When AARP member Donna Layton, 57, of McLeansville, North Carolina, looked for a getaway, she landed a discount voucher from the deal-a-day site LivingSocial: a two-night weekday stay at the historic Grace Manor Inn in Richmond, Virginia. At $238, the coupon's price was more than half off the regular rate, but it came with a few restrictions—the fine print limited the offer to a pair of suites at the facility, blacked out several dates and expired in a year.
According to Layton, she called the inn several times over the course of the year to schedule a stay, but each time was told the rooms were booked. Finally, with less than a month to go before the coupon expired, she called back and didn't mention the voucher. This time, she says, owner Albert Schick offered two two-night options, one during the week and one on a weekend. Frustrated and confused, she wrote to On Your Side.
When I explained the situation to Schick, he was apologetic but couldn't explain why Layton may have received different reports on room availability. "We do get booked up on those coupon reservations," Schick said, "though we will make other rooms available on short notice if they've not been reserved yet."
We then reached out to LivingSocial, and the company moved quickly to come up with a solution. "We always have a very liberal refund policy," says spokeswoman Jody Gavin. "If someone buys a voucher and doesn't get to use it before the promotional period expires, they can apply the purchase price toward a future purchase from that merchant." In the end, LivingSocial provided a full refund to Layton.
The lesson: While discount sites like LivingSocial and Groupon often have great deals, consumers need to read the fine print closely to make sure the terms really fit their needs. Then they should act fast, rather than wait weeks to book. In this case, LivingSocial and Grace Manor Inn sold a total of 167 packages; with demand that high, the best dates would be available only to travelers who made reservations promptly.
Ron Burley, who has championed consumer rights since his days as a local TV and CNN correspondent, writes the On Your Side column for AARP The Magazine. He is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer's Guide to Getting What You Paid For.
How to Land the Best Online Discounts
Rather than jumping into a deal and then planning around it, clear your calendar first. Click "buy" only if it works with your schedule.
Check the fit
A great price on a new tent is no bargain if you hate camping. Make sure you'll really use the product or service before buying.
See what others are saying on the daily-deal site and on online review sites. Even a good deal isn't the best option for everyone.