How to name your own price for airfare
Airfare auctions, bid-for-travel sites, and opaque fare search engines—Priceline, Hotwire, SkyAuction, and their ilk
Bidding for Airfare
(www.priceline.com) - This darling of the dot.com bubble is still alive and well and accepting bids. It actually sells plane tickets in a variety of ways now, including a more traditional
search engine of published fares
just like Orbitz or Travelocity (Priceline unimaginatively calls this "Search and compare prices"), a bargain bin of
air-hotel vacation packages
(read more on the concept of bundling your airfare and hotel together here), and finally, the
that first made Priceline famous, now marketed as "Name your own price."
The idea behind the bidding model is that, although you get to pick your travel dates and departure and arrival cities, you don't get to be picky about the times of your flights. For international, 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).
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 possibly use (the more you pick, the greater your chances of getting that low fare). The 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 $115 (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.
Travel Auction Sites
(www.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 o 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 (esepcially ethnic consolidators), 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 usualyl 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).
(www.hotwire.com) - Hotwire.com is the industry leader in what are called
online opaque fares
—essentially, you've no idea what airline or other travel supplier is providing the ticket until you've already paid for it. The trade-off? You can snag deals up to 40% off published airfares, and 75% off hotel rates.
Also, it's not as if you'll be stuck flying My Cousin Sal's Podunk Airline. Hotwire's associates are all big names like American Airlines, Continental, Cathay Pacific, Northwest, Air France, Lufthansa, etc. They also rep over 6,000 hotels in 150 U.S. cities and resorts.
Unlike some bargain sites, Hotwire encourages you to shop around and try to beat their fares, and will hold a reservation free-of-charge for one hour. They also have some juicy last-minute deals.
Outside Advice, Tricks, and Resources for Bidding on Travel
Bidding for Travel.com
(www.biddingfortravel.com) - A message board for Priceline fanatics—limited to US travel (especially the section where they'll help walk you through a bid), but packed full of general helpful hints for online auctions.
Bid On Travel.com
(www.bidontravel.com) - Similar to Bidding for Travel.com, an online guide to gaming both Priceline and Hotwire for the best deals.
(www.betterbidding.com) - Similar to Bidding for Travel.com—another message board format—but a bit more homegrown, plus it has a bunch on Hotwire.com as well as on Priceline (in fact, it was started as a Hotwire tips site and later expanded to include Priceline).
This article was last updated in April 2006. All information was accurate at the time.
Copyright © 1998–2010 by Reid Bramblett. All rights reserved.