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Electronic Explorer

Virtual Auctioneers Call in the Travel Bids

October 18, 1998|LAURA BLY

Patrick Ryan hadn't taken a two-week vacation in years when he logged on to Onsale, an Internet-based retailer offering interactive online auctions of everything from baseball bats to computers.

But while browsing through Onsale's new "vacation and travel" site (http://www.onsale.com/vacations), the Jeffersonville, Ind., real estate agent couldn't resist bidding on a 16-day, $6,000 Renaissance Cruises trip to Greece and Turkey. Three hours and $4,919 later, a stunned but happy Ryan learned he'd made the winning offer and will be heading for the Mediterranean in mid-January.

"I was just going to put in a bid and forget it. But I love auctions, and I got caught up in the intensity," says Ryan, who confirmed he'd landed a good deal by checking with a travel agent--after he made his final bid.

Launched this fall, Onsale's site is one of a growing number aimed at letting vacationers set their own prices for flights, hotels and cruises.

Renaissance is among a dozen or so travel vendors who've hawked their wares through Onsale, which sets minimum bids and controls the amount of time a vacation is up for auction--typically 48 hours. Bidders must supply a credit card number, which is charged automatically if they submit a winning bid.

For now, the bulk of Onsale's offerings consists of off-season, excess-inventory condos in North America, provided through Resort Condominiums International, a leading timeshare-exchange company. But bids start at $9, and the deals can be substantial: a mid-December week at a one-bedroom condo in Mexico's Inn at Mazatlan resort, valued at $1,450, sold for $399 through Onsale, while a round-trip Aeromexico ticket from New York to Cancun, valued at $400, went for $199.

Retailing maverick Priceline.Com (http://www.priceline.com), meanwhile, claims to have sold more than 60,000 name-your-own-price airline tickets since its April debut. That's despite saddling customers with such draconian restrictions as a willingness to fly any time between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., make a connection of up to two hours and give up frequent-flier mileage.

While Priceline plans to add hotel rooms later this year, the current service is aimed at vacation fliers who can't meet the advance-purchase, Saturday-night-stay restrictions imposed by most airlines. After researching the lowest published fare, would-be passengers make a bid through Priceline--which promises to accept or reject the offer within an hour (or 24 hours for international flights).

Priceline, which supplies its tickets through consolidators as well as 18 unspecified carriers, says it's been able to fill one out of every three or four requests. But bargain hunters may find lower fares through airline "Internet only" specials or by working directly through consolidators.

Boulder, Colo.-based TravelBids (http://www.travelbids.com) takes a different approach: Customers pay $5 and invite about 80 registered travel agents to bid against one another for airline tickets, cruises or other forms of travel, with the lowest agent bidder taking over the booking.

According to founder Hal Siegel, the "reverse auctions" last anywhere from one to 72 hours, with discounts ranging from 6% to 18%. Regular listings require would-be travelers to do their own research and make a reservation directly with the airline or other supplier first. But under TravelBids' new full-service option, agents send detailed proposals by e-mail, which can be rejected without obligation.

For all the buzz over online auctions, some experts question how many consumers will be willing to make complicated, big-ticket travel purchases in a freewheeling, let's-make-a-deal atmosphere.

"We tried it [for three months], but we found that people weren't really serious. After they 'won' a trip, they decided they didn't want to pay for it," says Lee Rosenbluth of Rosenbluth Vacations, whose Savvier Traveler site (http://www .savtraveler.com) has discontinued cruise and vacation auctions.

Even Cathay Pacific Airways (http://www.cathay-usa.com), which pioneered online auctions in 1995, remains lukewarm about them. The airline has held an average of one auction a year, selling tickets that cost 20% to 80% less than the lowest comparable published fares. But "we're using it to keep our CyberTraveler program interesting--not as a device to sell seats," says Cathay Pacific spokesman Mark Weinberger.

Small byte: The summer drought that blanketed much of the country is translating into a shorter foliage season this autumn, but as meteorologist Jim Cantore tells leaf peepers on the Weather Channel's Fall Foliage Web site (http://www .weather.com/fall/index.html), "some of the most beautiful colors come from trees that are stressed. . . . Peak color lasts only three to four days." The site includes profiles of fall foliage sites across the country, along with traffic and road conditions and five-day forecasts.

Electronic Explorer appears the second Sunday of every month. Laura Bly welcomes comments and questions; her e-mail address is laura.bly@news.latimes.com.

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