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Sold to the Loser With the Itchy Mouse Finger

By Carolyn Spencer Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 1999

   


The best and worst aspect about Internet travel auctions is the implied promise you'll get something – a cruise, an airline ticket, a Caribbean hotel package – for just about nothing.

Sometimes it's true. A Houston woman used Luxurylink.com to snag an $895 cruise to Tahiti on Radisson Seven Seas' posh Paul Gauguin (regular price for two, $5,790). Four days at a bay view villa in Jamaica, complete with private pool, cook, butler and housekeeper, came in at $1,209 via Onsale.com. Says Rich Mertz of Los Angeles, who bid and won a 12-day cruise on ultra-luxe Crystal for $2,130 (sale price is about $3,000 per person) on Bid4Travel.com: "I felt like I won the lottery. I actually felt bad because I got it so cheap."

Sexy examples, yes. And real, let me reassure you. I talked to these people. I (futilely) tried to wheedle some winning tips from them. But it's still clear these stories are the exceptions, not the norm.

"I think it's a scam," says Brian Levine of Silver Spring. Levine, who's getting married this month, spent six weeks monitoring the now-defunct auction feature on the Knot, an Internet site focusing on weddings, trying to find a Caribbean honeymoon package. He eventually snared a far better deal by, ahem, booking a package through his travel agent. And, unlike Internet auctions where you compete against other bargain hunters, he didn't have to fight off the competition or spend long hours at the terminal like some underpaid data-entry clerk to get a good deal.

"Everything you get on our site you get by winning it," says John Dean, vice president of Onsale's travel products group. I'm betting on it. After a month of obsessive attempts to win something, anything, from Onsale – I've bid, unsuccessfully, for a Renaissance cruise, a Club Med vacation and an Aegean voyage on Holland America – I'm still trying. I was even willing to spend $509 on an Alaskan cruise, bearing in mind that air fare from Washington to Anchorage to Vancouver and back home was three times the cost of the cruise – and I have no real urge to go to Alaska. (Happily, the bidding passed me by.) I scored a two-night stay at one of six five-star European hotels on Onsale by offering $99 – now that's a deal – but the unnamed vendor, which turned out to be Sheraton, never contacted me about my winning bid.

My attempts to score have been futile so far, but what I like about Onsale is that its auctions turn over every day, providing near-instant gratification (or, more commonly, disappointment). Other sites typically showcase a product over two- to seven-day periods. The day I'm writing this, I covet a 12-day Holland America London-Copenhagen cruise that departs three weeks hence. It was offered yesterday, too, but the final winners had ratcheted the fare up to $2,399 for two (plus $338 in port taxes and more for air fare). That was a bargain – less than half price – since Holland America offers the same cruise at a sale price of $2,515.50 per person, double occupancy, plus the extras. But it wasn't cheap enough for me. What I'm looking for in a travel auction is not just a deal. I want a steal.

For my money – or for yours – there are four auction sites that are worth checking out on a regular basis [see chart, Page E1]. But even my top four are far from perfect. Starting bids seem absurdly low – SkyAuction's $1, Onsale's $9 – but you're dreaming if you think the action stays in the single or double digits for long. Sometimes the auction moves so quickly you find yourself paying full price or, in worse cases, more than if you'd booked the trip through a travel agent.

Internet travel auctions exist for several reasons. Vendors, among them cruise lines, airlines, travel agencies, car rental agencies, all-inclusive resorts and bed-and-breakfast inns, want a quick, cheap way to sell what's known in the business as "distressed inventory" – unsold beds, berths and seats (primarily those requiring close-in departures or off-season visits). Check out, for instance, the plethora of Caribbean hotels offering summertime bargains on Bid4Travel or the last-minute international airline tickets on SkyAuction. Auctions give these vendors a last chance to get at least some revenue from stuff they can't sell at retail price.

A more intriguing reason for the auction's existence: Online travel operators whose sites were designed for other purposes – advertising the wares of various travel companies, say, or supporting a group of agencies – need a gimmick to get you hooked on regular visits. On Luxury Link, for instance, the site's real service is trip-planning information on resorts, cruises and small hotels for upscale travelers; the auction's just a sideshow to draw eyeballs. Same with Bid4Travel. "When we created [the site]," says Susan Boley of Abarta Interactive, which operates Bid4Travel, "we needed a sticky feature to bring people back."

In 1995, Cathay Pacific launched the first reported travel auction on the Internet, selling 50 business-class tickets, which then retailed for $3,000, for bids ranging from $1,300 to $1,500. The catch: You had to fly over Thanksgiving weekend, a time when few business travelers were taking trips to Asia, and there were lots of empty seats up front. Cathay Pacific followed up the next year by auctioning off the equivalent of an entire plane (first-, business- and coach-class seats). Renaissance Cruises, an innovator in direct-to-traveler sales tactics, also launched an auction feature on its own Web site – though it has since moved to Onsale.com.

What's generating hype – at least among bargain-seeking travelers – is the emergence in the past year of dedicated travel-auction sites, as well as the addition of cruises, hotels and airline tickets to existing online auctions. A few really take it seriously by trying to provide a range of travel opportunities. Onsale's offerings, such as Renaissance and Holland America cruise lines, result directly from contracts with the travel companies. Luxury Link's enticing crop of big-ticket, exclusive small resorts and hotels focuses on properties known mostly to connoisseurs – but packing a variety of high-end amenities into packages often places vendors' offerings beyond a value-seeker's budget. SkyAuction is the online arm of Magical Holidays, a New York City tour operator and air ticket consolidator and has contracts with Virgin Airlines and South African Airways.

Other auctions include the active traveler's Adventurebid.com. B&B fans can check out Inntopia.com. And there are the reverse bidding sites that have been known to call themselves auctioneers – Travel Bids (www.travelbids.com) and Priceline (www.priceline.com): These, presumably, let you name the price, and in doing so pit travelers against some unknown negotiated rate rather than against each other.

To declare that the travel auction scene is a big, booming, important option for securing good deals would be a lie. "I'm not sure I can call it a phenomenon just yet," says Onsale's Dean. And that's because the big guns in travel – the Sheratons, Carnival Cruises and Cathay Pacifics – aren't all that sure they want to play again; they tried it a couple of times, then quietly retreated. The danger: "Once you get people accustomed to never paying regular prices, you start training them not to pay published fares," says Mark Weinberger, director of marketing for Cathay Pacific. He says the auction business is experiencing a backlash from well-known companies that fear the concept not only degrades a brand name's value but also diverts customers from other travel sellers.

The only auction regulars on the moderate-to-high-end travel group are such cruise lines as Holland America and Renaissance, both of whom participate regularly in Onsale.com auctions. You may sporadically spot big-name junketeers (Cunard's Sea Goddess, Carnival's Holiday), but these are being sold by third parties – media companies like Abarta Interactive and Coventry Ltd., which publish tourism guides and barter advertising for travel, and then sell it off on the Internet.

While online auctions are seductive, fast-paced and addictive, many winning bidders inadvertently pay higher prices for the privilege to play. They get caught up in "the thrill of the hunt, the thrill of the chase, making that catch for a bargain of a lifetime," says Dean. Which makes it easy to get stung. "Initially, what's driving consumers to Internet travel auctions is the opportunity to get the best deal," says Krista Pappas, senior travel analyst with Gomez Advisors, an Internet consulting firm. "But we don't see anyone getting the better deals because bidding usually escalates beyond what you can get through online travel agents."

After two months of trying, I finally did get that cruise on Holland America, but I didn't "win" it. After spending so much time fiddling with Internet travel auctions in an effort to find that great deal – and indeed getting caught up in the agony of defeat, if never the thrill of victory – I ultimately scored the old-fashioned way. Travelco.com, an online travel agent, advertised a terrific deal on a transatlantic voyage on its Web site. I picked up the phone and called it. In five minutes, I'd booked my prize.


Comparing Auction Sites

After a month of tracking (and occasionally playing) a dozen travel auctions, we've learned that buying travel via online auctions is a lot like buying clothes at an outlet mall. You might get a great deal on out-of-season name-brand merchandise (we've listed some brands we've seen, but selection varies from day to day). On the other hand, you might get seduced by the promise of a deal, pay a lot more than you have to and, ultimately, get less in return. Be careful out there, and remember, an errant or ill-considered bid can be binding.


Onsale.com (www.onsale.com)

What's for Sale
Renaissance Cruises, Las Vegas's Venetian Resort, Holland America, Divi (timeshare) Caribbean Resorts, Premier Cruises, Samsonite luggage, consolidator airline tickets.

Who Are They? How Do They Operate?
Travel auctions launched September '98. Mostly a go-between for travel company sales forces; winning bidders turned over to vendors to book.

Bargain Potential
Cold-to-Hot. Beware of hugely inflated "retail" prices given for comparison. Two nights at Venetian, in Las Vegas, "valued" at $538; winning bidder paid $319 while Hotel Reservations Network quoted $250. Onsale's usual strength is cruise offerings. Winning bidder of a 12-night Scandinavian cruise on Holland America paid $2,519 for two; the "early booking discount" the line quoted was more than double that. But a three-day voyage on Premier sold for $379 for two; the cruise line itself quotes $359.


Luxury Link (www.luxurylink.com)

What's for Sale
Indulgent resort/hotel packages at august properties like the Greenbrier, Island Outpost resorts, Mustique's Cotton House; European river cruises.

Who Are They? How Do They Operate?
Started fall '98. Properties create packages, Luxury Link sells them, then relays winning bidder to vendor for booking.

Bargain Potential
Cold. Few bargains here, where bidding starts at 25 percent of "retail" price. A three-night package at New Orleans' Windsor Court is valued at $3,900 – but we priced it at $1,700, and the winning bidder paid $2,275. It's the extras – massages, gourmet meals, private sightseeing – that jack up the prices. If you really want swank on a budget, eschew the all-inclusive week at Hotel Antiqua Villa Santa Monica in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, for $1,500 and reserve a suite at $120 a night by calling the hotel directly. You can spend the extra $780 on air fare.


Bid4Travel (www.bid4travel.com)

What's for Sale
Carnival Cruises, Clarion Suites Resort in Kissimmee, Miami Beach's Raleigh Hotel, Sandals Resorts, ClubMed, independent Caribbean hotels.

Who Are They? How Do They Operate?
Launched in May '97. Abarta Inter-active publishes guides for various travel companies. Merchandise is traded by vendors for advertising, then resold via auctions. Also con-tracts with small Caribbean hotels.

Bargain Potential
Lukewarm. Bid 4 Travel hasn't found an audience (many offerings never get bid on); worse, starting prices are often higher than vendors' own retail, meaning even the first bidder is paying too much. A 4-day Baja California cruise on Carnival opens with a "starting" bid of $800 for two (add $98 apiece for port fees) but Carnival's phone quote is $200 less. A 6-night off-season stay at Miami Beach's chic Raleigh has a starting bid of $1,100; save $75 by booking direct. Best chance of a bargain: Caribbean hotels that pay to be bid on. The Holiday Inn Windward in St. Thomas, $125 a night off-season, began bidding at $115 for two nights but there were no takers.


Sky Auction (www.skyauction.com)

What's for Sale
Domestic and international airline tickets (coach and business) on Northwest/KLM, Virgin-Atlantic and Continental; Club Med; air/hotel packages to Paris, Orlando, Las Vegas.

Who Are They? How Do They Operate?
Launched February '99. Sky Auction is a New York-based airline consolidator/tour operator that packages trips, negotiates low rates with vendors, then sells via auctions.

Bargain Potential
Warm. Best deals are on international airline tickets. A DC-London round trip – business class – went for $1,789, while the airline quoted a 21-day advance price of $6,384. High bidder for a United coach ticket to Moscow paid $605; 21-day advance through airline is nearly $1,300. Air and hotel packages can be bargains: On Virgin-Atlantic, a 2-night London getaway selling for $853 went for $304. A 6-night Paris air/hotel package went for $2,090 recently – but we were able to price a comparable trip at $1,860. Beware: Packages carry hefty single supplements.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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