Anything you can bid, I can bid lower

Simon Calder: The man who pays his way
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

You need look no further than the air fares advertised in these pages to see travellers have never had it so good: Australia and back for a bit over £500, or a trip to New York for under £200. But now advertisements are popping up with the invitation to "name your own price". They're from Priceline, an American organisation that has just launched in Britain its solution of how to dispose of that most perishable of commodities, an aircraft seat.

You need look no further than the air fares advertised in these pages to see travellers have never had it so good: Australia and back for a bit over £500, or a trip to New York for under £200. But now advertisements are popping up with the invitation to "name your own price". They're from Priceline, an American organisation that has just launched in Britain its solution of how to dispose of that most perishable of commodities, an aircraft seat.

With three out of 10 seats flying empty, you can see why airlines are tempted to add this to their marketing armoury. But how low can you go? I joined the bidding war, armed only with a credit card and a dream of a Valentine's Day flight to New York.

This is one new travel idea that needs no internet connection; just dial a freephone number (0800 074 5000) and speak to a human being - well, nearly: "Hello and thank you for calling Priceline," answers an automated voice from the office in Leicester. "You can save on airline tickets, long-distance phone calls, and more."

The concept of phoning long-distance to name a price for a long-distance phone call sounded a touch circular, so I concentrated on a cheap flight to America. The venture is like playing plane poker. You submit a "blind" bid, saying when and where you want to travel. You read over your credit-card details, and say how much you are prepared to spend.

The phone message insists that there is a minimum of £50 for European flights, and £150 for intercontinental flights - plus taxes. But it's a real buyer's market across the Atlantic at the moment, with many airlines competing for business on the world's busiest international air route, between London Heathrow and New York JFK. The lowest fare has fallen to around £100, plus taxes of about £60. Since the Priceline bids do not include taxes, it would be irrational to bid more than £100. I persevered with pressing buttons and eventually spoke to a real person, who said lower bids were permitted, and suggested an offer of around 20 or 30 per cent lower than the prevailing market rate. I bid just £70, with "taxes, fees and charges" amounting to almost the same.

TO DISSUADE frivolous bids, buyers are instructed "To name your best price". If your bid is refused, that is the end of the matter; you are allowed to ask only once for a particular set of dates and destinations. If it is accepted by one of the airlines that participate in the scheme, "We automatically purchase the tickets for you."

While the disembodied voice hawks the bid around the airlines, you spend an hour in travel limbo, committed to flying on an unknown airline at an unknown time. Air travel has been reduced to a mere commodity.

After 60 minutes, I dialled up, keyed in the code I had been given, and found, to my genuine surprise, that the bid had been accepted: total cost £132 return. So which of the 20 wide-bodied jets that day would get the pleasure of my company? None. I shall fly on the narrow-bodied Boeings of Icelandair, with a change of planes at Reykjavik adding three hours to the flight time.

Don't like what Priceline has come up with? Tough, says the automated lady: "Once tickets are purchased, they cannot be cancelled or refunded." At that price, what do you expect?

At least the stopover means I can stretch my legs, reducing the risk of deep-vein thrombosis. My colleague Sue Mills, just off a plane from Cancun in Mexico, reports widespread concern about the risk of blood clots through inactivity on long flights. Indeed, the cabin of her charter jet resembled an overcrowded gym: "So many people were trying to jog around that the captain had to put on the 'Fasten Seat Belts' sign to calm things down."

Finding a bargain in the middle of the lowest season is one thing; by August, the airlines will have the upper hand in the name-your-own-price game. Also, Priceline offers only simple return trips. To add California to this trip, I had to bid - through the US online version of Priceline - for a New York-San Francisco flight to bolt on.

This proved a strange experience. For a start, the operation assumes everyone is American, so I had to make up a false address in New York before requesting a flight. Under the "sealed bid" system that Priceline uses, there is always the nagging doubt that you have bid too high. So I opened with a preposterously low $100 (about £68) for the 5,000 mile round-trip. That was bounced back within a few minutes, but with an electronic whisper hinting I might want to up the bid to $175 - that's £119. I did, and won a couple of non-stop flights on TWA.

I checked the official fare for the same trip. The answer: an ambitious $2,436 (£1,657), meaning I had a discount of 93 per cent. I shall find out if it really is too good to be true when I turn up at Kennedy airport clutching nothing but a printout of the e-mail. simon.calder@independent.co.uk

Comments