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It’s a bidder’s market

Travel companies are turning to online vacation auctions as a last-minute fix to fill empty suites and staterooms.

Last winter, something unprecedented happened in the travel industry. People with reservations for peak holiday weeks at popular Caribbean resorts looked over their finances — and canceled their plans.

The resorts had to do something with all those newly available rooms, so they turned to online auction companies, which put the rooms out for bid at prices well below retail. That surge in auction listings set off a wave of tremendous deals for savvy travelers.

The trend has only gained strength recently. Luxury Link, which specializes in high-end online vacation auctions, saw its listings jump 91 percent in the second quarter of 2009 compared with the same period a year before. Meanwhile, Sky Auction, which lists trips in a broader range of prices, says its number of auctions has been growing steadily too, with its sharpest increase also in lux­ury offerings.

So how do you get involved? Vacation auctions work like any other kind of online auction: A trip is listed on the site, and travelers bid on it until a preset end date, at which point the highest offer wins. In many cases, picking dates and booking is then left to you. Here's how to get started.

3 ways to get in on the action
Sky Auction
With the widest variety of listings — resorts, cruises, and hotels accepting per-night bids (you decide how many nights you want) — this fast-growing site also covers the broadest spectrum of price points. Dozens of auctions close every half hour on most days.

Sample winner*: Five nights for two guests at SuperClubs Hedonism II in Jamaica.
Winning bid: $910
True value: $1,690
Savings: 46 percent

Fine print: $20 processing fee for each winning bid; auction closing times are extended for five minutes if a new bid is submitted in the last minute.

Before an item is listed at Luxury Link, the company's vetting committee uses a three-page checklist of amenities to evaluate whether a resort or travel operator meets its standards (most properties are four- or five-star). Unlike other sites, which make auction winners call hotels or outfitters to lock in the actual dates, Luxury Link makes reservations for you, eliminating a potential headache.

Sample winner*: Three nights at Shaw Club Hotel & Spa in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Winning bid: $507
True value: $995
Savings: 49 percent

Fine print: $40 booking fee (the site's reservation service is helpful but doesn't come free).

Florida's tourist board has its own auction arm. (It's the only location-specific vacation auction site out there.) Three to four dozen hotel and condo auctions close every Sunday night at 10 p.m., and new options pop up the next day. Most offers stipulate that winning bidders must take their vacation in the near future-generally within one to three months.

Sample winner*: Two nights at Blue Tree Resort, near Walt Disney World in Orlando.
Winning bid: $145
True value: $238
Savings: 39 percent

Fine print: Cleaning and other fees assessed by some condos and resorts, which you'll be expected to pay at check-in.

* Because the retail prices listed by the auction sites are usually based on unrealistic rack rates, we searched independently for what these packages would go for on the open market. As you can see, the winning bids are still great values by comparison.

What about eBay?
Travel listings at eBay are a mishmash of come-ons and ads for travel agents, inns, and condos, along with the occasional true auction — and unfortunately, there's no quick way to zero in on the good stuff.

Many listings are offered only at set “Buy It Now” prices, meaning there is no bidding whatsoever. It's also common to find misleading listings, if not outright scams.

One example: Shama Travel, an Illinois-based travel agency, frequently lists a “Buy It Now” rate of $1.49 next to the words “airline tickets” and logos for United, Lufthansa, and other carriers. But paying that price only gets you “a certificate for one airfare consultation” — not an actual flight.

Bottom line: Using eBay to book a trip is generally not worth the hassle. If you stumble upon something interesting on the site, contact the lister personally. Never send a payment by check or money order; instead, pay with a credit card or PayPal, both of which provide some measure of security.