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  1. Travel

Here's what you need to know before you buy that Groupon vacation deal

ALI DOUGLASS   |   Special to the Times
ALI DOUGLASS | Special to the Times
Published May 23, 2017

There are times in life that call for caution, for using that chunk of money in savings to renovate the bathroom because the bathroom is from 1974, and not in a cool way.

But then, there are times Groupon comes along.

A few years back, it happened to me most notably right after a bad breakup. A trip to Paris and Rome, including hotel and airfare, breakfasts and rides to the airport, appeared in my in-box. It was $1,500 for all. A stock photo of the Eiffel Tower danced off the screen. Buy it now, a voice said, a voice wearing a beret. Ask questions later. I enlisted a friend and we clicked oui, oui.

At the time, it was the biggest Groupon I had ever purchased, but I knew it would be fine. I had already come to embrace discount vouchers as my primary mode of travel. Yes, Groupon and LivingSocial, the websites where you get your discount hot stone massages and city Segway tours.

When I tell people I regularly travel using Groupon Getaways or LivingSocial Escapes, I get the same reaction. Wonderment, followed by skepticism, followed by questions.

A) They're surprised it's even a thing.

"Our biggest problem with Getaways is the awareness," said Chris Stevens, who runs the North American travel branch at Groupon. "A lot of people are familiar with the nail salons and food and other things that we're selling pretty consistently. Travel is a little bit different of a creature."

B) There's usually some awkward question, like, "Is it ... nice?" Reading between the lines, they want to know if they are going to be housed in Rome's finest Leatherface shed.

There is risk inherent in buying any trip online, or really, any trip at all. Suppliers pay Groupon a cut to use the service. They also have reservations, Stevens said, but it's about clientele. Just as guests are looking for quality accommodations, hotels and attractions are looking for quality guests.

Anything sketchy is perception, he said.

"It's not only people that have no money that are looking for deals," he said. "Our household income, I think you'd find it's way above average, and it's a good audience. (Suppliers) come back and say, we ran these deals and we got really high-quality customers."

I was nervous the first time. I bought a LivingSocial voucher for a rental vacation house in Sonoma, Calif., and it did not provide the address up front. It turned out to be a gem, tucked into a modest, yet charming, neighborhood. We couldn't walk to downtown, but it felt like a true escape.

Since then, I've been to an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica, to Niagara Falls and to plenty of Florida hotels using vouchers. I've also been on a less-than-impressive Bahamas cruise (more on that soon). For my upcoming honeymoon, we booked an island-hopping trip to Greece on LivingSocial. As friends and family catch on that I like to travel this way, the more Groupon gift cards I get for holidays.

So, when people flash that tentative stare, here are some of the things I share.

Embrace the agencies

Here's the big secret: Travel agencies are a thing.

Typically, after you buy a deal voucher, Groupon or LivingSocial gets out of the way and hands things over to a travel agent, or an online tour operator like Go-today or Great Value Vacations. You call. You give your voucher code. A nice person on the other end books out the trip from start to finish.

Before buying the Groupon to Paris and Rome, I had never used a travel agency. They seemed out of reach, perhaps old-fashioned or haughty. I could go online and book my own plane tickets, thank you. It wasn't that hard.

Mind changed! For a big, complicated trip with lots of stops, flights, shuttles and changes, I'll never go back.

"It's good for people to connect with businesses they may not be familiar with," said Erika Richter, communications director for the American Society of Travel Agents. "Our travel agents are getting creative in how they market and sell themselves and everyone has their own way of doing it."

Groupon uses a mix of agencies, Stevens said. And Richter points out that there's nothing like a human being with expertise. Even if you're not using a deal website, travel agents can help you work within a budget.

Decide how much control you need

Are you someone who, metaphorically, never lets the food touch?

Do you like to know detail about every hotel? Do you insist on picking your airline seat? Is it really important to be in the heart of the action versus a residential neighborhood?

Deal packages often list a hotel that you'll probably be staying at, but it could be one of a similar size and rating. That said, many tour operators who supply vacations to deal sites will work with you to customize or upgrade a trip. Want a nicer room? They'll find it.

When my friend and I went to Paris and Rome, we decided we were too old to share a room. For an extra fee ($500 each), we were able to get separate rooms. It was a big chunk of change, but worth it in the end.

Every hotel I've stayed at from a deal site has been clean and comfortable. There have been quirks, like the shower head that pointed directly out of the stall and onto the bathroom floor. But isn't that the charm of international travel?

If all this induces anxiety, it might not be your ticket.

Do research before you buy

See if it's really the best deal.

When booking my Greek honeymoon, I checked several online tour provider sites, including Go-today and Gate 1 Travel, to see packages outside of the deal sites. I noticed when they had a good deal on their regular sites, they didn't have one on the deal sites, and vice versa.

LivingSocial was the best deal at the time, but I would have been willing to buy directly through the travel provider if the price was right.

Same goes when booking hotels on deal sites. Check around to other booking services and directly with the hotel to make sure it's really a bargain.

Read the fine print and focus on details

Is the deal for two people traveling together? Do you have transportation between locations on your trip? These things can add up, making your deal less of a deal than you thought.

If it says eight days, it means six nights. And check the weather wherever you're going. Deals abound in the off seasons, but that could mean hitting a destination at the coldest, least desirable time of year.

About flights: Most deals will list a few departure cities including New York and Boston, but if you read the fine print, you often have more options.

I've changed flights from the listed cities to Tampa several times, for a moderate upcharge (less than $50 to Europe). Then again, don't take that for granted. Call the agency before you buy the voucher and have them price out your specifics.

A couple of months ago, my fiance and I bought an awesome Groupon deal to Spain, scheduled to fly out on New Year's Day. We soon realized changing the flight to go out of Tampa on a holiday was going to be an extra $900. No deal!

Thankfully, Groupon has a pretty relaxed return policy and gave us a full refund, which leads me to my next tip.

Make sure you understand the refund parameters before you buy.

Sometimes, a deal is too good

So, that Bahamas cruise Groupon. Let's discuss.

It was something in the neighborhood of $200 for a few days from Tampa to the islands. Food was included. It was cheaper than my fiance and I getting a hotel for the weekend.

We didn't get food poisoning or lost at sea. The room was clean. The chow was serviceable.

To be honest, it was just kind of lame. We made the most of it, but could tell it was an older boat. Activities were cheesy or lacking. And it felt like one big sales pitch. Whenever we'd start to relax, the cruise director would come on an intercom and try to sell us Trollbeads. "Every bead has a story, every story has a bead" is burned into my mind.

But, hey. It was $200. Even deals have their limits.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.

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