A new Web site, http//:www.priceline.com, is turning the tables on traditional airline pricing by letting flexible fliers determine what they are willing to pay for a ticket.
But as I discovered trying to nab bargain flights from Washington, D.C., to Madison, Wis., and New York, the high-profile enterprise requires plenty of patience and research _ and a gambler's sensibilities.
To book through priceline.com, you key in your destination, travel dates (any time from the next day to six months in advance), a round-trip fare you would accept, and a credit card number you are willing to have charged if your price is met. Priceline.com then sifts through a daily inventory of an estimated 100,000 unpublished fares, supplied by a dozen major, full-service _ but unidentified _ domestic and international carriers.
The process should be completed within an hour for U.S. tickets and 24 hours for international trip. Priceline.com issues a ticket if an airline is willing to release a seat at your requested price, plus up to $20 for airport fees and taxes.
But the lure of landing a lower-than-advertised fare comes with some formidable restrictions.
For starters, you must be willing to fly on any participating airline and depart any time between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Your non-refundable, non-changeable flight could include one stop or connection of up to two hours, and you won't earn any frequent-flier miles.
Your first price request, for up to eight passengers traveling together, is free. But subsequent requests for the same itinerary on the same dates will cost you $25 each. And although travelers who do not have Internet access can place bids through a toll-free number, (800) 774-2354, they'll pay $5 for the privilege.
Theoretically, those barriers should translate to great deals for passengers willing to accept a flight at an airline's convenience rather than their own _ particularly if they cannot meet the advance purchase, Saturday night stay restrictions attached to most low fares. And priceline.com could help the airlines unload some of the estimated 600,000 seats that go empty each day, without risking a fare skirmish by publicly posting the deals in computer reservation systems.
"We're not a discount ticket warehouse, and we're not for everybody," says priceline.com founder Jay Walker, a direct marketer who plans to add new cars and mortgage rates to the site later this year.
Skeptics such as discount-air fare guru Tom Parsons, publisher of Best Fares Magazine (http://www.bestfares.com), doubt whether priceline.com can attract more than a small segment of footloose vacationers.
Most travelers, Parsons contends, will not want to buy before knowing their airline and flight times. What's more, says Parsons, lower-than-published fares are already available on many routes by booking through a consolidator. And, as I discovered during my own time-consuming test drive, would-be savers need to research carefully before they make a bid.
I started by checking two popular booking sites, Travelocity (http://www.travelocity.com) and Expedia (http://www.expedia.com), where I learned that the lowest available fare between D.C. and Madison on my preferred travel dates in early May was $248 round-trip. But a check of Expedia's handy "Fare Compare" feature showed that the lowest published fare was $156, which I figured was a reasonable starting point.
Next stop was priceline. The booking procedure was straightforward and easy to follow, though it took me a half-hour from start to finish, not the five minutes that priceline had estimated. It took more than two hours, not the promised one hour, to learn that my initial bid had been rejected. And though priceline's e-mail response encouraged me to try again with a higher price _ it even waived the customary $25 fee _ my subsequent bids of $195 and $220 were also turned down.
I did not have better luck between D.C. and New York, where the lowest available fare was $156 and the lowest published fare was $98.
Priceline nixed my bid of $110 _ a response that took eight hours rather than the promised one.
Would I try priceline again? Probably, though I'd expect a hefty discount below the lowest available fare if I give up so many choices. I made my requests on the company's first day of operation, when about 625,000 people visited the site; I chalked up some of my delays to predictable start-up bugs. And as a company spokeswoman pointed out, the site is aimed primarily at travelers who've missed the two- or three-week deadline to book an excursion fare, not at bargain hunters who take advantage of such existing deals as the airlines' own Internet-only weekend deals.
But the exercise reaffirmed the chaotic nature of discount air fares _ and the fact that online booking is still a work in progress.
Laura Bly is a syndicated columnist who lives near Washington, D.C.