booked, it didn't arrive until 9 p.m. Then, a second email apologized that my reservation at the Velvet Room had been canceled! So while I was happy to have saved $30 on a fancy dinner, the booking experience didn't feel ready for prime time.
We had better luck once we checked into the hotel. The Abri -- which means "shelter" in French -- turned out to be just that on a rainy night. With its fireplace lounge and row of iPads mounted on the lobby wall, it easily earned the "Hip" designation. Though our room was fairly tiny, I felt we'd gotten good value for our money. (Just for the sake of comparison, I fired up Hotels.com to see if it had better deals in San Francisco that evening. The only three-star properties I found near Union Square both were spendier than the Abri, while the less expensive options got poor reviews.)
With our 4-year-old at home in the care of my visiting parents, we decided to catch a late movie. Out came the smartphone once more, this time to punch up Uber, a mobile marketplace for taxi and town-car drivers.
My wife has had nightmarish experiences trying to hail cabs in San Francisco, but when I opened Uber, the app immediately found my location -- and showed me several town car drivers nearby (and their ratings by prior Uber users). We were able to watch on the phone screen as a tiny cartoon car drove along a map of the city toward us. "That's pretty cool," my wife said.
Our driver, Mohammed, said he'd been using Uber for only a few weeks but was happy with the business it had delivered. When he dropped us off at a cinema on Van Ness Avenue, the bill came to $15 -- including his tip, although no cash changed hands. Uber simply charged my credit card and emailed the receipt.
Town car a deal
To assess my deal while waiting for the movie to start, I called three town car companies found on Yelp. The first didn't answer; the second said they were backed up for hours. And the third quoted me a rate of $60 for the same trip Mohammed had just taken us on.
What's more, when my wife (rather miraculously) managed to flag down a cab as soon as we left the theater, the fare back to our hotel, including tip, was just $4 less than what Uber had charged.
All things considered, I came away from my experiment feeling like I'd discovered some gems. I'd definitely consider using HotelTonight again to look for deals on unique properties (we stuck our heads into the Powell, which we'd originally planned to book; like the Abri, it seemed quaint and well-appointed). The app's same-night aspect, though, might make me a little nervous about using it unless I had a backup plan with a generous cancellation policy.
Uber's a keeper, based on our single experience, although it would be interesting to test further how its price and convenience compare with those of cabs -- or to apps such as SideCar, which lets you book a ride with any driver (professional or not) who's happened to download the software.
As for Savored, suffice it to say it left a bad taste in our mouths.
Email Peter Delevett at email@example.com or contact him at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.
HotelTonight: Same-day discounts on
boutique hotel rooms (deals posted at noon daily). www.hoteltonight.com
Savored: Up to 40
percent off at more than 1,000 Zagat-rated restaurants. www.savored.com
Uber: "Everyone's private driver" dispatches licensed town car, taxi or SUV drivers in a host of cities. www.uber.com
Note: HotelTonight and Uber are available only as iPhone or Android apps; Savored bookings can be made via smartphone app or online.
HOW MUCH I saved
$22 HotelTonight discount at the Hotel Abri
$30 Discount off dinner at the Clift Hotel's Velvet Room
$45 For a car booked via Uber compared with a quote from a town car service