Groupon and LivingSocial: Good Budget Travel Option or Waste of Money?

A new buying trend has been buzzing around the social media world for a couple of years: daily instant savings coupons. The theory is simple, every day these companies send out an email to their subscribers with “special deals” for their city. It can be half off a spa visit, restaurant savings or even hotel rooms. At first blush these savings appear to be amazing bargains, but are they really a good deal when it comes to travel?

It’s a little difficult to efficiently evaluate Groupon and LivingSocial, since LivingSocial offers a specific travel category which Groupon does not. Rather than a scientific analysis, this will instead be based on my own experiences.

Restaurants, tours and other piddly things

The bread and butter of these coupon services appears to be restaurants and laser hair removal services. While the later won’t be of interest to a tourist (unless you’re going on a medical tourism getaway to Washington, DC, which would just be strange) the former is definitely alluring to the budget traveler.

It’s attractive until you realize that the entire premise of Groupon and LivingSocial is to convince you, the consumer, to buy things you don’t want to purchase. There is usually a reason why the business are being featured, they need customers. You don’t typically see the top restaurants in town participating in these services. Rather it’s the quiet little establishment that no one seems to patronize. Restaurant deals also aren’t always very impressive either.

Restaurant deals vary, but are usually buy-one-get-one, or spend $10 for $20. At first it sounds good, but you really have to do your research. Buy-one-get-one is almost always the better deal, but more rare. A discount is much more common, but can be misleading. Review the menu before buying the coupon to ensure the prices are reasonable for your budget.

Creative Commons License photo credit: zawtowers

One activity I think LivingSocial and Groupon are perfect for are city experiences. During the Cherry Blossom Festival, LivingSocial had a great deal on a cruise around the Tidal Basin, and recently Groupon had a white water day trip package that was actually a nice savings. You just have to do your research and determine for yourself whether or not it truly is a fantastic deal. This is especially true when it comes to larger purchases.

Hotels and vacations

The really interesting aspect of this new way to impulse buy is LivingSocial’s Escapes. These are travel deals ranging from a weekend at a nearby B&B to a week in the Caribbean. As with the Lasik eye surgery and hair removal deals, these are seemingly fantastic offers on amazing getaways, sort of.

One day a LivingSocial email made its way into my inbox, offering 50% off a luxurious hotel stay in the nearby mountains of West Virginia. My partner had an upcoming birthday and I thought a nice day away would be the perfect present.

The deal was straightforward. For $197 we would be entitled to an evening at the Hillbrook Inn in “quaint“ Charles Town, West Virginia. Included in the rate was:

  • A One-Night Stay for Two in the Main House
  • Gourmet Breakfast for Two
  • Fresh Homemade Cookie Tray in Room
  • Two Signature Drinks
  • Champagne and Strawberries Upon Arrival

It didn’t sound like a bad deal, especially since LivingSocial said this deal was normally worth $395. Not wanting to be duped, I checked out the rates for the hotel on another site, finding a stay and breakfast combo for $250. Not quite the tremendous savings LivingSocial advertised, but a savings none the less. Just as I was supposed to do, I impulsively purchased the deal. According to LivingSocial, I was one of 498 people who made that same decision.

I understood that the hotel stay was subject to availability and that I had a very specific date in mind for the getaway. One positive feature of the deal is that it was valid for a year, very generous I thought. What I didn’t realize is that the Inn is really a bed and breakfast and that the Main House wasn’t the only rooming option.

When I called I was told unfortunately that the only room available for my selected evening was something they called the Snuggery. It sounded cute, but when I asked if two guys over 6’2” would even fit, I was met with a fairly awkward pause. Right. The overly pleasant receptionist did say that we could stay in one of their cottages. Fantastic! Cottage sounded infinitely better, and larger, than a Snuggery. I was then informed that it would cost an extra $100.

I felt stuck, but obliged, trying to convince myself that I was still getting a deal. The bed and breakfast was fine, nothing extra special and oddly placed in the middle of a residential suburb of Charles Town, which just seemed strange. The employees were ok, but obviously flummoxed with the LivingSocial inclusions. The promised cookie tray was actually a couple of petit fours and the complimentary sparkling cider didn’t come with a bottle opener, so all we could do was stare at it.

I don’t regret our stay, but I also don’t think it was a great deal. But everything about the experience was designed to make me think I had scored a great deal. I imagine the rest of the escape packages are more of the same. Mediocre savings at mediocre locations. Truly successful properties don’t need Groupon or LivingSocial for promotion, and that fact has to be constantly kept in mind.

I’m not against Groupon or LivingSocial. I think they’re exciting companies doing exciting things. I just want people to avoid jumping first and thinking later. These deals are a true example of caveat emptor, buyer beware. Both companies have travel deals for the taking, you just have to figure out for yourself which ones are good deals and which ones are a bust.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

16 thoughts on “Groupon and LivingSocial: Good Budget Travel Option or Waste of Money?”

  1. You put forward some good points Matt. For a foreign traveler, the biggest concern is availability – if we can’t use the coupon on the dates we want, then it’s most likely lost.

    We’re actually considering doing a Groupon Challenge in one of the US cities we’re planning to visit later this year and see whether or not using them is beneficial (or detrimental) to your budget and experience.

  2. I agree that for budget travelling, experience deals are usually the better bet. We got a 2-for-1 at a winery in Napa when I visited with college friends. Since there were 4 of us total, we only had to pay for 2 tastings, with the coupon paying for 1 of those 2. That’s always a good deal. I don’t think I would use them for food, spas, or hotels though. The restrictions and the problem booking dates usually backfire for those. Like a local one for a massage at a nice spa in Nashville. I tried to book an appointment a week after purchase. Soonest I could get in? 4 months later. They ended up being good, but I needed a massage when I bought it, you know?

    1. Yeah, that seems to be the problem, they’re victims of their own success. That hotel where I bought a room. They only have 11 or 12 rooms. 498 deals were sold. That’s going to be an issue. But you’re right, the experiences are great. My friends bought the Cherry blossom cruise and had a blast at a deep discount.

  3. Thanks for mentioning Living Social, I hadn’t heard about it before. Since Groupon is not available in Montreal I just didn’t look any further for these kinds of deals.

    But of course, as with any deal, people often get excited over the fact that they’re getting a deal rather than really thinking about their needs. While it’s a great website for times when you need just a little more inspiration, I don’t think the hassle is always worth the discount.

  4. Ah, you poor guy….even had to “stare” at the bubbly….glad I read this article though…knowledge is power and I am armed and ready to face Living Social square in the face!!

    1. Yeah, I almost didn’t include that part, thought it sounded too patrician, but it was annoying. And it was cider, hence the need for a bottle opener. :)

  5. I’ve had pretty good success using Groupon for travel for discounted meals. I’d be a little less likely to purchase a hotel deal because of the significant financial investment in case something goes wrong like not being able to use the voucher within the year time period due to overbooked rooms.

    1. Yup, good for meals, but once you get into vacations, it’s a bit dicey right now. This may quite possibly change over time though.

  6. TeamBuy is another entering the travel groupbuy scrum. As long as you realize 99% of deals don’t fit, I find they’re worth monitoring until one pops up for a place you frequent.
    3 months before I went to NZ I signed up for Daily Deal and Groupy and others in Auckland and other cities.
    I managed to get 50% off Zorbing, 55% off white water rafting and 60% off Transport for Tongariro Crossing. In this case…definitely worth it.

  7. Oh my! I’m so glad I found your posting. I was just about to click a very similar seemingly overwhelming good deal at the same B&B from Living Social. This time you get 1 turkish bathrobe (are you both going to wear it together!?), his and hers spa slippers (how do they know sizes and what if it’s his/his or hers/hers?), a cookie tray (petit fors for sure), an hour long massage (it definitely says “an” which makes me think it’s like the robe and only one of you gets it) with gourmet breakfast for two (I’m a veg and they didn’t give details about the meal so that scared me). The only other Living Social deal that I’ve done was a wretched massage ($80 for just $40!) that was worth every penny of what I paid for it (maybe a little less). The “spa” was situated next to a noisy highway and I could hear traffic while I was trying to relax and the masseuse spent the majority of the time complaining about the company that I work for (which made me wish I had just answered her question about where I work with “for the government”).

  8. I’ve used Living Social a couple of times, once for a restaurant that I already knew and frequented, and the second time for a hotel deal so good that it turned out to be a mistake. I did have to take my second choice of dates for that one.
    Most of the travel deals that they put out I find you can probably match on your own somewhere if you’re willing to dig around a little. I do like the fact that they’ll give you three days to change your mind and get a full refund (Groupon may be the same, I don’t know.)
    As far as expiry goes, it’s my understanding that if you don’t redeem a voucher before the expiry date, then the voucher is still worth the amount that you paid for it. I’m not sure if that’s credit with the merchant the voucher was for, or with Living Social, but either way the expired certificate still has value.

  9. Thanks for the post. I usually get the meal Groupons/Living Social Deals but have also purchased some of the local tour ones too. (Which reminds me to use those….) The Livingsocial trips, especially the foreign ones like hotels in Morocco or Argentina, have always seemed so tempting. I’ll keep your B&B experience in mind when I look through those deals from now on.

  10. It totally depends what you want out of it. A lot of the vacation deals aren’t as good as they seem at first glance. I think groupon works great for excursions. In Honolulu I did every excursion I wanted at half price. If the country restricts use of groupons to its actual residents I have even emailed a couple of the companies and they honored the same price for me to use their service instead of their competitor.

  11. I think it’s unfortunate, that you’ve left an opinion about B&B’s that are pretty generalized, and not really thought out. I can tell you that there are some FABULOUS B&B’s that are not like the one you mentioned. They are not all out to get your money, or make you stare at a bottle of bubbly (which, by the way, it wouldn’t have hurt for you to ASK someone, “hey, got a bottle opener?”) rather than sit and stare at it all night. B&B’s are not Marriott’s and if a Marriott experience is what you’re looking for, then maybe you’d be better off going to one.

    1. It’s not a generalization about B&Bs, it’s a comment on that establishment. I have no problem with B&Bs, I’ve stayed at many, I had an issue with not being told that it was a B&B in advance as that impacted its availability and would have impacted my decision to buy the deal. I think you misread this post.

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