Arranging Travel Through eBay or Craigslist

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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on September 13, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, AskEd & AnswerEd, craigslist, cruise, eBay, Ed Perkins, hotel, rail travel, vacation package, vacation rental.

As if you didn't have enough places to look for travel deals, you also find travel pitches on eBay and Craigslist. A reader asked about whether they're worth checking:

"Do travel ads on eBay and Craigslist offer anything I can't get anywhere else, and are there any problems with them?"

The short answer is that some of them might be interesting, but you have to be careful any time you buy something—and pay in advance—from a private individual. I checked online offers in early September on eBay and on two Craigslist locations: my local area of Medford/Southern Oregon and Boston. I found a mixed bag.

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Vacation Rentals

Vacation rentals are the primary reason you might want to visit a general online marketplace.

  • eBay posts several thousand offers in the "lodging" heading. Most are for vacation rentals and resort packages, along with a few conventional hotel postings. Although many are nominally posted as auctions, bid prices are maybe 20 percent or so below "buy it now" rates—an indication that the postings are not really auctions at all but instead simply apparent discounts from what may or may not be legitimate list prices. Some of the postings seemed to be good deals—especially those for privately owned single-unit rentals—but others seemed to be just another place for promoters to list their usual programs.
  • Both Craigslist sites show lots of vacation rental listings, mostly for local and regional rentals, with a few for rentals in other prime visitor destinations. Most appear to be much the same as what you'd find on VRBO or any other large rental listing site, although the listing includes a few hotel/resort advertisements. Some of the prices look quite good, although, again, much as you'd get through other sites.

Vacation Packages

eBay posts almost 800 listings for vacation packages. Several—at what look like ridiculously low prices—are obviously come-ons for timeshare promotions. That's the sort of promotion you often get "free" as a vacation certificate, supposed "Bahamas cruises," resort weekends, and the like, where the idea is to get you onsite for a high-pressure timeshare pitch. Other postings are simply "discount" promotions from hotels and resorts that may or may not be good deals.

Airline Tickets

Of the two dozen or so eBay listings under the "Travel/Airline" category, only a few are genuine travel offers:

  • One travel agent posts five specific flights in the West. One, for example, offered a round-trip from Los Angeles to Anchorage at $680. "This is not a ticket purchased from someone's frequent flyer miles," says the agency, but is instead a newly issued ticket. The posted price, continues the blurb, includes federal taxes, but not airport, departure, fuel, and security taxes. The problem? I found a round-trip fare from Los Angeles to Anchorage for $491 on Delta, including all taxes. Maybe the agent's ticket entails fewer restrictions than Delta's, but that's a big price difference. The agent's price, incidentally, is "buy now," not subject to bid.
  • One seller in Australia posts two round-trips from Brisbane to Melbourne "for the Cup" on an airline that allows name changes on tickets, at a price that included the name change fee. Given that the trip is for a major event, this is probably a good deal for someone hoping to attend.
  • An agent posts a "classified" general ad for discounted business and first class international travel sold through a large agency, with no specific price benefits through eBay.

Both Craigslist sites posted a dozen or so airline ticket offers:

  • Most appear to be either transferrable vouchers for future travel—the sort you sometimes get for volunteering for a later flight when your original flight is oversold—or similar discount certificates.
  • Also posted: offers to sell frequent flyer miles, typically for around 1 cent per mile. Some recommend transferring miles through individual airlines' official trade programs, where you typically transfer the miles to "friends and family" by paying 1 to 1.5 cents plus a fee— in addition to what you have to pay the mileage seller. Although selling frequent flyer miles violates airline policies, presumably anyone willing to give you 1 cent a mile becomes an instant "friend." Others are the standard coupon brokers' pitch: Agree on the award and a price, and the seller requests an award in your name.
  • Some Boston listings are for confirmed tickets on Aer Lingus or Direct Air, two of the few airlines that allow name changes, with the stiff transfer fees included in the price. Some of those prices look quite good—obviously, sellers had bought nonrefundable tickets but couldn't travel and are desperate to recover at least some of the cash value.

Other Travel Stuff

Most of eBay's "Rail" postings seem to be for printed Amtrak schedules—why you might want one of these is anyone's guess, given that Amtrak schedules are fully posted online. The few useful offers were for transit cards and such; nothing major.

Cruise listings are much like the vacation package lists—lots of promotional come-ons similar to what you see on vacation certificates. Others are simply promotional offers from cruise agencies—the sort of offers you can get by email every day if you sign up for them.

Buyers' Guide

For most of you, finding a vacation rental is probably the main reason you'd look to eBay or Craigslist. After you sort through the commercial promotions, you find genuine listings similar to those you find on VRBO or other big online rental sites. On Craigslist, you should search the local site in the area you plan to visit, not the one for your home area.

Using either site for air tickets is much more of a crapshoot:

  • Name-swapped airline tickets can be an excellent—although highly limited—way to find good airfares. The problems are the lead time to swap names and the complete inflexibility of travel dates and itinerary. But if you can slip into someone else's seats, you can sometimes score a deal.
  • Discount airline vouchers—at least those that are fully transferrable—can be a decent deal, provided travel isn't restricted to limited dates, certain airfare categories higher than the lowest, or very limited seat inventory. Buy them only if you're fully aware of—and can live with—the fine print.
  • Buying frequent flyer miles through a transfer, for most of you, is not a good idea. It does violate rules. And given the difficulty of scoring seats, the miles are seldom worth the 2 to 2.5 cents you have to pay for transfers.
  • Buying frequent flyer awards is even trickier. Airlines really do try to enforce rules against it. And the miles are seldom worth the asking price of around 1 cent that most sellers charge. Sure, 25,000 or 30,000 miles is theoretically enough for a "free" domestic trip, but scarcity of seats decreases that value sharply. Award purchase is a somewhat better risk if you use miles for premium travel—although the risk is equally high, at least the reward is greater.

You might find a few other useful but minor offers on a Craigslist for some area you plan to visit—transit tickets and such.

Overall, keep in mind that eBay is probably a bit less risky than Craigslist. eBay does have some buyer protections, while on Craigslist it's 100 percent caveat emptor.

Your Turn

Have you ever had success booking a trip using either eBay or Craigslist? Have you ever been scammed? Share your experiences by submitting a comment below!

 
 
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