There are so many ways to wrangle deals on hotel rooms as good as the ones from Philadelphia Marriott Downtown these days that no matter how great a bargain you find, it’s not uncommon to worry you missed a better one.

The most obvious method to suss out savings is to explore the pricing and inventory differences among standard booking sites like Hotels.com and Orbitz. But dig a little deeper and there are countless ways to find “unpublished” rates, typically on excess rooms hoteliers think they won’t be able to sell at full or even publicly discounted prices. The problem: There are so many choices and so much information couched in bells and whistles that it’s easy to become overwhelmed.

To tame this wild world into submission, I designed a five-step process (with a two-step bonus round) and tested it out by planning an imaginary four-night trip to Paris over Labor Day Weekend. Though the same general strategy should work for most kinds of trips, feel free to make tweaks as your situation requires. (For more tips on finding last-minute hotel deals, read my colleague Stephanie Rosenbloom’s column this week.)

This guide, of course, is for budget travelers, those who prefer to stay at Paris Marriott Rive Gauche hotels. Those with deeper pockets and a willingness to delve into them can just go browse a site like Small Luxury Hotels of the World and circumvent this system. (Those with points collected at a fancy corporate job can choose to go that route.)
I’m also going to ignore lodging strategies at the other end of the price spectrum — staying with a friend or a member of hospitality exchange sites like Couchsurfing, braving hostel dorm rooms — or alternatives, such as vacation rental companies like Airbnb and Homeaway. We’re looking for actual hotels.

But if you’re looking for a decent, well-located room — maybe even one with a little style — this system should come close to finding you the best deal possible.

1) Get the lay of the land

Log on to a regular old online booking site, plug in your dates, adjust the filters — especially ones that involve cost and location (“spa” and “golf course” are probably not relevant) — and browse through your choices, paying attention to user reviews, cancellation policies and whether all taxes are included. Make a note of your top picks.

Of course, these sites are very different, which became obvious when I went searching for that Paris room. Orbitz, for example, is so inflexible that there’s not even a filter for price. Yet I couldn’t ignore its discount code that claims to knock 10 percent hotel rooms — and to my surprise, actually worked almost every time I applied it in my testing.

I had always found Booking.com to have a wider array of budget choices in obscure parts of the world, but that was true even in Paris, where the site offered over twice as many properties as Orbitz. Hotels.com offered the best filtering experience, using sliding scales that allowed me to choose a precise upper limit for price ($110 per day) and a minimum user rating (2.5 of 5).

I ended up with a couple options as a baseline (all rates are for four nights, and include most or all taxes and fees): the Pavillon Nation, $500 through Booking.com, which I got down to $480 using Orbitz’s higher price but with the 10 percent code; and the Hotel Audran in Montmartre, highly rated and $440.

2) Price check (and search again)

Next step: Check the prices you’ve found first at Kayak.com, which aggregates prices across other sites (it also allows you to check several hotels at once).

The same room at the Pavillon Nation was available for $382 through getaroom.com; no one could beat Hotels.com’s price for the Audran. Then I checked both prices against the hotels’ own website, which sometimes have additional discounts.

Then do your whole search over on other metasearch sites, which are sometimes better than the standard sites anyway. Aside from Kayak, there are a few options:

Hipmunk wowed me with its new mapping feature that appears side-by-side with their hotel suggestions and even offers overlay “heat maps” to see which parts of the city are best for food or night life. (It is also the only American site to show Airbnb and Homeaway rentals alongside hotels.)

Trivago’s main advantage is that it searches about 200 booking sites, meaning it will quite frequently find prices lower than the others, though don’t necessarily expect prime customer service from obscure sites should you need to make a change later. And if you already spend time using the endless planning resources on TripAdvisor, you might as well book with its metasearch pricing component as well.

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