Are Groupon Getaways/LivingSocial Escapes worth it?
March 26, 2013 1:52 PM   Subscribe

Cheap International Travel-filter: How good of a deal do Groupon Getaways/LivingSocial Escapes tend to be, particularly this one to Turkey? How does one find cheap international airfare and travel in general?

For the first time in my life I have money to travel internationally. But I know shit-all about international travel--my most exotic travel experience has been a few days in Ontario. However, right now my biggest hindrance is budget.

I'd like to spend less than $1600 and go to pretty much any country that's not in Western Europe, the more different from the USA the better. I'm down for either historical sites ("old stuff") and/or awesome nature experiences, with a preference for lots of local interaction. Not so much about hanging out in resorts or tourist traps.

I know if I avoid the most touristy areas it's possible to find lodging, food, and experiences for cheap. Hostels, street markets, Lonely Planet travel guides, etc. But what about airfare? Depending on the place I could easily blow the $1600 on airfare alone. Hence I'm favoring Groupon/LivingSocial deals, as some of their all-inclusive trips fit my budget and have a lot packed in. But I'm reading lots of mixed reviews about the quality of the trips (though I know it's dependent on the travel agency hosting them) and I would much prefer to pay the same amount but plan my own itinerary.

So, if you're experienced in travel, do you see good deals on these websites? Are you able to find good airfare deals on your own, and how? And does this trip to Turkey look like a good idea? Finally, any tips for the newbie international traveler?
posted by anonymous to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total)
Are you traveling solo? The single supplement often kills these deals. In this particular deal, the fine print says it's an additional $600.
posted by payoto at 2:05 PM on March 26, 2013

Response by poster: Sorry, forgot to mention, for that particular trip I'd be traveling with a friend. Any general advice on singleton travel is welcome too though.
posted by Anonymous at 2:16 PM on March 26, 2013

At your budget, the absolute cheapest trip you could take would be to head to Central or South America. Flights tend to be cheap (and short, with no jet lag to speak of), costs are low on the ground, and there's lots of interesting stuff to do. YMMV on how "different" you will find it from the States.

I do not think you will get a lot for $1600 in an all-inclusive package tour type of situation. If that's the kind of trip you're looking for, I'd save a little more money and take a trip that would actually be worthwhile.

Looking at the Groupon Getaways trip you linked, I think it looks rushed and not that fun. But I hate package tours and spent nearly the same amount of time only in Istanbul, just wandering around and soaking in the culture. This trip doesn't look awful or anything, and if you're dying to visit Turkey specifically and are not an experienced traveler, this could be the way to do it.

But personally I'd recommend that you pick a more accessible destination and do it right. Especially if you're hoping to pick up some travel chops and do more of this kind of thing in the future.

Considering you've never been further afield than Toronto, why are you discounting Europe? Depending on where you're flying from, when you want to go, and what kind of trip you want to take, it can be pretty affordable. Western Europe is also very accessible for first-time independent travelers.

(For general cheap flights, I hit first. I typically use and stay in hostels, though if you're traveling with a friend you could probably swing AirBnB a little easier.)
posted by Sara C. at 2:23 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just for comparison's sake, I spent about $2000 to take each of the following trips:

A month in Peru

Two weeks in Italy and Slovenia (though I did spend half the trip staying with friends/relatives and saved on lodgings that way)

A week in Istanbul

I spent two months backpacking through India for $3000.

Until I switched gears and decided to adopt a dog who'll have to be boarded if I travel abroad (thus putting the trip out of my price range), I was planning a week's trip to Ireland on a budget of about $1500.
posted by Sara C. at 2:27 PM on March 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Where in the U.S. are you traveling from? That can make a difference. For me, on the East Coast, Puerto Rico is in my back pocket as my next lower budget trip because it's wildly cheap to get there compared with any other exotic-ish location. Yes, it's the United States, but it's not like any United States I've ever seen before, there's a lot of history and nature to see there, and it's very affordable.

I would stay away from any sort of group package deal, personally. It might be cheaper than paying for all of the activities separately, but you'll probably also get roped into doing things and going places you wouldn't necessarily want to do or see in the first place.
posted by something something at 2:28 PM on March 26, 2013

I've traveled using Gate 1 before and I strongly discourage you from booking with them. Their incompetence almost left my traveling companion and I stranded in Budapest and their customer service was a nightmare to deal with during the process. You get what you pay for with regard to their package tours, regardless of the relative merits or demerits of such travel.
posted by hilaritas at 2:52 PM on March 26, 2013

Response by poster: Sorry to threadsit:

I live in Philly, but depending on how good the deal am willing to travel out of most Midwest/East Coast airports. Seems like a lot of stuff leaves from NYC or Chicago.

I've definitely been checking out Central and South America as they tend to most fit into my budget. I was jumping on Turkey as that area of the world seemed mostly inaccessible within my budget and I wanted to take advantage if it was worth it. I'm having trouble navigating which websites are providing good deals and which aren't, and what's a realistic amount to expect to pay to go to any one place. I don't mind traveling off-season if that's what gets me there.

Considering you've never been further afield than Toronto, why are you discounting Europe?

My entire life I've wanted to travel to really different, exotic places. Western Europe has a lot to offer and there are definitely things I'd like to see eventually. But right now I want to go somewhere that really challenges me and the first-world, Western life I'm used to.
posted by Anonymous at 3:02 PM on March 26, 2013

I hear that, but again, it seems odd to me to want to jump directly from "basically never left the northeastern part of North America" to "omg Europe is just so mundane".

Especially if you're looking at package tours -- you're not going to be challenged seeing Turkey from the window of a bus.

It would be better for you to start traveling independently abroad with a place that isn't so far off the beaten path that you have a serious language barrier (Turkish is hard and people outside the tourist infrastructure typically don't speak English), need to cover long distances* in a very short time and on a budget, and have to deal with developing-world food/water precautions, and also presumably want to see and do things and enjoy yourself.

I guess it's "cool" to say you visited Turkey, but seriously, it would be every bit as awesome to visit Germany or Costa Rica, and you'll probably have a better time, and it might be easier on your budget.

Go to Turkey next trip with double the money and a better sense of what you're looking for in an international travel experience besides "exotic".

*Looking at the map of where that tour of Turkey goes, it's the equivalent of taking a 10-day trip to the US and visiting New York, Charleston, and the Grand Canyon.
posted by Sara C. at 3:18 PM on March 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Did you look at the actual itinerary page? A lot of the things that I would consider "default" on such a long international trip are considered optional and require extra costs. If you want to do everything on the tour, that would cost ~$600 more. If you want to travel during the popular season, it can cost up to $500 more. Also, I count about 18 meals that are not included. At the cheap tourist rate of $8/meal (that's food stand price), that's another $150.

I looked at a similar one in Beijing/Chengdu. All the "extra" activities were overpriced by 100% to 300%. (I know since I lived in China before.)

Realistically, I think you're looking at about $2200-$2800 for the full experience on this trip. Say you want to go in June (most expensive time) for $2200 (cheapest estimated price for the entire trip). Flights from JFK to IST in June/July are around $1k. (From Philly is about $1400.) Stay in a cheap hostel for $20/night = $240 total. That leaves you with at least another $1k to spend, which is about $80 per day. Go out to a couple of nice restaurants, but eat cheaply the rest of the time, and you'll have plenty of money for museum entrance tickets, bus/train between cities, and even a postcard here and there. So I would actually try to plan this trip myself. (Of course, with friends, you run the risk of them canceling out last minute before they pay for their portion.)

I don't actually know the cost to travel in Turkey, but I've traveled around Western Europe, and of course how much you pay can go up or down depending on what level of luxury you want. But customizability/flexibility (e.g. staying in a city an extra night because you loved it) is one of the best parts of not traveling with a group.
posted by ethidda at 4:34 PM on March 26, 2013

I went to Turkey (and Greece) a few years ago (on my own) and I spent probably around $3000 over the course of three weeks? But more relevantly, there are companies that offer similarly-priced tours of Turkey, like, say, this one. I don't think there's anything special about the Groupon rate. (Also make sure airline fees are included, that can bump up the price a bunch.)

I totally recommend Turkey, even at a bit of a whirlwind pace, but you don't need to jump on that Groupon deal to go to Turkey.
posted by mskyle at 5:07 PM on March 26, 2013

Turkey is wonderful, but that itinerary is quite fast-paced and kind of overpriced, especially if you haven't travelled very much before. (No lunch + lots of fees?) While airfare to Turkey can be expensive, there are many shorter tours (like a two or three day option) that you could do that would be more customized and probably more fun. Also, as Sara C. mentioned, Turkish is not the world's easiest language to pick up. It's very easy to get around without it, but if you go on a tour in a big group, you will probably be speaking English the entire time and speaking mainly with tourists. Your view of Turkey will not be very exciting or different than touring many other large cities or sites.

You're a student, right? You could try STA's flight deals-- not their trips, but they do bookings for hotels and flights separately. It might be cheaper to fly through Dublin or Reykjavik (AerLingus and Icelandair often do nice deals) and then take a cheaper flight to Romania or Croatia or Istanbul. Or, alternatively, Central/South America. I wouldn't necessarily recommend Belize because the flights from Philly are not inexpensive, but what about Ecuador? Puerto Rico? Guatemala?
posted by jetlagaddict at 5:22 PM on March 26, 2013

It is a relatively good deal. Let me show you :

Average airfare to Turkey: $700
11 nights @ $65 = $715
Total: $1415

With Groupon, you're getting everything arranged, the tours included, and all the logistics managed by the tour company. Including city-to-city transport (which can add up). If they pick better hotels, their deal is even better.

What you give up: freedom of movement, and your own pace.
posted by Kruger5 at 5:52 PM on March 26, 2013

I'm looking at traveling to Turkey soon and I'm thinking of spending about a week split between two cities so nine cities in 11 days sounds bonkers.

Most of my travel searching involves Travelzoo, Kayak, and IME airfare is the most expensive part of travel. Pick a few destinations and search for cheap flights on Kayak with flexible dates.

The nice thing about a package deal is that you don't have to figure out how to see the things you came to see. I've done international travel both with a package and without. I think I preferred the package just because it was so easy. Dragging a suitcase on cobblestone streets in southern Italy on my honeymoon for hours got old fast. It was an adventure but I would have preferred a different adventure.

Your money will go the farthest in central America but you can get good deals on flights to Turkey and Iceland. But set a few airfare alerts for your dream destinations too. My best friend has gotten great deals to South Africa.
posted by kat518 at 6:13 PM on March 26, 2013

But right now I want to go somewhere that really challenges me and the first-world, Western life I'm used to.

Great, but a package tour on Groupon isn't going to do that for you.

I'll second the independent travelling in Western Europe as a gateway suggestion, but I don't think you'd be biting off more than you can chew if you wanted to travel independently in Turkey, SE Asia, or LatAm. LatAm or Turkey will be your cheapest flights. The further East you get in Turkey the less "Western" it feels. The Guardian actually had a bunch of Turkey ideas in Sundays travel section. One that might appeal to you, but would be very doable for an inexperienced traveller on a budget was the train from Ankara to Kars. From there you might go up to the Black Sea coast and Sumela before heading home. It would be a great trip for what you are looking for. If budget allows three days in a hostel in Istanbul would make it a perfect trip I think.
If you do decide to do that I suggest you read Orhan Pamuk's "Snow" for the journey,
posted by JPD at 7:15 PM on March 26, 2013

Response by poster: I'm not married to Turkey--I'd be happy with pretty much anywhere in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, or Central or South America! I literally only was looking at that deal because I thought it might be a good one.

The points everyone is making about package deals are good ones. The itinerary did seem a little packed to me but I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to visit anywhere (except Latin America) for a similarly good price. I thought it might be a "OMGWTFBBQ GET IT NOW" deal but what I'm hearing is it's not!

Sara C., Costa Rica was actually another country I was looking at as I have a friend with a lot of experience traveling there. I was also thinking about Guatemala for the same reason.
posted by Anonymous at 8:22 PM on March 26, 2013

Are you interested in Eastern Europe? Aside from the airfare you can probably get by spending a minimal amount of money in Krakow or Prague - maybe Estonia or Budapest - I haven't been to those places.

Would you rather do a package tour or explore on your own? I think that's the key question here. Are the you the type of person who needs to be told what to see and travel with mostly strangers? Or do you want to plan your own trip, focusing on the types of things you want to see? Once you start researching Lonely Planet guides you may be far more inclined to make your own trip. They also have a lot of tips on inexpensive lodgings including hostels and guest houses.

In terms of cheap flights, etc., the obvious answer is to go off season though I think it's necessary to make a trade-off... is freezing cold weather still going to allow you to go out and explore or are you more likely to stay under the covers all day? What if you compromise and go in a less-offensive season but still one that's not peak travel times? Other answers to this question can give you better advice for cheap flights than I.

After reading some of the fine print on that Groupon it strikes me as the kind of thing where not only do you have to pay more for different travel dates - fair enough - but it sounds like you're going to get nickel-and-dimed with other surprise fees and add-ons. My perception of tour bus drivers/companies is that they have mutually-beneficial deals with shops and vendors at places where the bus conveniently stops for refreshments or gift shop buys.

Personally, I could never go on a large package tour without feeling manipulated and exploited in some way.
posted by bendy at 8:22 PM on March 26, 2013

I don't think you'd be biting off more than you can chew if you wanted to travel independently in Turkey, SE Asia, or LatAm.

The reason I singled Turkey out as possibly the OP "biting off more than she/he can chew" (though I don't think I'd put it so dramatically) is that, for an inexperienced traveler, it is a bit of a Perfect Storm of potential travel difficulties for someone who has pretty much never left the US. I love Turkey, and I'm raring to go back and explore more of the eastern part of the country, but it's not an entry level international experience.

In Southeast Asia, English is the lingua franca and it's so well-traveled by Westerners that it will be easy to arrange almost anything OP could possibly want to do. (In fact, if OP had twice the money and triple the time, I'd suggest Southeast Asia as the perfect destination for an inexperienced traveler who wants an exotic experience.)

In Latin America, the local language is one that many Americans study in school. Even those who don't will pick up pronunciation and common expressions via osmosis. In addition to the easier language, Latin America is enough like the US, culturally and in basic geographic layout, that it's pretty easy to navigate while still being plenty exotic. It's also very diverse, and the OP can pick anything from "a week in Cancun with a two day tour of Mayan ruins" to "a ten-day trek through the Andes to Macchu Pichu on horseback" depending on how much she/he really wants to "bite off".

Africa I wouldn't recommend unless OP has lots of money. My understanding is that the landscape is either really rough even for experienced travelers, the luxury travel safari scene, or countries that are unfortunately not safe to travel in right now. Unless Morocco is a possibility -- not up on whether Morocco is currently safe what with North Africa basically imploding over the last year or two.

The Middle East/Egypt -- Egypt is another borderline "is it really safe/are we up for traveling to a country that could erupt in a revolution at any moment" situation. My understanding of other popular Middle Eastern destinations is that they're not cheap. Then you get countries like Iraq and Iran that are not really on the table. What about Israel? That might be a good mix of exotic yet easy to travel in, especially since so many American tourists visit there as their first/only international destination.

Eastern Europe -- I think this could be a winning combo of cheap and accessible.

Western Europe -- No brainer if you can afford it. And honestly you might be able to, unless you're mainly interested in visiting Switzerland or Scandinavia. I'd especially look at Portugal or Spain, Germany, Austria, Greece, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Croatia for trips that aren't as expensive as you'd think.

India -- I found India to be a surprisingly traveler-friendly place to visit, though I don't think anyone should try to do a 10-day trip there. The great thing about India is that English is very widely spoken. It's definitely the country I've had the most interesting conversations with locals in, and met the most diverse people, and had real adventures that come from meeting the people who live there rather than some kind of manufactured tourist experience. It's also extremely cheap, and is in my experience a lot easier to travel in than people make it out to be. That said, I'm one of the lucky few who didn't get sick.

Australia/NZ -- probably not exotic enough for OP, though I think they're great entry level destinations.

Did I forget anyplace?
posted by Sara C. at 9:06 PM on March 26, 2013

My husband and I spent about $100 per day for two weeks in Istanbul two years ago, and that seemed great to me. Turkey is an enormous country, and you can decide whether to do the grand tour or dive deep into one location. I was drawn by blue cruises, Ephesus, Cappadocia, but after exploring all the options we decided to stay in Istanbul. That allowed us to explore multiple historical and cultural sights at length, start getting familiar with the language, take a Bosphorus Cruise, eat at hip local restaurants and generations-old dives, get lost on local buses, eat fresh warm yogurt, indulge in Turkish baths, and more. If you like a faster pace, the deal you link seems like a very reasonable price. But there are many ways to experience a country.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:29 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another note: I figured out my travel arrangements by booking through websites of places recommended in the Rick Steves' Istanbul book, which led me to the hotel we stayed in. It neither luxurious, nor dirt-cheap, but it was in the heart of the old city with a great view and Turkish-style breakfast every day. Staying in one place for a long time can be pretty exciting, and cuts down on the stress of planning and experiencing a vacation.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:35 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was not expressly attacking you Sara C.

For different people the complexity curve happens at different places. For me, as long as their is a Latin or Cyrillic Alphabet, almost anything is figure-out-able. The flip side of it is that I tend to very much dislike places where personal space has no meaning. I'm way more comfortable in IST than I am in HKG. Its all personal. OP is gonna have to figure that out.

The reason why I rank Turkey quite high on the list of accessible non-Western European places for an American to go, is that short of doing something willfully stupid you are unlikely to find yourself in trouble or the victim of petty crime, but yet once you get East of Ankara or so it really can feel quite foreign. As far as I'm concerned IST and most of the coastline are basically Western European.
posted by JPD at 6:23 AM on March 27, 2013

Honestly, why not Mexico? You can go to the beach, visit Mayan ruins. I was looking at Cancun because I saw this underwater sculpture garden you can snorkel through. Some places are definitely dodgy, even more so than some other places, but in general, I think it's a great option.

Belize was interesting. In some ways, it's similar to Costa Rica (but they speak English!) but it's less developed. There were also surprising sub-cultures within such a small place, including an Amish population. It was a little more expensive to get thete, though, because there's lower demand for flights there so there are fewer flights.

I'd encourage you to consider eastern Europe. I totally want to go to Croatia and Budapest. Budapest isn't on the euro yet so it will be a little cheaper (don't know about Croatia). Morocco is safe AFAIK. A friend just went in November (incidentally, using a Living Social deal) and I think she had s great time.

If you want Middle East, I loved Jordan and would definitely go back. I didn't spend much time in Amman but I got to swim in the Dead Sea and check out Petra, which is incredible. I would love to go to Israel but for various reasons, my husband is not really interested and I have concerns about passport issues. I'm probably over-thinking it but if you go to Israel with a passport stamped by countries that are not friendly towards Israel, they might not let you in and vice versa. But I'm not especially interested in finding out for myself in the immediate future.
posted by kat518 at 6:37 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

To answer your general question, how to find cheap international airfare, one method is to identify your target, then visit matching ethnic neighborhoods near you (if possible), and look for travel information there. So for example if you want to visit China, go to Chinatown and wander into a travel agent's office there, or look through the free advertising and community newletters. Some of those places will be ticket consolidators (aka Bucket Shops) which buy many tickets to get a better price. Those place may also post very small advertisements in your newspaper's Travel section.
posted by Rash at 9:43 AM on March 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

As far as I'm concerned IST and most of the coastline are basically Western European.

Oh, I totally agree with that assessment. Except that OP has never been to Western Europe, so the point is sort of moot. That's like saying "As far as I'm concerned, Cairo is basically just like Delhi." Sure, but for someone who's never been to Delhi, that's not helpful.

There's a reason a lot of Americans start by traveling in Western Europe, and it's something you hit on perfectly in your post -- Western Europe is the frame of reference for a lot of slightly less accessible destinations. If you can hack Rome or Barcelona, you can hack Istanbul or Marrakech. But you can't really get to that level of "oh, easy peasy, you'll do fine" if you haven't been to Rome or Berlin.

You're not going to get mugged and left in a ditch or anything, but honestly it's not really fun to feel isolated because the only people you can talk to are touts, or constantly be hungry because you can't figure out how to pronounce lunch, or get sick because you forgot and drank tap water, or spend a whole day lost on buses trying to find the Chora church, or all the many things that can happen in Istanbul (for example) that are a lot less likely to happen in Vienna.

It will be more fun to visit a place like Istanbul after picking up some travel chops somewhere like Mexico or Croatia where not ALL those issues are in effect concurrently, running interference between you and a good time.

I feel like it's popular in the travel media to pooh-pooh Western Europe as homogenous and "too much like the US". Which is... not true? I suppose it is true if you're traveling to major cities like London and Paris, and staying in top end hotels, and mostly interacting within the tourist infrastructure. The Hilton in London isn't really different from the Hilton in New York, but the first time you encounter a squat toilet at a poky village train station between Venice and Trieste, you'll know you're not in New Jersey anymore.
posted by Sara C. at 10:21 AM on March 27, 2013

if you go to Israel with a passport stamped by countries that are not friendly towards Israel, they might not let you in and vice versa.

This is not going to be an issue for people whose only international travel experience consists of Canada.

In fact, that's a good reason Israel might be a good choice for the OP: he's in the unique position of not facing that problem, nor of being likely to face it in the immediate future, and also unlikely to face the opposite problem of trying to visit other Middle Eastern countries that balk at an Israeli passport stamp.
posted by Sara C. at 10:24 AM on March 27, 2013

Agree with Sara C. about acquiring some travel experience in Europe before tackling the exotic.

I want to go somewhere that really challenges me and the first-world, Western life

Here's the thing: everyone in the US should travel in Europe, because their standard of living is higher than ours. Your idea of the First World can't be completely accurate until you've experienced Western Europe or Japan. Contrary to the triumphalist rhetoric of our flag-waving yahoos, America hasn't been #1 for decades; you should know what #1 is really like.
posted by Rash at 11:50 AM on March 27, 2013

For what it's worth, my first "big" trip abroad was to Prague about seven years ago, so it was before the Euro. I was with a group which helped. People spoke Czech but a lot of people spoke English too, and I learned that just knowing how to say "thank you" in someone's native language makes them happy. Prague was definitely European but it wasn't western Europe - it was rough around the edges and interesting. So I really endorse eastern Europe for first-time travelers.
posted by kat518 at 8:48 PM on March 27, 2013

OP, this is a the deal to Turkey you want.

Travelzoo - $1499 -- Turkey 11-Night Escorted Vacation w/Air

The difference is here you get 4/5 star hotels and 20 meals. The city itinerary is much more doable.
posted by Kruger5 at 8:48 AM on April 10, 2013

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