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My Groupon honeymoon: One frugal couple's travel experiment
First comes love. Then comes marriage. Then comes the ridiculous idea to orchestrate your entire honeymoon around the whims of a daily deals site.
 
Lauren and Ronnie: Happy and married the day before the Great Groupon Extravaganza commences.
Lauren and Ronnie: Happy and married the day before the Great Groupon Extravaganza commences. Photography by Moss + Isaac

Of all the decisions we made in the months leading up to our wedding, the one about postponing a real honeymoon was the easiest. With our funds and patience for planning severely depleted, the thought of not going on an expensive adventure/logistical nightmare through Asia made us downright giddy.

Besides, we happen to live in one of the world's greatest urban destinations. Why not just make like tourists for a few days in our own city, New York?

Although, technically, New York is my city. I live here. My husband doesn't.

Seven months before we got married, Ronnie took a job in D.C. That makes it sound like he just plucked it like a delicious free sample off a Whole Foods food tray, but, I assure you, it was hardly that painless. Five months, half a dozen interviews, several bouts of torturous silence and, finally — voila! — a job offer.

Initially, our relief over Ronnie's job and the distraction of wedding planning masked the inconvenience of a long-distance relationship. Besides, his new employer had offices in New York, which instilled in us a wild (and irrational, it turns out) optimism about how temporary this separation would be.

But as weeks turned into months and full seasons passed, our separate living situations grew roots. My wardrobe consumed the vacant hangers of our once-shared closet like an invasive species. Ronnie sectioned off a shelf and the left-side crisper in his apartment's communal fridge for his milk, eggs, and broccoli. While I converted our 350-square-foot Long Island City apartment into a makeshift wedding-craft salon, Ronnie changed the cable and electricity bills in his D.C. pad to his name as his roommates unceremoniously crowned him "most responsible."

By the time our wedding rolled around, Ronnie and I were not only looking forward to getting married after nine years of dating, but also spending more than a once-a-month weekend together in what had once been our city.

The one glaring problem with our slimmed-down "mini-moon" was the expense. As anyone who has even considered vacationing in the Big Apple knows, the money you spend on a mere weekend in this urban jungle could have purchased you a six-day Carnival cruise for a family of four. What's a strapped-for-cash couple to do?

The answer came with my regular onslaught of morning emails — Groupon. Yes, the online daily deals site, known for its frequent requests to rid you of your unsightly foot fungus and body hair, was to be our frugal hope.

Well, not just Groupon. The original direct-to-email deal buster has inspired countless knockoffs, which range from the legit-sounding (LivingSocial, Google Offers, New York Times Limited) to potentially dubious (I'm looking at you, My Russian Deal).

When I suggested the idea to Ronnie six months before our wedding, he was cautiously supportive. He liked the idea of saving money, but he didn't have the most tender feelings toward Groupon. He had used the site only once. During a stressful bout of unemployment, Ronnie purchased a 60-minute massage deal. He imagined instrumental music, maybe lightly scented oil, and, at the end, the serene look of the woman on the Groupon advertisement. But that tranquil bubble popped when he stepped into the masseuse's offices in midtown Manhattan.

"It was very clinical, very stale," Ronnie said. "It was more of like a chiropractic massage place, and my masseuse was this kind of gross, huge dude. And I had that image in my mind, and it was not what I had imagined our relaxing, blissful honeymoon to be like."

He also pointed out that planning around the whims of Groupon's offerings could sully the whole vacation.

"It's like we have a $40 brunch opportunity in the way West 30s, so, great, let's build a whole day around that," he said.

His fears were valid. I might even have shared them myself. But I didn't see a viable alternative, and frankly, I found the challenge as enticing as a dare. If we'd have to sacrifice clean logistics and a few reputable proprietors to save some cash, so be it. Game on.

We decided on a bare-bones wish list — a couples massage, at least one Big Apple-specific attraction, several "good" meals, a three-night hotel stay, and a Broadway show — and after a few tentative purchases, I was committing to discounted deals with abandon. (Check out a receipt of my Groupon honeymoon purchases and savings below)

Sunday

Our wedding was on a Saturday in early December, and as the cliché goes, in a blink we were blearily waking with only a few hours of sleep as husband and wife. We hosted a brief breakfast in our Brooklyn hotel's lobby where, with still-aching and, for me, made-up faces, we hugged friends and family, absorbed their generous words, and sent them home. By midday we had returned to Long Island City, swapped the contents of our luggage for out-on-the-town wear, and headed, rolling suitcases in hand, to the subway and our Manhattan hotel.

It's not impossible to get a hotel stay on a daily deals site. I focused my search on a site called Jetsetter, which caters to people with caviar tastes on hot dog budgets.

I had been eyeing a relatively new hotel near SoHo called The Nolitan. Prices were hovering around $250/night (an exceptional deal for December in Manhattan), but I wavered, and 36 hours later they jumped. Before admitting defeat, my intrepid fiance called the hotel directly and found that if you pay upfront for your whole stay instead of at its end, you eke out a 10 percent discount. Our rate ended up being about $290/night. Sold.

It was cold and wet that Sunday afternoon. We lugged our suitcases up and down dingy subway station stairwells, through pooling street corners, and along uneven sidewalks. Soaked, chilled, and already aching, we pushed through the Nolitan's double red doors and were embraced by a blanket of warm air. A wide-smiling attendant said, "Welcome to the Nolitan, may I take that for you?" And into his care we released our mismatched luggage.

The husband relaxes in the Nolitan's sunken library

One side of the Nolitan's lobby is devoted entirely to windows that look out onto Kenmore Street, where garbage trucks, lines of yellow cabs, and delivery rigs pass by the hotel at all hours of the day. But stepping into that lobby, the room's silence envelops you like a hug. With just an inch of glass between you and the outside world, the screaming street scene is transformed into silent performance art.

Now, before committing to even the most inconsequential of proprietors, I make sure to read their Yelp reviews. More often than not, the site is just a catch-all for whiners, but at the very least it can give you a quick idea of the potential downsides. And in the Nolitan's case, previous customers pinpointed the hotel's biggest drawback as its shoebox-sized rooms. Luckily, being New Yorkers, Ronnie and I had spent the past decade working out our tolerance for confinement.

On the fifth floor of the hotel, we slid the key card into our lock and and filed into the room until our rolling suitcases hit the bed — a quick trip, to be sure, about five leisurely paces. There was little more than a one-foot cushion of space surrounding the queen-size mattress that sat square in the middle of the boxed room. But there was also a massive wall-mounted TV, a flirtatious glass-walled en suite, two closets, and a six-foot window looking down onto the street. One quick look around and, yes, we agreed, these digs would do just fine.

We scheduled only one Groupon appointment — an 8:30 p.m. reservation at Hachi Restaurant & Lounge on the Lower East Side — that night. But just a few hours into this grand experiment, and our stamina was waning. Dragging our puffy and exhausted selves down to the Lower East Side in the rain sounded far from romantic and the last thing we wanted to do. But I wouldn't allow us to skip it. So, after paying for a nap at the Regal Union Square movie theater with tickets to the new James Bond film, Skyfall, I forced us out to sushi for two.

Despite a dicey back-and-forth with our server over our printed confirmation, we settled into a decently tasty meal. The deal we purchased was $80 for $186 worth of food, specifically eight hot or cold entrees and four glasses of wine. And let me highly recommend this kind of a la carte offer. It's best to skip the "three-course Italian meal for two with wine" and go with near-complete meals that encourage full-price additions. On the one hand, you feel Marie Antoinette-ish ("More anything? More everything!") and on the other, you might score a few points with your server, who will likely be happy to see you're willing to spend a little more money. We ordered 10 dishes and a few appetizers, which made us feel appropriately extravagant after the initial headache, and eagerly headed home.

When we returned to our hotel, our bed was turned down and chilling in an ice bucket was a bottle of champagne that Ronnie had forgotten he ordered. And so our first honeymoon night in our fancy Manhattan hotel came to a close — the happy couple passed out with the lights on, the champagne slowly warming in its bath.

Monday

Spa day!

We had scheduled 11:00 a.m. appointments at the Townhouse Spa in midtown. Originally priced at $432 on Gilt City, the package comprised one-hour side-by-side couples massage and pedicures for $220. Also included was access to the facilities — a steam room, showers, and, one would hope, luxurious body products. I noticed, however, that previously offered and similarly priced packages at Townhouse included a glass of champagne, which, as a newlywed, I should be required to drink on the hour. But I tried not to nitpick.

While we didn't admit it at the time, Ronnie and I were apprehensive about the appointment. A relaxing spa day was high on our list of wants. Because the Townhouse was the most extravagant of our discount purchases, I placed the odds that we'd escape without the Groupon stink-eye at slim-to-none.

While half-off discounts may be a boon for us adventurous economical types, those who work in the service industry are not particularly pumped about the trend. And it's understandable. A 2011 report found some 70 percent of Groupon purchasers are not return customers. And a 2012 poll of merchants found that 32 percent lost money on the promotions. Additionally, employees can get screwed on the gratuity, receiving only a discounted tip on a full-service transaction.

The tension this creates has not gone unnoticed by customers, either. One Yelp reviewer of the Townhouse Spa said she felt "attitude" from the moment she made her appointment, concluding that the discount wasn't worth it: "Don't bother going here or even be tempted to get a Gilt/LivingSocial 'deal.' You're much better off at a lot of other places."

I read this review before committing to Townhouse, but since these deals are fleeting and I'm a lousy gambler, I purchased the pedicure-massage combo anyway.

The spa's foyer was a pristine white and had floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with products for purchase. A tall front desk separated Ronnie and me from four near-identical-looking, heavily made-up women. Their tanned, expectant faces smiled in response to our presence. I gave them my name and, averting my eyes, handed over our Gilt confirmation, to which one said simply, "okay." I considered this brief interaction, devoid of both disdain and cheer, a success.

Two more bouncy women in white escorted us into the second foyer, a considerably warmer wood-lined room with cucumber-flavored water, magazines, and yogurt-covered pretzels. Barely noon on a Monday, the spa was deserted, which seemed to help us considerably. We were repeatedly told to help ourselves and stay as long as we wanted.

By the time we were shown into the manicurist salon, I was able to relax. I settled into the milk-chocolate-colored massage chair with a stack of thick fashion magazines and celebrity rags and looked over at Ronnie, who grinned thinly.

Ronnie isn't actually one to shy away from a pedicure. He's a bit of a massage whore who will casually pull my hand over his back and work my fingers into his shoulders. So when I booked the odd combination that included a chance to "pick a color," Ronnie was content to consider the pedicure an hour-long foot massage. But the reality was a little more surreal.

"It was funny being a dude getting an hour pedicure on a Monday when the only other two people in there were trophy wives," Ronnie later said. "I can only imagine the lady doing my pedicure was like, 'Who is this guy?'"

But Ronnie made it through like a champ, and the following couples massage was heavenly. Donning plush robes, we practically floated to our separate changing rooms to shower and slather ourselves in the spa's pricey body and hair products. Besides Ronnie feeling like the odd man out, the spa was a triumph in relaxation. We tipped accordingly and went on our way.

Puffy but de-stressed, we pose for the requisite New York City tourist shot taken by fellow tourists

On tap for the evening — drinks and then dinner.

Flute champagne bar in Gramercy was first. We made an appointment for 5 p.m., but walking into the empty cavern we could see it wasn't necessary. The hostess-waitress-manager bounded our way, breathlessly telling us to sit where we like.

Flute's decor looks as though Adriana from The Sopranos had a run of the budget. Long red couches crowded by bedazzled throw pillows line the room's brick walls. Small mirrored tables and squat leather chairs help create little seating nooks. One candle and a vase with a single fake red rose sit on every table. For more intimate seating, we could have opted for a private island of royal blue couches cordoned off by matching velvet curtains, but having left my stilettos and lingerie at home, I suggested a more pedestrian corner of the red sofa where we could cuddle side by side.

I purchased this appropriately celebratory deal on a site called Daily Candy. For $25 we got a $50 credit card to spend on anything. Not wanting to limit ourselves, especially when it came to champagne consumption, I purchased two.

It turns out, you have to work hard to spend $100 at Flute. We started out with two specialty cocktails, a cheese plate (which may have been outsourced from Starbucks), and a "tasting flight" of bubbly. When that only came to $70, we ordered a second flight of champagne fancy, tipped wildly, and sloppily meandered off to our meal.

While Flute felt like chancing upon the "special occasion" room of a mobster's wife, dinner was like stumbling home. The restaurant was a classic New York pub on the Lower East Side called Jimmy's No. 43. They brew their own beer, offer an extensive and rotating selection of micro and seasonal ales, and cook up cheap, with-a-twist fare. For $20 we got two dinner plates and two draft beers. There was no Groupon stink-eye, only spot-on beer recommendations and solid pub food.

Tuesday

A typical morning at the Nolitan: Breakfast in bed, Live with Kelly and Michael

We were headed to Chelsea for a Groupon lunch. But with the sun finally making an appearance in the late morning hours, we thought we'd take our time, romp through the nearly empty streets of SoHo, and play dress-up in the area's bevy of quaint, overpriced boutiques. There's a reason the streets were desolate, however. Like the 20-somethings who work this part of town, SoHo doesn't rise before noon. In fact, most of the neighborhood's niche shops don't dare recover from their weekend shopping blitz until Wednesday. So if you're staying in that part of the neighborhood, sleep in or head north. We grabbed some coffee and took the subway to an early tapas lunch at Tia Pol.

The Groupon deal was $29 for four tapas and two glasses of sangria. We added two more small plates to the meal and agreed that the food lived up to the unusually positive Yelp reviews. The best bite by far, though not totally ideal for romance, was shrimp in garlic oil that was so hot it arrived popping like kernels on a stove top.

Barely afternoon sangria

From Tia Pol, we wandered through the surrounding Chelsea neighborhood, known for its smattering of reputable art galleries. In you don't feel like shelling out $20 for one of New York's finest museums, a stroll through this West Side artistic hub will satiate that thirst for creative talent.

We took in the confounding detail of Chuck Close's wall-size portraits at Pace Gallery. We saw neon-colored abstracts and photo-realistic New York landscapes as well as photography, video, and sculpture. And all without paying a cent.

From the galleries we took a walk on the High Line — a different kind of New York City art experience. This former elevated freight rail corridor offers an unparalleled view of the city's graffiti. Using entire building sides as their canvas, artists create expressive works that compete for your attention, causing your eyeballs to ping-pong back and forth across streets, taking it all in. One of our favorites was a re-creation of the V-J Day kiss in Times Square. In graffiti form, the formerly black-and-white American sailor and uniformed woman shimmer with kaleidoscopic color, and rainbow rays shoot out from them as though ignited by the couple's spontaneous moment.

A sampling of the graffiti as seen from the High Line

Over the course of our three and a half days in New York, we sprinkled in a few full-pay activities, and the one we were most looking forward to was dinner at a restaurant of our choosing. One of the great things about New York is that you don't have to go to the most expensive restaurant to get a meal that will make you want to give your best When Harry Met Sally impression. The city's competitive drive, which makes riding the subway feel like you're trying out for the roller derby, does wonderful things for relatively affordable dinner options. The caveat, however, is that it's near impossible to get a table. The hippest restaurants don't even bother with reservations. So you can plan to eat when either the extremely old or the young or drunk would hunger for food — say, 6 p.m. or near midnight — or you can naively show up at 7 and wait for two hours at the restaurant's cozy three-foot bar with the rest of lower Manhattan.

Ronnie and I are planners, so while the no-reservation scenario is fine on a random Saturday at a neighborhood joint, it's less ideal when you're trying to prevent hunger and frustration from ruining that newlywed glow. So we chose one of the few cute, reputable restaurants in the city that take reservations: Locanda Verde, a scene-y yet highly regarded Italian tavern tucked into the Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca.

To get a table, simply go to the website at 10 a.m. 30 days prior to the night you want to dine, put in your request, and see if luck is on your side. Do not wait until the afternoon and do not even think about attempting this customer coup on the 29th day — it will not work. Ronnie actually set an alarm on his phone and in Google Calendar to make sure we were in. And, yes, we made it.

Wearing a tulle skirt that looked plucked from a scene out of Sex and the City, I joined my husband amid the suited bankers and indifferent hipsters at Locanda Verde at 8 p.m. We sipped the cheapest bottle of wine and dined on dishes that were dressed in truffle oil, accompanied by items requiring an Italian dictionary, fire-roasted and served for two. We skipped dessert and asked for the check, making bets on the price as we waited. Ronnie was optimistic, saying low $200s, but, as I counted the crostinis and numerous sides in my head, I figured we'd be closer to $300. It turns out we were both wrong (and relieved... shocked, even) to find we were way off — $159.92, not including tip. Even if you don't regularly dine in New York City, I hope you can appreciate how much of a steal this was. You'd be hard pressed to find such a delicious offering on a daily deals site. Stuffed and hopped up on our good fortune, Ronnie and I opted to walk the cobblestone streets searching for something chocolate-y that would pair well with a bottle of bubbly back at our hotel room.

Wednesday

The view from the Top of the Rock

I never did find a tourist attraction deal. So on our final day we paid full price for two tickets to the Top of the Rock to take in the city's gray-hued glory. After Rockefeller Center we wandered into the nearby MoMA. This is where things started to get pricey, and where we learned an important lesson in thrifty mini-mooning. MoMA and Top of the Rock actually have a combo-ticket deal that saves a couple $25. The trick is you have to buy the deal first at the Rock not afterward at MoMA as we were attempting. But if you find yourself in a similar predicament and go on and on about how it's your honeymoon and wouldn't it have been nice to have gotten that deal, then some kind ticket counter guy may take pity on your passive-aggressive groveling and grant you the retroactive discount. Pro tip: Milk your honeymoon status.

Next and last on our list of Groupon wants was the Broadway show. When embarking on such a search, it's best to lower your standards. No, you are not going to score tickets to Book of Mormon. But if one-woman shows are your thing, then you're in luck.

Because it was the holiday season, it took all of my willpower to not buy the oft-advertised discounted tickets to the Rockettes. Not because I actually wanted to see the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular," which I understand is less flailing legs and more Jesus-in-the-manger, but because I was sick of planning this Groupon Extravaganza.

Thankfully, one of my daily deal sites came through with a Hail Mary — tickets to an actual Broadway musical. And after spending just $59, instead of $79, per ticket, Ronnie and I found ourselves during the last few hours of our mini moon at the end of a line that spread down 46th Street and coiled up 8th Avenue waiting to see A Christmas Story: The Musical. While I didn't survey the 300-or-so attendees, I'm 99 percent certain that we were the only couple who didn't bring kids. But the musical included its fair share of hidden adult humor. It was earnest and over-acted, but also catchy and familiar. Sure, I snoozed through the second half, but I wasn't the only one (just the only one over the age of 9).

As the cast brightly wrapped up the show with a "Ralphie to the Rescue" reprise and "A Christmas Story" ensemble finale, I grew antsy. There was no avoiding the fact that the curtain was closing on our mini holiday and the little nagging realities of real life were starting to creep in. I thought about dragging our suitcases back through the rough and wet streets to the subway and back to our apartment. I wondered what we would do for lunch the rest of the week and what work had in store. I considered that Ronnie would have to head back to D.C. in just a few days and maybe we should use up those last few Groupon meal deals we didn't get to.

But then the music stopped, the lights came on, and the families filed out of the theater. I took Ronnie's hand and we stepped out into a mist of cold rain and the eye-averting brightness of Times Square. Being New Yorkers, we put our heads down and gunned for the subway, weaving in and out of the unsure tourists. At the end of 46th Street, though, Ronnie spotted the actress Blythe Danner standing at the counter of a corner pizza joint laying into a slice. She was our only celebrity sighting of our vacation, and we spent the rest of our trip back to our hotel, and, inevitably, our home in Long Island City talking about what Gwyneth Paltrow's mom could have been up to and how seeing her was the perfect way to end our New York City mini moon — and we didn't even have to pay for that. What a deal.

 
Lauren Hansen is the multimedia editor at TheWeek.com. A graduate of Kenyon College and Northwestern University, she started her career in arts publishing and has since worked at media outlets including the BBC and Frontline.

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