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THE INTERNET TRAVELER

Unlike Priceline, these sites name names

LuxuryLink and SkyAuction reveal the details upfront, a boon when you're going upscale. As always, do your homework.

May 14, 2006|James Gilden | Special to The Times

ON a trip to London last month, I bid for a hotel room on Priceline, a plunge I had never taken because I like to know in advance what I am buying. On Priceline, which is called an opaque site, the name of the hotel is not revealed until you have completed the booking process.

I ended up with a successful bid of $103 a night for a four-star hotel in Kensington. The hotel was the more-than-adequate Copthorne Tara. Though it was not what I would consider a four-star hotel, for $103 a night plus taxes and fees, it was an unqualified deal, especially in London, one of the most expensive cities for travelers.

Priceline (www.priceline.com) is a popular website for bargain hunters, but now other sites are offering good deals without all the mystery. One is LuxuryLink (www.luxurylink.com), an auction website for luxury hotels and other travel services.

Unlike on Priceline, the hotels are known to the bidder. For example, I could have bid on a five-night junior suite package for London at the four-star Rubens at the Palace Hotel. A minimum bid recently was $1,272 on a package that included a daily breakfast for two, an afternoon tea and a dinner in the hotel's restaurant. Retail value of the package was $2,544. Obviously, slightly pricier than the Priceline hotel, but it came with some extras -- and I would have known exactly what I was bidding on.

"We adopted a view that, particularly for luxury travel, full disclosure is completely important," said Diane McDavitt, president of Luxury Link.

The average bidder at Luxury Link is professional, 47 years old, takes three leisure trips per year and has a household income of $150,000.

"Everyone loves to get a deal, no matter how affluent," McDavitt said.

Luxury Link is different in other ways as well. It does not sell hotel room nights only but packages that include meals and massages and other perks designed to appeal to luxury travelers.

Had I successfully bid on the Rubens package, I would then have contacted the hotel to make a reservation. That's another difference from Priceline, where the bidding is for specific nights. If you're not flexible with your travel dates, buying travel in this way probably isn't for you.

Another difference is the method of bidding. Luxury Link has three types of auctions: single auctions (only one package for bid); Dutch auctions (multiple packages and all bidders get the package at the lowest bid); and best-shot auctions (you bid once and the top bid gets the package). Make sure you know what type of auction you are in before you bid.

For many customers, bidding is a challenge, and it becomes a game, McDavitt said.

Just as you do for all online travel purchases, you should shop around to see what kind of deal you're getting before you bid. Although McDavitt said the retail value of the packages was carefully vetted, do your homework because after you submit a bid, that's it; you are committed to purchase that package.

The rack rate -- not a discounted price -- for a junior suite at the Rubens is about $700 a night. At Hotels.com, I found a rate of $267 a night plus tax for a standard double. With the Luxury Link package, the suite would have cost me $254 a night, which included the 17.5% value added tax. Toss in the fact that it was a suite and all the extras and that seemed like a deal worth bidding on.

Getting help in figuring out how much to bid is easier for Priceline shoppers because of such websites as BetterBidding .com, which provide tips on making viable offers. Such advice is not available for Luxury Link or SkyAuction (www.skyauction.com), another travel auction site.

SkyAuction is similar to Luxury Link in that bidders know, for the most part, what they are bidding on. Its packages include all levels of travel and are not restricted to luxury. There is also a lot of fine print on SkyAuction offerings that can increase the cost of your deal.

I checked out an air-and-hotel package to London on SkyAuction. Though the high bid for the four-night package was $26 per person, surcharges and taxes could easily have added $810 per person. Taxes, fuel, security and service charges added $249 per person; flying on a weekend, $30; traveling during the summer months, $475. There were also upgrades available to the first choice hotel that could add up to $225 per person.

"With SkyAuction you need to be real careful about total fees involved, in particular with cruises," said Steve Nassau, owner of BetterBidding.com. "With taxes, your $400 cruise may end up costing you $700."

Still, a five-day trip to London including airfare and hotel for less than $1,000 per person during the summer months would be a great deal, considering that airfare alone is topping $1,000 for midsummer travel. (The lowest fare I found was $1,178 from LAX.)

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