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by Joe Harkins
Once upon a time, fables and fairy tales that began with that same simple phrase were a culture's way of sharing old wisdom with modern audiences. Cinderella learned that well-fitting slippers, preferably made of glass, attracted royal bachelors with a shoe fetish. Little piggies discovered that solidly-built houses are awarded long-term, fixed-rate mortgages.
One of the better stories of that instructive type is The Emperor's New Clothes by the prolific and still relevant Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson. In it, a fatuous Emperor is convinced he has bought an enchanted wardrobe of lightweight garments that are invisible to him, but are seen by his subjects as elegant royal costumes, heavily brocaded with gold and silver threads. None of the brown-noses around the Emperor dared tell him the truth.
One day, as the emperor was out in public, displaying his, ummh, errr, finery, a child among the spectators, too young to know how to lie, cried out for all to hear, "Look. He's naked. That guy in the crown is naked."
Priceline.com is the Emperor's New Clothes of online travel bargains. Their ads urge you to "name your own price." That might lead you to think Priceline is an auction. Their spiel about how planes fly with so many empty seats implies it's a place where you might buy onto soon-to-take-off flights at a last-minute distress sale.
Their service is neither an auction nor a clearance sale. Planes still go with empty seats and, according to Priceline's admission on their web site, it's not very likely they'll get you one at a distress price.
An article on the Washington Post web site explains what's wrong with Priceline's New Clothes. Here's the brief version. "In exchange for the privilege of naming your own price -- which may not be accepted -- you're subject to some of the tightest restrictions in the low-fare game. For instance, you have to agree to accept any "matching" bids, sight unseen, and do so with a credit card number when you bid. You cannot specify an airline and don't get frequent-flier miles. You have no say (beyond dates) in scheduling and little choice in airports -- bid for San Antonio and you may find yourself obligated to accept a ticket to Austin, an hour away. Tickets are non-exchangeable and non-refundable."
In my opinion, that's not the worst of it but I'll give the folks at Priceline points for candor. In their fine print they explain, " . . . we strongly recommend that you do not request ticket prices below the airlines' lowest advance purchase fares." In other words, don't bid any lower than the price any competent travel agent can get you.
Travel Bids (Sorry - their web site is down, maybe permanently) works the other way around. You describe the trip you want. Various travel agents quote you their best price until you get one that's acceptable. You do have to pay a $5 fee up front and there are minimums, but the reported discounts seem realistic.
That's still not exactly an auction where you bid in the hope you've found a seat that no one else wants. They do exist, but usually as part of an airline's limited special promotion.
Those auctions open and close rapidly. I'm still kicking myself for having failed to bid last year on a Cathay Pacific Airlines round-the-world trip for two that went for pennies on the dollar.
Genuine, open-cry, highest-bidder, online auctions devoted to last-minute travel deals - not the phony nonsense of Priceline - are inevitable. It's easier to sell a squishy brown banana than it is to sell last week's hotel room, cruise ship cabin and airline seat. At least the banana still exists and can be used to flavor nut-bread. But once the calendar turns, that empty room and plane seat no longer exist.
SkyAuction promises "no reserve" auctions. That means the seller has not reserved the right to pull the item out of the auction if a hidden minimum price (the "reserve price") isn't met. It's a reasonable assumption, at any auction, that there is a reserve price unless the auctioneer says up front that it is a "no reserve - sell to the highest bidder" transaction.
One of the features of the SkyAuction site is that you are informed of the level of bidding activity on the item. Also, after bidding closes you can go back and see what the item actually sold for. That's a good guideline on what to bid on similar items.
Another thing that is admirable about SkyAuction is that the taxes and fees are posted right up front. Every few days I get an email from some disgruntled customer who discovers that added charges buried in the fine print of Priceline's terms have turned an apparent bargain into a rip-off.
OnSale (which has been acquired by Egghead) uses an open bidding system, complete with the identity of who is bidding. Last week, round-trip flights on one well-known airline that list for $490 were going for $89.
The 800-pound gorilla of auction sites is eBay. It offers just about every type of auction that exists. There are Dutch auctions, private auctions, reserve price auctions and restricted access auctions - the types are explained on the web site. You'll just have to wade through a lot of Coca-Cola commemorative serving trays, Beanie Babies and Sammy Sosa cards to get to the travel deals.
Here's a tip for finding travel deals on eBay. If you type the word "travel" into the eBay search engine, you'll get travel posters, luggage, travel clocks, guidebooks, etc. but no travel deals. Your search has to use words like "airfare," "cruise," "all-inclusive" and "resort" (note - singular, not plural) or the name of a destination (the island, country, state. etc.), not the overly-broad word "travel."
You might save yourself some effort by using BidFind. They claim to track and index the offerings on more than 150 auction sites on the web. That may be true, and I know that eBay has given BidFind the backhanded compliment of trying to block access to BidFind's reporting the results of eBay auctions, an action that was reversed after a law suit was filed, however, I was not impressed with either the variety or quantity of BidFind travel deals.
You might be better off reading the travel auction guidelines on the eSmarts / Auction List web site. In addition to sound advice on how to bid at online auctions, it also tells you how to find non-auction travel deals.
In a nutshell, if you decide to bid on a travel deal, first do your homework. Determine what you might pay for the same trip through your local travel agent. Unless you can beat your agent's best price by a huge margin, stick with the agent. The service, advice and professional support from a good agent is worth it. Before confirming a bid, read the auction's fine print carefully, especially the added fees and taxes.
And watch out for that little kid in the crowd who can see through The Emperor's Boxer Shorts.
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