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Rewards points auctions offer once-in-a-lifetime experiences

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Rick Smeriglio and his wife attended a New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden in February 2012 and watched their 10-year-old son rebound balls from a courtside bench and smack hands with Jeremy Lin and other celebrity basketball players -- thanks to their Chase credit card's rewards points auction program.

Smeriglio won the Ball Kid Experience on the Chase Ultimate Rewards auction site for 50,100 points, a $500 value. "I stumbled on it by chance. I didn't even know they had auctions," says Smeriglio, who works for a real estate firm in Connecticut. "My son and I are sports fanatics, so this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

Whether it's attending the Super Bowl or the Oscars, hanging out with celebrities or enjoying an all-expenses-paid vacation at a luxury resort, you can probably find someone auctioning it off for reward points. Airline and hotel loyalty programs now have sites where customers can bid on those big-experience rewards. As Smeriglio discovered, even credit card reward programs are getting in on the auction action.

Rewards points auction offer chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences

Since it's difficult to put a price on experiences, auctions allow such rewards to set their own value, based on demand. If you have piles of miles or hotel points accumulated via business travel, you can use them as currency to land your own particular ultimate experience.

How it works
Many reward auction sites will let anyone peruse the items up for bid, and you can sometimes scan past auctions to get an idea of what goes for how much. Some auctions, such as those for Chase Ultimate Rewards and Delta's Skymiles from American Express, require members to log in to view what's on offer. At Delta, if you want to bid, you also have to register.

No credit card or PayPal account is required for rewards auctions since you're paying with points or miles instead of cash. Beyond that, it works pretty much like bidding on eBay, no fees required. With MileagePlus auctions, for example, you can place a maximum bid -- in this case, the most miles you're willing to spend on an item -- and incremental bids will be made automatically, up to that amount. Chase Ultimate Rewards sets an auction minimum for each prize then takes bids in 100-point increments. If you win an auction, miles or points are deducted and you'll be notified by email.

It's wise to set your own limit ahead of time. If the bidding goes too high, you can always bow out, but you may be surprised at what you can score without paying a dime.

Trading miles for VIP access
Auctions of celebrity meet-and-greets and VIP access to high-profile events were an ongoing option for Continental OnePass members. United did not have auctions. Now that the airlines are merging, their loyalty programs have morphed into MileagePlus, which just launched a splashy auction site called "Headliners."

"We plan to expand the types of events and opportunities available through these auctions," says Krishnan Saranathan, managing director for MileagePlus. "We want to provide really unique, once-in-a-lifetime, money-can't-buy options. We also want to make auctions available to members with lower miles balances by offering products such as sports memorabilia and performing arts events."

On the block for April: a VIP weekend at the induction ceremony for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Headliners also auctioned off red-carpet arrival at the Oscars and VIP access to Fashion Week.

"One category that has a great level of interest is experiences that only United Airlines can offer," says Saranathan. "For example, we recently offered MileagePlus members the opportunity to use our flight simulator in Denver. That was incredibly popular." United is also the official airline for the Academy Awards, which gives them unique access. Oscar packages sold for more than 500,000 miles this year.

Sports is a big draw at Delta SkyMiles auctions. The four "most popular items" listed in February involved baseball or basketball -- the big score being VIP access to Yankees spring training in Florida. Active travel and rock concerts are also popular. A ski weekend at Beaver Creek Resort in Colorado went for 200,500 miles after 72 bids, and a pair of tickets to a Black Eyed Peas concert in Costa Mesa, Calif., sold for 201,000 miles. You can also use miles to buy merchandise. Apple products get the most action, along with a variety of gift certificates.

Bidding with hotel points
Members of the Starwood loyalty program can use Starwood Preferred Guest points to live the superstar lifestyle -- however briefly -- with admission to events such as fashion shows, movie premieres and VIP access to golf tournaments.

Right now, SPG is partnering with Live Nation, allowing members to bid on concerts throughout Europe. In February, five trips were auctioned off for couples to see Sting perform in Paris and get chauffeured around Paris while sipping champagne. A series of Sting concerts auctioned on the site two years ago went for wildly different point totals, depending on locale -- 10,500 points in Atlanta, 30,000 in Washington, D.C. Atlanta fans got to see him perform for the price of a free night stay at many Westin or W (category 4) hotels. As with any auction, part of the thrill of bidding is the unpredictability.

Several hotel chains began holding reward auctions about five years ago when the economy (and leisure travel) was booming, but most abandoned the experiment. Marriott came out against points auctions just as its competitors were jumping in, vowing publicly to make their rewards available to all members. Ironically, it was Marriott that scored major media attention this year for auctioning off trips to the Super Bowl on SkyMall.com. You won't find ongoing auctions for Marriott points, however.

Credit card reward auctions
Chase Ultimate Rewards has been holding online auctions since its inception in 2009. Chase Freedom, Sapphire and Ink rewards card holders can bid on everything from private lessons with a PGA-certified golf pro to gift cards -- worth $250 to $2,500 -- from retailers such as Home Depot and Best Buy. Offers change monthly, and you need to be a cardholder to access the auction site.

During the holiday season, Chase auctions off merchandise, especially electronics. When spring approaches and vacation planning season starts, expect to find lots of travel packages to the Caribbean, Las Vegas and Europe. During the first two years of the auction program, people were getting amazing deals. As the program enters its third year, bidding is picking up.

Expect to see Chase start auctioning off its big-experience packages; they're selling out way too fast at current prices. "Things like the Sundance Film Festival and the finale party for Mad Men, season four, were snapped up in less than an hour," says Sean O'Reilly, general manager at Chase Card Services. "Forty packages to attend Sundance this year sold out in 43 minutes -- and these were 300,000- and 350,000-point packages."  

Not all rewards offered at auction go for crazy amounts of miles or points, so it's worth checking out your program's auction site, if it has one. As long as you don't bid above the amount of miles in your account, you have nothing to lose by trying for the experience of a lifetime. Who knows? You might get lucky.

Rick Smeriglio met another dad at that Knicks game who paid $2,000 at a silent auction to buy his son the same honorary ball kid experience. "I got lucky," Smeriglio says, "but for tickets to a game, to watch your kid on national television? Even $2,000 would have been worth it."

He has his eye on another Ultimate Rewards package for his other son, a hockey fan: tickets to a New York Rangers game and a ride on a Zamboni. "I'm telling everybody I know to check their rewards program," he says. "There are so many excellent opportunities out there."

See related: Credit card rewards options abound for sports junkies, 9 unusual credit card rewards and perks, More credit card holders can count on concierges

Published: April 3, 2012


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