The LivingSocial Escapes (http://livingsocial.com) deal that appeared in my e-mail inbox sounded appealing: A two-night stay for two people at Crystal Lodge in Whistler Village, Vancouver, for $299. The coupon included a three-course dinner and two gondola lift tickets.
Then I read the fine print. Turns out that the package went up to $329 for weekends in July and August, with 12 blackout dates listed. The price didn't include tax (an extra $20). On the hotel's website, I found the same room for $262 for two nights (excluding taxes) on the weekend I was considering. And while the hotel's location was outstanding, I wouldn't have chosen the restaurant -- a pricey Canadian steakhouse chain -- if I was on my own.
Yet the package offered big savings on the Peak 2 Peak gondola tickets, which normally cost $85.90 for two people. Others must have agreed that it was a great deal; by the time I went to buy it, the offer had already sold out.
Social coupon sites such as LivingSocial, Groupon (www.groupon.com), Daily Candy (www.dailycandy.com), and Eversave (www.eversave.com) have proliferated in the last few years, offering discounts on everything from spa services to restaurant meals to rafting trips. The almost instant popularity of the startups has inspired established companies to jump into the fray: Expedia (www.expedia.com) has paired up with Groupon to create Groupon Getaways with Expedia and Amazon (www.amazon.com) now broadcasts LivingSocial deals under the banner AmazonLocal (http://local.amazon.com).
The deals aren't always popular with retailers. In a Rice University study last year, 40% of merchants said they wouldn't run a Groupon promotion again. But consumers love them, as seen in a survey by ConsumerSearch where 64% of respondents described their experiences with redeemed deals as very satisfying.
Social couponing can provide some good deals while you're on the road, if you do your research. Here are a few tips on how to use the sites effectively.
Sign up for deals at your destination. Many daily deals are for things that only a local may or may not appreciate (20 units of Botox, anyone?) Still, I've seen Seattle coupons for tourist-friendly activities such as kayak rentals, Puget Sound dinner cruises, and local winery tours. If you sign up about six weeks before your trip, you may snag some deals and fun outings for your vacation.
Tip: If you're signing up for more than one coupon site, you might want to use a dedicated e-mail address, as the notices can pile up.
Check blackout and expiration dates. Trish Sare bought a New York City hotel package on LivingSocial without checking the expiration date -- and was surprised by the conditions. "It meant I would have had to take a trip to NYC in two months, which was much sooner than I'd anticipated," said Sare, director of BikeHike Adventures (www.bikehike.com). "That would have cost me more in the end."
Is it really a deal? Sare also noticed that the hotel's website advertised the same price that she had received from LivingSocial. While LivingSocial refunded her money after she contacted them, Sare has learned her lesson. "I'll be far more careful in the future," she says.
Round up your friends. Social couponing emphasizes bulk purchasing. So almost all of the sites make it easy to share deals -- and some will give you even deeper discounts or free items if your friends sign up too.
Rebecca Harper, a director with the skincare startup The Tiossano Tribe, had wanted to go skydiving for years. So when she saw a $150 coupon from LivingSocial that cut the original price by more than 50%, she jumped on it -- and shared it with her friends in northern Virginia. "Enough people had bought the deal to make a crowd," she said.
Avoid impulse buys. Do you have clothes in your closet that looked great on the sale rack but matched nothing when you brought them home? That's how I feel about a restaurant deal I bought on Groupon. Am I really going to eat $30 worth of food from the pizza place across town? It's the equivalent of shoes with four-inch heels; I'm never going to use it. Better to save money for travel experiences that you know you'll enjoy -- no matter how great the deal.
Travel journalist Chris Gray Faust dishes up travel tips on her award-winning blog, Chris Around The World. She's also the author of the Philadelphia Essential Guide, an app for iPhone and iPad. Follow her at @CAroundTheWorld.