World Wide Web connects travelers to auction bargains

Deals: At least five sites act as go-betweens for travel opportunities. The prices can be great, but you have to be flexible.

Strategies

May 02, 1999|By L.R. Shannon, | L.R. Shannon,,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Online auctions are a growing segment of the Web. A pioneer, Ebay, started in 1995 and now lists a couple of hundred thousand items every day; Amazon.com, which began life as a bookseller, recently cobbled on an auction subsection.

With these merchandise auctions, the Web site acts as a go-between for individuals selling and individuals buying. Sites that offer travel include Onsale; Adventurebid, which, as its name implies, specializes in such excursions as white-water rafting, ballooning and climbing; Bid4vacations, with cruises, skiing and ranches that take guests; Luxurylink, with high-priced hotels and other destinations; Goinggoinggone, a potpourri; and others.

The better-known Priceline is not a true auction site; you offer a price for an airline ticket or hotel room, and if a company accepts it, it lets Priceline know. By and large, in travel sites you are dealing with established companies, not individuals, which can increase confidence. Still, flexible travel plans are usually essential.

Most of my auction experience comes from comic strips, where an unconscious twitch or sniffle raises your bid for an antique whatzit by thousands of dollars. But a two-night stay for two people at a five-star European hotel seemed too good not to try for, at least at first glance. And since the auction was on the Web, I could scratch an itch without inadvertently bidding.

The site holding out this temptation was Onsale (www.onsale.com), which sells thousands of things outright, computer products in particular, as well as sports and fitness gear and home and office stuff, and has added auctions to the mix. The At Auction travel section offers many deals. Cruises are a major ingredient, and 10 were listed -- Scandinavian, Aegean and Tahitian among them -- and five other travel offers were highlighted. I clicked on one that said "2-Night Stay for Two/Five-Star Hotels/Europe/Bids Start at $9."

I found that there were a total of four five-star hotels available in four different cities; that the ostensible list price for the accommodations was $650, and that the current bids were in the $49 to $109 range (bidding starts at $9, but goes up only in $10 increments). Five high bidders were listed by initials and hometowns: A.G. of Newport Beach, Calif., had offered $109.

The four hotels were in Ankara, Turkey; Goteborg, Sweden; Luxembourg and Stockholm, cities not at the top of most people's choice of destinations, and the rooms were "based on availability." Onsale went on: "The Five-Star Hotels are part of a well-known international chain, but since Onsale is offering such an incredible deal to its customers, we can't use the name!"

Well, OK, I guess. In the detailed rundowns on each of the otherwise unidentified hotels, it turned out that the hotel in Goteborg is less than 13 miles from the airport and the one in Stockholm is 22 miles from the airport, but the place in Ankara is "just minutes" from the airport and the one in Luxembourg is in the airport.

Flexibility is essential: the trip must be made before July 31. "You will receive an e-mail within four business days requesting your top three date choices and your destination," Onsale says. "Confirmation will be given within four days."

Even though you don't know the name or location of the hotel you are bidding for a room in, you can't do it anonymously yourself. You must register with Onsale, giving your name and address, day and evening phone numbers, fax number, e-mail address and credit-card information, concocting a user name and password.

Trying to be a little less ambitious, I also dipped into a two-night cruise from New York to nowhere in an outside stateroom, the "best available at time of booking," aboard Premier Cruise's Seabreeze, with an official price of $1,156. Bids ranged from $359 to $369. Down in the fine print it was noted that a "port charge of $89.50 per person will be charged in addition to the winning bid price," a substantial fraction if the $369 bid wins.

Pub Date: 05/02/99

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