Cheap Airfare Step 4: Bidding Sites
You don't have to take the price the airlines give you—you can set your own cost for your plane ticket with a bidding site like Priceline ...and you don't have to be William Shatner to score the savings
I've got an airfare to Europe here...going once...going twice...SOLD to the fella in Philadelphia with the Mac who already gave us his credit card number and can't back out now!
"Supply and Demand" is a two-way street, and the Internet is the traffic cop who pointed that fact out to us. Auction sites have truly come into their own—witness the stupefying success, and sweeping cultural effect, of eBay (which, yes, sells travel; more in a minute).
Bidding for travel is no exception, and the oldest of the bidding sites—Priceline.com—has outlasted all the competition, becoming one of the true darlings of the Internet. Even Captain Kirk loves it!
There's also a variant on bidding sites called opaque fares, but we'll get to that in a minute.
Priceline.com - Bidding for airfare
Although Priceline (www.priceline.com) now actually sells plane tickets in a variety of ways now—including a more traditional search engine of published fares just like Orbitz or Travelocity, a bargain bin of last-minute deals at up to 50% off, and air-hotel vacation packages—it's still most famous for its bidding-for-airfare technology that first made Priceline famous, now marketed as "Name your own price."
The idea behind the bidding model is pretty simple. You get to pick your travel dates and departure and arrival cities, but you don't get to be picky about the times of your flights, and in return you can get a plane ticket for up to 40% less than the published fares. There's even a helpful calendar showing you which days it is generally cheaper to travel.
You noticed the catch, right? You don't get to pick your airline, and you have to be flexible on departure times. For example, for international travel the airline that accepts your bid is free to assign you a seat on any flight from 5am on your stated departure date until 2am that night (well, technically the next day).
Advice, Tricks, and Resources
These websites exist solely to provide tips, tricks, and ways to game the online travel auction world so you can the best deal when you bid on travel:
BidOnTravel.com (www.bidontravel.com) - This is the sleekest and most user-friendly interface of these three resources, more of a tip sheet and guided advice than a free-for-all message board (like the others) where the gems are buried between 1,001 postings all asking "Did I get a good deal?" It provides an online guide to gaming both Priceline and Hotwire for the best deals in every travel category: airfare, hotels, rental cars, vacation packages, and last-minute deals.
BiddingForTravel.com (www.biddingfortravel.com) - A message board for Priceline and Hotwire fanatics—and those who like to pit the two against one another—though, sadly, they no longer walk you step-by-step through the bidding process. Still, the message board forums are packed full of general helpful hints for online auctions.
BetterBidding.com (www.betterbidding.com) - Similar to BiddingForTravel.com—another message board format—but a bit more homegrown, plus it has a bunch on Hotwire.com as well as on Priceline.com (in fact, it was started as a Hotwire tips site and later expanded to include Priceline).The idea is you put in your itinerary and a price you're willing to pay, it lets the airlines (all the biggies are members of Priceline) decide whether to accept your bid and sell you a seat.
Once you enter a bid, you are obligated to pay if an airline accepts the bid, so you have to be sure of this going into it. After all, they have your credit card number.
(Priceline does, however, have a price guarantee: a 24-hour period in which you are free to find a lower fare. You still have to travel with the ticket it provides, but it will refund you the difference between what you paid and any lower fare you find.)
This means is that you really have to do your homework and find out the absolute minimum you could get a ticket for through regular methods. That means going through the all other steps described in the "Getting the Cheapest Airfare" section.
To help you be vague so as to cast a wide net, when you enter your departure/arrival cities, Priceline will provide you with a selection of airports in or near your choice cities, and you can select as many as you're willing to use (the more potential airports you pick, the greater your chances of getting that low fare).
It even makes helpful suggestions—when I tell it I want to fly to Rome from Philly, it helpfully lets me know that, if I am willing to drive up to Newark instead, it'll probably be cheaper.
In the end, whatever airline that accepts your bid will tell you where you're flying from and to.
Note that the price you bid out will not include taxes, which can tack on an additional $85 to $200 (this isn't fleecing you; that's actually how much government taxes, security charges, airport fees, etc. actually run these days), plus $6.95 for processing and, if you get paper tickets, $19.95 for S&H.
Now, hack 40% off that price and plug the amount into Priceline.
Nervous nellies might go 35%—still a fairly reasonable rate of discount. Yes, it's pointless to try and get a transatlantic ticket for $10—and 35% means you may get a bite.
Seriously: find out the going rate first. Whenever I go to these sites, I wince to see folks bidding ludicrous sums for trips that would cost them less if they just rang up the airline and asked for a ticket straight out—like bidding $250 for a round-trip ticket from NYC to London when the going rate at the time, on the very same airline, was $170.
You can always raise your bid if the first one doesn't get a nibble on the line. In fact, even if Priceline sends you a "counteroffer," don't take it yet. Just raise the bid a bit. Nine times out of ten, you'll get a taker before you ever reach the level of that counteroffer.
A few caveats:
- Note that you get the most restrictive ticket imaginable; you won't be able to change the dates or travel times, not even by paying the normal change fee.
- Also, you might end up with a circuitous routing. (I'd rather pay an extra $20 or $30 to fly direct from New York to Rome than be forced to waste an extra day flying from New York to Detroit to Amsterdam to Rome—which is a distinct possibility if Northwest/KLM accepts your bid.)
- You can pull out before the bid is accepted if you get cold feet or feel the number is going too high. But once the auction closes or your bid is accepted, that's it. Your Visa bill instantly gets longer and your ticket goes in the mail (so to speak).
eBay (wwaw.ebay.com) - Yep. Folks sell anything on eBay, including unused frequent flyer miles, coupons for free flights that they got when they were bumped, endorsable tickets they never got to use, and a bevy of other travel products. There's no way to go into all the dos and don’ts of eBay shopping here, but this econo-cultural phenomenon truly needs little introduction.
One caveat, though: Many of the the bids you see on eBay for travel are really just shills for a discount travel agency. Not that this isn't a good way to find discounters, just that those starting bids of "$1.49" for United don't mean you're going to get a plane ticket for under a buck fifty.
But remember: Unlike Priceline—where you throw out a random fare and keep creeping it up until an airline bites at the bait—at eBay you're bidding against other travelers.
The merchandise on sale (plane tickets, packages, hotel rooms, cruises, etc.) is already laid out for you to see, the starting bid is usually under $10, and anyone can join in on bidding for it. This makes it more like a traditional auction, really. There's a built-in end date for the auction on each item. Whoever has the highest bid at that time wins (by which I mean gets the product and pays the price).