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Executive Travel : Fliers With Miles to Burn Bid on Hot Items

February 21, 1996|CAROL SMITH | CAROL SMITH is a freelance writer based in Pasadena

Frequent-flier mileage promotions and earnings opportunities have become so widespread that some business travelers are discovering a new problem: too many miles and not enough time to use free tickets.

The airlines seek to mop up some of those outstanding miles as well, so several offer customers with large mileage accounts the chance to bid for exotic vacations or other unusual opportunities.

The auctions work just like cash silent bidding auctions. Frequent fliers bid by submitting the number of miles they would be willing to "pay" for whatever is being auctioned off. So far airlines have auctioned off everything from trips to the Super Bowl to time in jet aircraft flight simulators. In most cases, the airline establishes a minimum bid for a given item.

Currently, for example, Delta Air Lines is auctioning off six luxury cruises from Athens to Barcelona. Minimum bid for two people to go on the tour, which includes round-trip, business-class tickets, four nights of lodging in five-star hotels as well as a five-day cruise, is 200,000 miles. The bidding is open until Feb. 23, and the six highest bidders will receive the cruises. Departure dates are in April or June.

Up to a million miles or so, that could be a good value. But who knows how high the bidding may go among people with lots of loose points in their accounts?

Auctions appeal to people who have miles to burn, said spokesman Todd Clay. "We have people who have 8 or 9 million miles."

Northwest Airlines is taking bids for a weekend for two at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in April. The bidding stays open until March 15, and the minimum bid--which includes two all-day passes to the festival, two nights at a hotel, limousine service, dinners and backstage passes--is 110,000 miles. Northwest had several auctions last year, including one for a tour of French wine regions.

One appeal of auctions is that some allow frequent travelers to bid on items or events that they can't easily organize on their own, said Randy Petersen, publisher of InsideFlyer and a mileage program expert.

Auctions can also be a good deal. For example, a recent auction for a four-day Caribbean cruise had a minimum bid of 150,000 miles. The plane tickets themselves would have cost 100,000 miles, Petersen said. "With cruises running around $2,000 per person, this high-end package would be miles well spent," Petersen said.

Mileage auctions started with Continental Airlines in 1989 and have been growing in frequency since then. America West, for example, joined in last summer, auctioning off eight vacation packages.

Auctions add excitement. "It's a good way for us to give our most frequent fliers something a little more creative," said America West spokesman Mike Mitchell. "These people fly all the time, so it's not necessarily very attractive to just get a free ticket."

The America West packages ranged from the three days at the Skip Barber School of Driving to learn Indy 500-style race-car driving (minimum bid 65,000 miles) to five days at the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Ga. (opening bid 125,000 miles.)

The most active bidding, however, was for a five-day getaway to Los Cabos, Mexico, Mitchell said. The opening bid was 70,000 miles, but it went for 210,000 miles. The other favorite among bidders was a four-night package at the Jack Nicklaus/Flick Golf School in Pebble Beach, Calif. Opening bid was set at 80,000 miles, but it went for 160,000.

Not all airlines are increasing their auctions, however. American Airlines, which in the past has auctioned off items ranging from use of a Cadillac for a year to use of a sky box to see the Dallas Cowboys, is discontinuing them for now. "Most people seem to want tickets," said American spokesman Bill Dreslan.

And after doing about one per month during 1994 and 1995, Continental Airlines has also suspended them for now.

Most of the auctions were for fairly extravagant packages that had high minimum-bid requirements, said Continental spokesman David Messing. That limited the number of people qualified to bid on them.

Airlines vary in their bidding processes. At America West, for example, bidding is done automatically using a touch-tone phone, but bidders can also find out by phone what the highest bid is so they can keep track of the auction. Delta's auction, on the other hand, is a true silent auction (bidders don't know what other participants have bid) and is done by fax. And Cathay Pacific Airways holds "CyberAuctions" on the Internet, used to sell business-class seats from Los Angeles to Hong Kong. One is going on right now at their Web site.

While auctions can be a good deal for people who want a trip or experience planned for them and have the mileage to use up, there is one caveat. You have to make sure you can use what you win on the dates set by the airline. If, for example, you win a cruise for two in April, then discover you can't get away, you can't redeposit the miles.

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