eBay site can be a boon for travelers

Strategies

April 16, 2006|By JAMES GILDEN | JAMES GILDEN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Enterprising individuals and businesses are using online auction giant eBay to sell thousands of travel-related items, yet another way for consumers to ferret out bargains.

On a recent weekday, for instance, almost 29,000 such items were listed on eBay. Almost 19,000 were luggage items, and 4,500 others included whiskey flasks, travel clocks, mileage upgrade awards (see caveat at the end of this column) and a book on slot-machine secrets. Items more directly related to travel -- airline tickets, cruises, lodging and vacation packages -- represented about 5,500 of the 78 million items listed for sale on eBay.

To list travel services on eBay, sellers must be licensed to sell travel in all 50 states, said eBay spokeswoman Catherine England, unless that person or business is providing the service sold. In other words, if you own a bed-and-breakfast in Vermont, you can sell rooms at your inn but not airline tickets to get there -- unless you are a licensed travel agent.

Many of the travel agents I saw on eBay displayed their license number on the listing and, although having a license is no guarantee of integrity, this enables consumers to look up that number for the state in which they are licensed.

Perhaps some of the best travel bargains found on eBay are listed by individuals. Jim Kainber of Olympia, Wash., stumbled on travel listings while shopping on eBay for charms for his daughter's bracelet.

"I typed in 'Whistler,' looking for a charm, and got all these condos," he said.

Among them was a two-bedroom time share condo in the heart of the Canadian resort Whistler for a buy-it-now price of $750 for seven nights. (Buy-it-now on eBay means just what it implies: Rather than bother with the auction process, you can simply purchase it at a set price.) Kainber e-mailed the person who had listed the condo and negotiated the price down to $650. But by the time he went to make the purchase, someone had already scooped it up.

"The moral of my story is, be prepared to punch 'buy it now,'" he said. "I was not and came up short."

Just how short he found out when he called the resort to find out how much it would cost to reserve the condo through normal channels. He was told it cost $395 a night. He would have saved more than $2,000.

The lodging section is filled with time-share offerings, from folks trying to unload their weeks and from companies trying to sell time shares. Be sure you read the fine print or you could find yourself obligated to sit through a hard-sell time-share presentation, which may not be your idea of a good time.

Buying anything on eBay comes with a certain amount of risk, and it is up to the buyer to do the homework.

"It's really important any time you're buying something on eBay, but particularly with travel," eBay's England said. "Take the time to read through the entire listing."

Use your credit card or PayPal account to pay for travel on eBay. Those two options come with consumer protections that you lose when you pay by check or money order. If a seller requires you to pay with a check or money order, that should raise a red flag, England said.

All PayPal purchases on eBay are guaranteed to be as represented in the listing for up to $200, minus a $25 processing fee. Select sellers, those with an excellent reputation selling on eBay, have their sales guaranteed up to $1,000 at no charge to the buyer or seller. Look for the "Free PayPal Buyer Protection" sign in the box under "Buy Safely" on the seller's listing. It's also important to check a seller's feedback to see whether there are any negative comments.

Reputable eBay sellers take their feedback seriously. It is one way for consumers to gauge their reliability. Check to see whether they are a "Square Trade Seller" of travel, another eBay sign of trustworthiness.

As always when going online for travel, it is important that consumers shop around before buying on eBay. See what the same thing would cost at an online travel agency such as Expedia or Orbitz or, if you can, check directly with the source.

I checked out a listing on eBay for a cruise that was offered through a travel agency. It had a buy-it-now price of $1,728 and was not available for bidding by auction. (Many of the travel listings are sold this way.) I went to Travelocity, where I found the same cruise and cabin category listed for $1,758 -- only a $30 savings. You might find a better deal by going through the cruise line or a traditional travel agent.

Also, watch out for items such as upgrade certificates or airline mileage awards that aren't allowed to be sold. One seller had two United Airlines system-wide upgrade certificates for a buy-it-now price of $1,000. These are valuable because they allow you to upgrade on almost any fare to anywhere in the world that United flies. Typically, such items can be given away but not sold.

But beware: Even though the sellers of these items try to disguise the transaction -- say, by offering it as a "gift" -- the airlines aren't amused.

"If we find out that something that cannot be sold or bartered is sold or bartered, that will typically void the transaction," said United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski. Sometimes it doesn't happen until the customer walks up to the ticket counter.

"In those cases, the person who bought the illegal certificate is unfortunately the one who is at a loss," she said.

James Gilden is a freelance reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

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