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Shop the Flash Sites - But Carefully

Ed Perkins on Travel
by , SmarterTravel Staff
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on August 17, 2011. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Ed Perkins, Ed Perkins, Ed Perkins on Travel, hotel, Hotwire, SniqueAway.

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As I've been reporting recently, "flash" or "private sale" is the current "big thing" in travel deals. You have a very short time to buy the deal, but it's usually good over several weeks to months. And some of the deals are, in fact, really good. But the flash sale system also entails some caveats.

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Flash sale deals come in two flavors, with distinctly different risks:

  • Firm reservations for fixed dates.
  • Vouchers valid over a period of months, but "subject to availability."

The least risky deals are those in which you arrange a firm reservation with a firm date. Agencies that deal almost entirely with hotel and resort accommodations—such as Jetsetter, Spire, SniqueAway, and Vacationist—typically arrange confirmed reservations on fixed dates. Potential problems with these deals are minimal. I've found, for example, that hotels generally give guests on big-discount deals the least they can within the limits of the contract. That means you're likely to get the least attractive rooms and locations rather than the best.

Vouchers are more problematic: You buy the right to an accommodation or service at any time over a period of many months, but "subject to availability." Most coupons, such as you get through Groupon and Yuupon, are voucher deals. The problem with vouchers is finding a mutually agreeable period when you want to travel and the provider offers availability. And even though some are pitched as "weekend" escapes, many are limited to midweek stays.

The system has a big potential for the sort of abuse that has been typical of "vacation certificates" for years: With those, each time you call with dates you want to visit, the reservationist regretfully informs you that the deal is not "available" for those dates, but you should keep trying. Ultimately, you either give up or the voucher expires.

I've checked around and found no indications that the travel vouchers you get in current flash sales are such scams in any way. But paying in advance for something "subject to availability" always scares me a little.

Beyond those differences, buying through a flash sale of either type entails some other potential problems of which you should be aware:

  • Some flash sale deals are either totally nonrefundable or at least carry a big cancellation penalty. Any time you put out a lot of money in advance for a nonrefundable or big-penalty purchase, consider protecting yourself with a "cancel for any reason" travel insurance policy.
  • Most flash sale deals for hotel and resort accommodations focus on up-market options. The prices may be very good for what you get, but they generally aren't the lowest you could find. Several recent postings I've seen, for example, cover big discounts on high-end hotels in Las Vegas. Surely, $100 for a room that generally goes for $200 is a good deal—the room might well be a big suite with Jacuzzi—but if you're satisfied with a standard room in a four- or five-star Strip hotel, you can find one for well under $100 through Hotwire or Priceline.
  • If you've already decided where and when you want to visit somewhere, you can't be sure of finding a flash sale deal. Sure, you probably could find something attractive just about any time you want to visit Las Vegas, Orlando, New York, or San Francisco, but you're likely to come up empty-handed for most other destinations. Flash sale deals are, at their best, for impulse travel: You browse through, see a great deal, and think, "That's a great idea—let's do it."

None of this is to deter you from checking out the flash sales. So far, I haven't heard of any problems. At least for now, many hotel and resort operators obviously view them as one of the preferred ways to fill unsold rooms. But the opaque buying agencies, Hotwire and Priceline, still have lots of comparably good deals, too, and you can find them for any location and time you want to visit. So use either system or both systems—just don't pay retail!

(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns SniqueAway and Hotwire.)

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