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An African safari on a Web travel deals whim: Smart buy or into the lion’s den?

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It was a few minutes before midnight, and we’d just ordered a fresh round of drinks at a neighborhood bar. It was nearing the hour when bad decisions are usually made, and this one could be our costliest.

“Well, what do you want to do?”

A sip. A pause. A decision.

“Let’s do it,” my wife said.

The seconds were ticking toward the midnight deadline as I whipped out my iPhone, opened the app and ended a week of stomach-churning indecision. With less than a minute to spare, we’d bought a safari trip for two to Kenya from LivingSocial.

Now, we’d previously purchased pizza and wine and picture frames from LivingSocial, the Washington-based company that offers online discounts for a variety of goods and services. But we’d never dug this deep into our pockets. We’d read Hemingway and idly chatted about visiting Africa someday. But for the most part, the LivingSocial offer simply popped up at the right time: We wanted a vacation; the Internet offered what seemed like a good deal. The price tag was $2,697 per person — discounted $1,800 each — and included airfare, a week of lodging, meals and tours across three Kenyan wildlife reserves. We bit.

“I think we’re seeing a shift in the way people purchase travel,” says Dave Madden, the North American general manager of LivingSocial Escapes, which launched in November 2010. Just last month, the site sold its 1 millionth room-night. Madden said it took 11 months to sell the first 500,000 and only five months to sell the next half-million. A variety of other online outfits — Travelzoo, Yuupon and Groupon Getaways among them — offer similarly discounted trips. They’re all taking advantage of this travel shift, in which impulse has replaced deliberation.

Several weeks and 19 hours of flight time later, our green van pulled out of a resort in Nairobi and headed west. The Internet offer had attracted all sorts — nearly 275 people bought the deal — and our group of 22 was a mix of families, young couples, mothers and daughters and even an 83-year-old widow.

The pavement disappeared as we bounced toward the Maasai Mara National Reserve, and our van wove around canyons disguised as potholes. “African massage,” our driver told us.

We’d been sold on the trip by a few paragraphs of Disney-style advertising type, and even though a more detailed itinerary followed, we still didn’t know what to expect. Most of the people on our safari had similarly splurged on a sense of adventure and uncertainty.

“We weren’t planning it at all,” said Kristie Primmer, a 32-year-old executive assistant in Arlington. “And then it popped up.” She sent it to her husband, saying, “ ‘Hey, what do you think? Wanna go to Africa?’ It was a big purchase, and it felt like a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants kind of thing.”

LivingSocial sells spontaneity. The company rolls out at least 40 new deals every Monday — nearby bed-and-breakfast inns, a weekend trip to the Caribbean or a faraway adventure like ours. According to the company’s own research, 70 percent of Escapes customers have no plans to purchase a trip before stumbling across the discounted offer.

“That means for those people who may not have even been looking to buy travel, they were inspired to take a trip they may not have done otherwise,” Madden said.

Our apprehensions dissipated on the road leading to our first night of lodging, as we came across a lion resting in the shade of a tree, a giraffe grabbing an afternoon snack and warthogs ambling across the lush savannah. What followed was a week-long scavenger hunt of fantastic animals that had previously existed only in encyclopedias, images reserved for Animal Planet or National Geographic.

LivingSocial was actually only the middle man for this trip. It was coordinated by Classic Escapes, a New York-based travel company that plotted each stop, carefully selected lodging, planned meals, hired top-notch drivers and guides. It did everything short of dangle beef jerky from the van’s bumper to entice the cheetahs to come out and play.

Classic Escapes had had no idea what LivingSocial would do for its bottom line. Like other travel companies, it had been nearly crippled by the recession, and the Kenya safari was its first offering on LivingSocial.

“It has completely revamped and rejuvenated my business,” said Stacy Fiorentinos, president of Classic Escapes, when I contacted her after our trip. “What LivingSocial has done is essentially made it possible for us not to worry about cash flow, not to worry about making ends meet. Now we can focus on putting together great trips.”

For travel companies, sites such as LivingSocial offer a ready-made audience of millions, in return for which they skim a portion of the profits. “If we only got 15 or 20 people, no, we couldn’t operate like that,” Fiorentinos said. “The percentage of profit is much lower than what is traditional, but you make your money on volume.”

Fiorentinos has had to hire five new full-time employees since last fall, she said, and since the Kenya safari, she has offered a half-dozen other trips on LivingSocial and Groupon.

Our safari hit three distinctly different reserves, and we saw more than 50 species of animals. There was nothing on our list that we didn’t spot, and we were all intoxicated by the “Big Five”: the lion, the elephant, the rhino, the leopard and the Cape buffalo. Our eyes couldn’t open wide enough.

Hemingway, our muse, had taken aim with his shotguns; we used our Canons as the zebras rolled in the dirt, baby elephants bathed in the mud, hippos butted heads in the river. And no matter how many we came across, we were always mesmerized by the giraffes, constantly eating from the highest branches, moving slowly across the horizon and always looking more like something out of “Jurassic Park” than your city zoo.

Over the course of a week, we spent well over 40 hours in the van — nearly 700 bumpy miles in all — but no one seemed to mind. We poked our heads out of a pop-top roof during game drives, and even as we drove from place to place, our eyes were stuck to the window, an oversize peephole into a foreign world.

The lodging at each stop was first-rate, and we were treated to buffet meals and long evenings under the stars of the equatorial sky. Just as so often happens on a cruise trip, this is where our group bonded, swigging Tusker beer and swapping tales about how we had each stumbled onto the trip and our varying degrees of expectations.

It’s also where we learned that the fine print is worth careful study when it comes to Internet deals. That’s where you find blackout dates, travel restrictions and additional costs. We weren’t the only ones who missed the notice about an additional $1,200 in taxes that awaited each couple. Those who traveled alone also faced a $600 surcharge unless they agreed to bunk with a stranger.

Still, there were upsides to the deal. As is the case with other LivingSocial offers, if anyone bought three, they received the fourth free, which came in handy for the families on our safari.

And as with most guided tours, several add-ons were offered — balloon rides and side trips — so we opted for an additional night in Nairobi at the end, a chance to gather our wits and catch our breath. That’s how we found ourselves again at a bar, again ordering a fresh round of drinks.

The vodka-based Dawa — Swahili for “medicine” — is sweet and refreshing, and we sipped it at our leisure on the patio of Fairmont the Norfolk, where celebrities like Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt, among others, have thrown back drinks.

It was unlike the Capitol Hill bar that had started us on this journey. This time there was no consternation or hand-wringing over delving into the unknown of the Internet.

Just a sip. A pause. A great decision.

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Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.

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