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New booking website Stayful offers last-minute deals on boutique hotels in 10 US cities

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - Looking to break out of that big, boxy, cookie-cutter hotel for your summer vacation?

Then consider Stayful.com, a website that launched last year offering discounts at hundreds of boutique hotels around the country. The site promises a chance to try hotels and inns with more local character and to save a few bucks along the way.

Stayful only lets you book up to 30 days in advance and once a room is booked it is non-refundable. They aren't all small independent hotels — the Peninsula New York showed up on one search — but most promise to be different than a typical hotel stay.

Some of the better-known properties include the Gansevoort Park Avenue in New York, The Standard Downtown in Los Angeles, Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans and the Viceroy Miami. There are also plenty of lesser-known lodging options.

Right now, the site is limited to 10 cities: Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.

Stayful asks you to bid on a hotel price. Some provide instant answers. Others can take up to a day to reply and once the hotel responds, you have just three hours to complete the booking. But this isn't like Priceline or Hotwire where you are locked into a hotel without knowing all the details. Stayful gives you the specific hotel name and tells you — before a credit card is required — if your bid has been accepted. Room types, however, are assigned at check-in.

In Seattle, a one-night stay at The Belltown Inn was suggested for $128. A bid of $124 was offered and instantly approved. With taxes and fees, it came to $145.34. Booking directly through the hotel's site, the same stay would have come to $192.03 with tax. But the reservation came with a cancellation option and at least guaranteed a queen bed. Note: Expedia wanted $185.80 for that same queen bed that could also be cancelled. It sometimes pays to shop around.

For the Standard Downtown LA, Stayful recommended a bid of $184. A lowball bid of $124 was met with a big warning: "Yikes! $124 per night has a slim chance of being accepted." Sure enough it was rejected. The site required a one-day wait before another bid could be offered.

Changing dates, a bid of $169 was suggested for a two-night stay. A bid of $165 wasn't accepted but the hotel came back and said that the room could be had for $169. With taxes and fees, that came to $390.39.

But it turns out that wasn't the cheapest price out there. The Standard's own website was offering a non-refundable nightly rate of $166, or $383.46 with tax for a two-night stay. That was almost $7 cheaper than Stayful, and the exact room type was confirmed.

Since Stayful is designed as a way for hotels to unload their unsold rooms, there tend to be more properties listed for a city the closer to your stay you book. A search for a room in New Orleans four weeks out netted only six properties; but a next-night search provided 20.

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Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.

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