Navigating the confusing world of travel flash deals

SUTTONS BAY, MICH. — It was a Groupon find — $99 for a five-hour wine tour of the Leelanau for two. It was 37% off the normal price.

So I bit.

So did Diane Colvin of Hazel Park, a veteran flash deal traveler.

“Groupon has greatly improved my social life because I have to ask friends to go somewhere with me,” said Colvin of Hazel Park, sitting in the fancy black Grand Traverse Tours bus with her mother as it trundled through the rainy Leelanau countryside.

That afternoon, we stopped at seven wineries getting Riesling refreshed, pinot primed (and for a few, Gewurtztraminer hammered).

Colvin revealed she’d also been skydiving and to Jamaica on travel flash deals.

“You kind of have to be open-minded. And adventurous,” she said. “You have to realize that you’re likely to get businesses that are not on the regular track of marketing, so they think Groupon will help.”

Let’s make a deal

Most people know Groupon and similar sites for vouchers for $20 massages and $12 manicures.

But buying travel on these sites costs hundreds or thousands more.

The Free Press looked at 22 travel daily deals on multiple sites. We found that about a third of the time they either were not the lowest price or involved a lot of red tape. (See “Deal or not?” for a sample of our findings.)

In addition, it is getting harder to know exactly who is selling the trip. Groupon’s site includes Expedia deals. LivingSocial is partners with Priceline. DealChicken offers complex deals from multiple travel partners. Upscale Jetsetter is now owned and pitched by middle-of-the-road TripAdvisor.

And some daily deal companies are struggling financially. The biggest, Groupon, with 59.1% of the market according to a new IBISWorld report, lost $67.4 million last year. LivingSocial, with about 16.6% of the market, lost $650 million. (The smaller DealChicken, an initiative run by Free Press parent company Gannett, issues no independent financial data.)

As these sites struggle to remain vibrant and compete against upstarts, they are rolling out shiny new travel baubles to lure buyers — like LivingSocial’s new coupon code section introduced this month.

Still, for buyers, it’s hard to tell if a deal is a deal until you buy one.

Deals may carry surprises

The biggest flash sale trip Colvin ever booked was a five-day Jamaican vacation she bought last year for $399 on LivingSocial. It was for Little Bay Cabins over Christmas week.

“When I got there, everybody was on the coupon,” she said.

In Jamaica, the tiny resort was secluded on the southern shore. There were no restaurants, shops or public transportation. It was way too isolated for a solo traveler. Yet her small cabin was just 20 feet from the Caribbean sea. Not bad for $399. Was it worth it?

“It was beautiful but just too secluded,” Colvin said. Also, her airfare to Jamaica was nearly twice the cost of the lodging deal.

As for me, after my successful Groupon wine tour, I bought another flash travel deal that sounded too good to pass up.

DealChicken offered a voucher: $49 for two nights at a hotel for up to four people. The catch? You don’t know the name of the hotels or cities available until you have bought the voucher, sent an e-mail, gotten a phone number and called to book.

A week later, I am still trying to navigate the complex process of redeeming it.


Types of travel deals: Vouchers, plus hotel deals you must book immediately. A new feature lists coupon codes for travel discounts. Since early September they’ve had a 650% increase in hotel and tour listings, according to Escapes general manager Nicholas Stafford.

• One night at the White House Inn, Wilmington, Vt.: LivingSocial’s $129 voucher good for now through March 15. The hotel’s own web site showed a rate of $170 and showed $175. DEAL? YES

• Paradisus Cancun all-inclusive resort, three-night stay in a deluxe junior lagoon suite: LivingSocial’s $803 voucher good for now to Dec. 22. Expedia’s price was $812.31. The resort’s website showed a rate of $812.31 — but if you join the Melia hotel rewards club (the chain Melia owns Paradisus brand) it is $771.69. DEAL? NO. Book through the hotel website — or better yet, find a travel agent who can combine your hotel and airfare to cut the total cost.

• Refunds: LivingSocial allows a refund within 30 days of voucher purchase, unless fine print on a particular deal says otherwise.


Types of travel deals: Vouchers, plus hotel deals you must book immediately. Groupon is expanding its mobile presence; for instance, it just bought Blink, a mobile app offering same-day hotel bookings in Europe.

• Mystery Hotel in Downtown Chicago with Views and Shedd Tickets: No voucher, just immediate booking. Groupon said the hotel was “$75 and up,” but only Sept. 5 showed that low price. The rest of the days, the mystery hotel would cost $167 to $309 a night. DEAL? NO.

• Kalahari Resort, Sandusky, Ohio, one-night stay for family of four with water park admission: Groupon’s $139 voucher was good Sept. 2-Oct. 16. Price at the resort’s website was $349. DEAL? YES. This is exactly the type of last-minute regional family deal to seek.

• Refunds: The Groupon Promise assures unsatisfied customers it will “work with you to make it right” (a vague statement). On trips it allows refunds if fine print on the voucher allows it.


Types of travel deals: Focuses mainly on local deals but has some travel and golf vacation deals.

• Two-night getaway to the Nordic Inn, Crested Butte, Colo., including breakfast: DealChicken’s $274 voucher good through Oct. 15. The hotel’s website showed a rate of $498 and showed $358. DEAL? YES

• Two-night stay for up to four at an unnamed hotel, choice of cities: DealChicken’s $49 voucher is good through September 2014. This deal is not available on other sites but it would be hard to beat this price. However, it is hard to redeem and involves voucher numbers, e-mailing, calling, a $50 deposit ($10 of it nonrefundable) and no information on the actual hotels until you book. DEAL? MAYBE. Although cheap, I am still waiting for them to e-mail me the phone number to call for reservations.

• Refunds: DealChicken allows refunds within the first 14 days unless fine print on a particular deal says otherwise.


Types of travel deals: Predates other sites, with sole focus on travel deals and great trips vetted by experienced staff. To compete, it’s now getting into local deals.

• Charming Saugatuck BB Escape for two at Maplewood Hotel: Travelzoo’s $99 voucher good through February. Hotel website shows rate of $160. DEAL? YES, but it’s so popular that Travelzoo lists quite a few sold-out or blocked dates.

• Luxury castles of Ireland six-night spring trip, including car: No Travelzoo voucher, just goes straight to the Great Value Vacations website where you book directly. Cost $1,110.72 per person including air from New York when departing March 5, for example. It’s the same price if booked directly through the vendor. DEAL? YES, because you likely would not know about this excellent deal otherwise.

• Refunds: Travelzoo ( allows refunds within the first seven days, unless fine print on a particular deal says otherwise.


Types of travel deals: Its staff and correspondents only recommend places they have been to themselves. Includes high-end spots so “deals” may still be pricey.

• Revel Atlantic City Ocean Room King, with $50 food/beverage voucher: Jetsetter price $122 and up; must book immediately for dates through Feb. 20; hotel website shows rates of $129 and up. DEAL? YES, because of the $50 food/beverage voucher.

• H2O Patagonia Eight-Day multi-sport tour in Chile: Jetsetter deal is $4,595 for two, not including airfare but including lodging, meals, sports, airport transfers and more. Booked directly through H2O Patagonia it is $6,800. DEAL? YES, if this is your definition of a deal.

• Refunds: Jetsetter gives no refunds.