It was a Groupon find — $99 for a five-hour wine tour of the Leelanau for two. It was 37% off the normal price.

So I bit.

So did Diane Colvin of Hazel Park, a veteran flash deal traveler.

“Groupon has greatly improved my social life because I have to ask friends to go somewhere with me,” said Colvin of Hazel Park, sitting in the fancy black Grand Traverse Tours bus with her mother as it trundled through the rainy Leelanau countryside.

That afternoon, we stopped at seven wineries getting Riesling refreshed, pinot primed (and for a few, Gewurtztraminer hammered).

Colvin revealed she’d also been skydiving and to Jamaica on travel flash deals.

“You kind of have to be open-minded. And adventurous,” she said. “You have to realize that you’re likely to get businesses that are not on the regular track of marketing, so they think Groupon will help.”

Let’s Make a Deal

Most people know Groupon and similar sites for vouchers for $20 massages and $12 manicures.

But buying travel on these sites costs hundreds or thousands more.

The Free Press looked at 22 travel daily deals on multiple sites. We found that about a third of the time they either were not the lowest price or involved a lot of red tape.

In addition, it is getting harder to know exactly who is selling the trip. Groupon’s site includes Expedia deals. LivingSocial is partners with Priceline. DealChicken offers complex deals from multiple travel partners. Upscale Jetsetter is now owned and pitched by middle-of-the-road TripAdvisor.

And some daily deal companies are struggling financially. The biggest, Groupon, with 59.1% of the market according to a new IBISWorld report, lost $67.4 million last year. LivingSocial, with about 16.6% of the market, lost $650 million. (The smaller DealChicken, an initiative run by Free Press parent company Gannett, issues no independent financial data.)

As these sites struggle to remain vibrant and compete against upstarts, they are rolling out shiny new travel baubles to lure buyers — like LivingSocial’s new coupon code section introduced this month.

Still, for buyers, it’s hard to tell if a deal is a deal until you buy one.

Deals may carry surprises

The biggest flash sale trip Colvin ever booked was a five-day Jamaican vacation she bought last year for $399 on LivingSocial. It was for Little Bay Cabins over Christmas week.

“When I got there, everybody was on the coupon,” she said.

In Jamaica, the tiny resort was secluded on the southern shore. There were no restaurants, shops or public transportation. It was way too isolated for a solo traveler. Yet her small cabin was just 20 feet from the Caribbean sea. Not bad for $399. Was it worth it?

“It was beautiful but just too secluded,” Colvin said. Also, her airfare to Jamaica was nearly twice the cost of the lodging deal.

As for me, after my successful Groupon wine tour, I bought another flash travel deal that sounded too good to pass up.

DealChicken offered a voucher: $49 for two nights at a hotel for up to four people. The catch? You don’t know the name of the hotels or cities available until you have bought the voucher, sent an e-mail, gotten a phone number and called to book.

A week later, I am still trying to navigate the complex process of redeeming it.

Photo Credit: Flash sales are a tangled web. Above, Expedia is Groupon's prime partner for travel flash sales. Groupon