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Whether you're flying to visit your family, catching a train to meet up with a long-distance love or celebrating New Year's Eve on a warm-weather cruise with friends, ever present travel disruptions over the holiday season may leave you needing a place to stay at the last-minute. While few things can make an overnight delay better, the recent boom in same-day booking apps for smartphones and tablets will at least help you find a deal when travel providers won’t cover an overnight stay.

Hotels that are racing to fill up their remaining rooms will often woo travellers with mobile-only flash sales, typically discounting rates 10% to 40% from other online sites. For example, the app HotelTonight recently listed a room at the Riveria South Beach in Miami, a 1940s luxury hotel two blocks from the beach, for $150, while a nightly stay booked via Expedia or the hotel’s website was $240, a rare 60% off.

Same-day booking apps differ from browser-based travel sites in two ways: the deals on the apps are all non-refundable and the apps tend to have a limited, ever-changing selection of hotels. But the companies defend their narrowing of options by saying that if they included thousands of hotels, users would have tough time searching the entire inventory by rate, star rating and location on a tiny smartphone or tablet screen.

So while we certainly hope you get to your destination without delay, these last-minute booking apps can help you make sure there’s room at the inn this holiday season.

Best for the US
HotelTonight
is an app for Android and Apple devices that, on any given day, lists about 600, mostly upscale, properties across more than 50 destinations in the US, Canada and the UK, including Palm Springs, California, Vancouver and London, plus a couple of other European cities, such as Amsterdam and Dublin. Downloaded three million times since it debuted in 2011, it is the most popular of the same-day booking apps, with rooms available from noon, local time, daily. In a unique feature for a same-day booking app, HotelTonight shows an average rating from other users of the app, which can be a helpful gauge of hotel quality. The app has the slickest user interface of the bunch too, executing tricks such as remembering properties a user has stayed at before and automatically suggesting those properties when the user searches that destination again. In a drawback, there’s no rate guarantee. Users must take the app at its word that its prices are truly deals, which isn’t always true.

Best for broad coverage, worldwide
Booking.com Tonight is the best choice if you’re simply looking for a cheap place to rest your head in the broadest number of places in the world, with a concentration in Europe, North America and Southeast Asia. Launched in April by European online travel agency Booking.com, the iPhone or iPad-only app lists same-deal lodging offers for the most number of hotels – tens of thousands, including hostels — with listings in the most number of languages (18). Yet in a flaw, only a sliver of those properties are yet offering mobile-only discounts, and you have to select a “deals” filter to easily find these bargains, which seem to number in the few hundreds worldwide. On the plus side, the app sells rooms around the clock, unlike other apps that are not in operation for parts of the day. Unlike rival HotelTonight, Booking.com Tonight has a rate guarantee. If you find the same room cheaper elsewhere, the company will pay you the difference.

Best for Germany and Central Europe
In November, the giant German travel site HRS (short for Hotel Reservations Service) launched a same-day booking app Hotels Now for Apple devices only. It has about 2,000 rooms available in 46 European cities on any given night, with its deepest offerings in cities in and around Germany, such as Hamburg, Krakow and Zurich, with rooms available from 6 am daily. The app mostly presents generic chain hotels, such as Eurostars, Ramada and Best Western, while HotelTonight emphasizes independently owned design hotels, which may appeal to a certain type of traveller. In a unique perk, the app lets you connect with your Facebook and Foursquare accounts to see on a map if your hotel is near places that have been recommended by your friends and contacts. There’s no rate guarantee.

Also of note is JustBook is a same-day booking app for iPhone, Android and Blackberry that launched in June and lists a few hundred four- and five-star hotels across 30 European cities, with especially strong coverage in the UK, Ireland and Germany.

Best for France
In June, Very Last Room debuted as an iPhone-only app that covers 21 cities in France, available from midday. The user-interface isn’t slick and there’s no rate guarantee, but it does offer about 100 two- and three-star hotels nationwide on any given day.

Best for Spain
Spanish-owned Apple, Android and Blackberry app Hot Hotels launched in March and offers a handful of hotels for last-minute booking in 18 countries in Europe, such as Spain and Russia, plus Argentina, with inventory posted throughout the day. While it lacks a rate guarantee and a stylish user interface, the app has hundreds of hotels available for 48 destinations in its country of origin Spain.

Also of note is the European pioneer of same-day booking apps, Blink, a Spanish app for Apple and Android devices that offers more than 1,000 hotels across 97 cities in seven countries, with the deepest coverage in Spain, France and Italy.

Alternatives to same-day booking apps
If you’re looking for a broader and more familiar array of hotel listings, you may want to turn to the Apple and Android apps for the major online travel agencies, such Orbitz and Travelocity. These apps can be used to book last minute, even though they’re not exclusively listing same-day deals. Apps from Lastminute.com, Priceline and Expedia, on the other hand, do offer mobile-only last-minute rates.

Launched in September by US online travel agency Lastminute.com, Hotel Deals by Lastminute.com lets travellers book hotels with three-star-or-higher ratings for tonight, tomorrow or the next day in 36 US cities, with rates available around the clock. At the moment, it has two big weaknesses: only about 100 hotels on the app seem to be running mobile-exclusive offers, and the app only works on Apple devices. That said, Lastminute.com’s app has an impressive innovation. Instead of having to type in a credit or debit card number on the device’s tiny keyboard, travellers can instead use their iPhone or iPad camera to snap a photo of their credit card, from which the app then reads the numbers. However, users still have to manually enter the expiration date and the security code on the back of the card.

In September 2011, Priceline enhanced its Android and Apple Priceline Negotiator app with a tab for Tonight-Only Deals at a few thousand hotels in more than 150 destinations. While Priceline earned its reputation based on its bidding-for-travel products, this app is only offering retail rates with all information about properties available up front.

In August, Expedia’s Apple and Android booking app Expedia Hotel and Flights added mobile-only rates for more than 2,000 of the 140,000 hotels listed. Like Priceline’s app, Expedia’s isn’t restricted to same-day bookings, but the company says about 70% of its mobile device users are “looking to travel within the next 24 hours”.

Sean O’Neill is the travel tech columnist for BBC Travel

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