My husband, Eric, and I are usually do-it-yourselfers, but on our first trip to the Boundary Waters between Canada and
, we paid an outfitter, who provided the tent, sleeping bags and meals — even a first-aid kit. Our fully outfitted vacation was half-price, thanks to an online group coupon site: $616 for us and our two children for three days and two nights, plus a night at the outfitter before venturing off.
and the like have taken over the coupon world, I've found great deals on restaurants, golf courses, water parks and massages. But I've also been stuck trying to get into a full restaurant on the day a coupon expired, begging with staffers exhausted by procrastinators.
So as I considered a "vacation by coupon," three questions in particular came to mind:
Could I really use a coupon for a family vacation? (Yes.)
Would we be relegated to days we couldn't use? (No.)
Would we be treated like second-class citizens by those who were supposed to teach us how to keep the bears at bay and survive in the wilderness for two nights? (No.)
As I gave my purse a final scouring before leaving it in the car at the outfitters, I grabbed my bulky wallet and realized I didn't need it. Not a single credit card. Not cash.
I took my driver's license, locked the car and walked toward the dock, shaking my head. There would be no place to spend money, I realized.
Here all the pleasures were free or already included. The solitude. Morning coffee on the rocks as the world wakes up around us. Exploring islands that were otherwise deserted. Playing Connect Four, travel edition, in the tent, on the rocks, by the campfire, over and over again. Wondering where the boys had gone, only to find them fishing together off a rock, the sky turning pink as the sunset behind them. The sound of silence as we all read on the rocks in the late afternoon sun, separate but together.
Paddling back, I felt guilty that our trip had been half-price. Everyone had been so warm and helpful: the woman who taught us how to hang up our food and start the camp stove and gave us extra ketchup because she worried that 16 packets wouldn't be enough for the boys. The guide measuring them for paddles. The cook making sure we had enough pancakes and sausage before we left that first day, which 48 hours later, felt like a different time.
Far from resenting the coupon vacationers, the one woman I asked about it said it had opened up the Boundary Waters to a whole new group of people.
Here are some things to consider before buying a coupon vacation. You'll need to:
Make reservations as soon as possible. Need a particular weekend? Call before buying to check availability.
Study the fine print
What's the expiration date? Recent airline deals I found blocked travel on Fridays and Sundays, when it's most realistic for me to fly, so I passed.
Do the math to see how good the deal is
Many places offer various discounts that might be less restrictive. Shop around before you buy.
Do a little negotiating
If the coupon doesn't work within your time frame, ask if the expiration dates can be extended. Some will, especially if you're not asking for the height of their season.
Sign up in areas you want to visit
For an August trip to the
Dells, I signed up for Groupon in
, the nearest city, hoping for a hotel deal.
Among the places you can find coupon deals:
Groupon.com: The king of deal sites has launched weekly national travel deals.
Travelzoo.com: Has expanded beyond aggregating airline and vacation deals to negotiating its own deals.
Yipit.com: Aggregates deals by city, and you can limit to travel.