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There has been a certain amount of excitement lately among many of my
acquaintance about a new Web site called Priceline
that offers you the chance to “name your own airfare.” You choose your
departure and destination towns and post whatever price you decide you’d be
willing to pay for a flight that will get you there, guaranteeing it with a
secure credit card number. Priceline then shops your offer around to the
airlines that serve your route. If an airline has empty seats going begging on
such a flight, it can agree to your figure, upon which a mutually beneficial
transaction automatically takes place: the airline fills a vacant seat, you
get a cheap ticket.

When we heard about this, we were all fired up by the vision of flitting
weekly to and fro among scads of new and interesting places on the spur of the
moment for $150, $100, even $50 a pop — after all, if that seat you covet is
still unsold the day before takeoff, then the airline might as well let you
have it for $50 as let it fly unoccupied for $0, right?

Wrong. It doesn’t quite work like that, I’m afraid. Although you are obliged
to purchase if your offer is accepted by an airline, Priceline can’t guarantee
that any airline will in fact pick up your offer. You might find yourself
going nowhere fast: unrealistic lowball offers are likely to meet a deafening
silence. In fact, you’re not likely to do better than you would by offline
bargain shopping: Priceline “strongly recommends that you do not request
ticket prices below the airlines’ lowest advance purchase fares.”

You’re not going to save really exciting amounts of money using this service,
in short — and you’ll be giving up your freedom to pick and choose an
airline, departure time, and itinerary that suit you. And you’d better do your
homework properly before you make your bid. If, without realizing it, you bid
a fare that’s actually higher than the lowest published fare that’s already
out there, you’ll have locked yourself into paying the higher price.

Priceline isn’t making any false claims about what it can and can’t do for
you, but the hype surrounding it is definitely overinflated: if you suspected
the rumors were too good to be true, well, you were right on the money. But
the service probably won’t actually disappoint you so long as you do your
research and don’t expect the moon on a stick. After all, the people who do
book flights there are (presumably) one and all happy with the fares they’ve
volunteered to pay.

While you might get lucky with Priceline, a much better option if you’re
really serious about hunting airfare bargains on the Net is the Big Fare Cuts
section of the Internet Airfares site. It lists
departure cities for which major fare cuts (at least 20 percent below the
previously posted lowest fare) have taken place overnight: click on the name
of your hometown and you’ll get a list of any destinations to which the fare
has just plummeted.

Unfortunately, Internet Airfares charges a subscription fee ($7 a month or $50
a year), which is annoying — particularly considering the decidedly no-frills
“style” (if you can call it that) of its listings pages. But you do get what
you’re looking for: timely fingertip access to information on the best
airfares going, including — from time to time — those unpublished,
ephemeral, incredible deals.

In sillier developments:

Ann Landers has entered the Age of Information: you can now write to her via
email. A form for doing so is available at her syndicate’s Web site.

If you’re among those who couldn’t possibly care any less about Ginger’s
recent career change — if, in fact, you’re really, really, REALLY fed up with
the Spice Girls — blow off some pop-culture steam at Spice Slap v1.1
(requires Shockwave). It’s
basically the common carnival game Wak-A-Rat, except instead of pounding on
rat heads, you slap Spices. Recommended.

Spice-slapping is more satisfying, I might add, than tossing a few more tired
pies at Bill Gates; love Microsoft or hate it, at least Bill G. is actually
doing something useful and competent with his life and talents. But you can
take a toss anyway by downloading the game or the screensaver, both for
Windows, if you really
feel you must.

The Ad Hoc Award for Weirdest Product On the Web goes to a most wondrous and
winsome appliance called the Blenderphone, available here. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a
combination telephone-and-blender. (Hey — we all bought clock radios . . . )
Incoming telephone calls activate the blender motor in lieu of a standard
ringer. When this phenomenon occurs, you answer the phone by picking up the
blender pitcher (which has the telephone receiver securely attached to its
side) and holding it to your ear. The FAQ’s answer to the obvious question
(won’t you spill your margarita when you answer the phone?): “That has always
been a problem and always will be.” Your call.

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