How to make smarter bids on travel at charity auctions

How to make smarter bids on travel at charity auctions
Vacation packages to destinations like Napa Valley can be had for less at charity auctions, but there can be pitfalls. (Daniel A. Anderson)

Wilson Fang had an exceptional weekend in Napa Valley that included a romantic bed-and-breakfast, dinner for two on the Wine Train and tastings at Beringer Vineyard. Best of all, he bought it below retail at a charity auction.

You can find great deals for travel at benefit auctions, but Fang knows that there can be pitfalls.


"You show up at events, you're plied with liquor, you're with convivial company and everybody is encouraging you to bid," said Fang, a 41-year-old San Franciscan who has bought at least five items as varied as hotel stays and a hot-air balloon ride and didn't use any of them.

"When you're there, you justify it to yourself," Fang said. "Then, in the cold gray light of your hangover the next morning, you realize, 'I bid on another weekend in Montana that I have no interest in.'"

Or, worse yet, you win something you really wanted only to discover a restriction that kills it for you.

"I bought a night at a bed-and-breakfast in Santa Barbara and then realized the voucher had a limit of three months [before expiring] and I was leaving the country for two months," said Fang, a correspondent for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Nonetheless, the allure of a trip can sometimes overcome good sense. "The majority of money made at a nonprofit auction is travel-related," said Scott Merrin, president of Silent Partners, a Calabasas-based fundraising consulting firm.

That means that there are a lot of opportunities — for bargains or regrets.

Here are some suggestions to avoid disappointments:

• If the catalog of goods isn't sent after registering for the event, call and request it. Then check for vacations that interest you. Research them to make sure the blackout dates, restrictions, availability and logistics will work. Set a budget.

Last summer I received the catalog for a fundraiser for the Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports, or STARS, program in Steamboat Springs, Colo. One listing, a four-night stay for two at the historic St. Ermin's Hotel in London, looked like just the thing to facilitate a winter vacation in England. It was valued at $1,400, and the only blackout was New Year's Eve.

But there are three in my family, and we wanted to go for a full week, so I emailed the four-star hotel to see whether the room could accommodate an additional person and check on availability. The manager offered us a larger room with two bathrooms and an additional complimentary breakfast. For the rest of the week, however, the room was $625 per night. Because we also needed airfares, we decided not to bid.

• Remember that the listed value is for the highest pricing. It won't reflect Internet deals or discounts through club memberships. That said, packages sometimes include an experience you might not be able to get on your own.

Some trips contain items that can be used separately. If you can get to the hotel on an inexpensive flight, it might make sense to use the voucher for the plane tickets to go to a more expensive destination. If you do use the hotel and airfare together, reserve the hotel first to make sure it's available before booking the plane tickets, which can be expensive to change or, often, nonrefundable.

• Don't limit yourself to auctions you can attend. Consider placing an absentee bid or inquire whether the charity is using mobile bidding, which allows you to participate from any location using your smartphone.

• If it's more about the bargain than supporting a particular cause, check online sites such as, or "At live auctions or silent auctions, people tend to bid higher than they do online," said Julie Taulman, executive director of STARS.


• If you're staring at a voucher that's about to expire, call the business and ask whether the dates can be extended. The company generally donated out of goodwill and will often try to work with you.

• Even though you are supporting a nonprofit, the only part of the purchase that is potentially tax-deductible is the amount paid above the value of the package.

• No matter what, have fun. Fang does.

Bidding on travel "fulfills a certain desire," he said. "It's almost like gambling, but you have finite losses.

"It gives you a hook to hang your dreams on. You get the pleasure of helping out and at the same time … even if the travel doesn't happen, the prospect of embarking on a journey gives me a good bit of satisfaction in and of itself. "