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All About Consolidator Fares

(October 1999)

If you plan your next trip or vacation ahead, you can find some of the best deals with consolidators or "bucket shops". Consolidator fares are simply traditional airline fares, purchased in bulk by consolidators around the world and resold at steep discounts.

Airlines who want to ensure that no seats go empty will sell excess inventory, at discounted cost, to a consolidator. The consolidator then passes along the savings to the individual traveler. While consolidators mark-up the fares they receive from the airline, these mark-ups are marginal, and are still often way below cost the cost of purchasing a ticket directly from the airline. Consolidators keep their prices low to boost their sales volume. Consolidator contracts often stipulate a specified sales volume, and many airlines offer year-end bonuses or additional commission discounts based on generated sales.

Most consolidators concentrate on sales to specific regions, particularly Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Australia or Asia. Consolidator fares within the United States used to be rare, however, airlines are dumping more and more unsold inventory on the market. "It's a growing trend on the domestic front, says Kelly Monaghan, author of Fly Cheap and The Intrepid Traveler. "Many travel agents have stopped selling airline tickets. Therefore, airlines are moving more inventory into the consolidator's hands. Especially long haul routes," Monaghan continues.

Prevailing market conditions influence airfares. As a result, consolidator fares and conditions of sale change constantly. Consolidator fares are usually cheaper than published airline fares, but not always. Check current sales by airlines servicing your destination, and Smarter Living's Deal Alert Section for the latest deals.

Monaghan offers the following advice to people considering buying consolidator tickets: "Understand the difference between a real consolidator and a discount travel agent. The key is to buy as close to the source as possible. Often what looks like a consolidator ticket is actually a charter flight operated by the travel agency. Buying discount tickets from a good consolidator - directly or through a good travel agents is secure and reliable".

Consolidator fares do not have the same conditions as comparable public fares. Some things to keep in mind with consolidator tickets:

  • Some airlines allow accumulation of Frequent Flier miles; some don't.

  • Most do not allow advance seat assignments.

  • Many are use it or lose it. Changes are often not permitted.

  • Every consolidator fare can be purchased through a 'good' travel agent at no extra cost.

There are essentially three types of consolidators:

1. Wholesale-only consolidators: These agencies do not sell to the public, and you won't see any of their advertising. Many travel agents deal with directly these agencies.

2. Destination specialists: These agencies specialize in a particular destination or area and have usually negotiated discounts with several airlines to the region. They offer these deals to their clients as well as to other consolidators. These deals are often found in Sunday newspapers, and other foreign publications.

"Excellent deals can be found this way," Monaghan says. "I've found these deals in ethnic newspapers in New York City. Even in a foreign-language publications, the air travel ads are recognizable, with phone number, destination cities, and the round-trip prices." Monaghan adds, however, that if you want the absolute lowest fare, you may end up on an airline that you have never heard of before. This is something that might only appeal to the more adventurous traveler. If you want to stick to name brand carriers, be prepared to pay a bit more.

3. Bucket shops: While the name may sound tacky, these agencies specialize in complicated itineraries with multiple destinations. Bucket shops are located in only a few world locations. The best places to find them are London, New York City, San Francisco, and other large cities with a high concentration of ethnic populations. Many bucket shops negotiate their own deals directly with the airlines for routes on which they cannot get reasonable discounts. Bucket shop deals often deal with one-way tickets, which are great for around-the-world itineraries.

So how do you find a reputable consolidator or bucket shop?

1. Make sure the company accredited with the and International Airline Travel Agents' Network (IATAN). These associations are proof that the agency is financially sound, and that its agents are experienced.

2. Check the agency out with the Better Business Bureau.

3. If you can, visit the agency's office in person to see if you are comfortable dealing with them.

4. If you have any doubt about the transaction with your agency, try contacting the airline you are booked on to make sure that you are holding confirmed reservations.

5. Try to follow all of the above steps before you pay for the ticket. Furthermore, I always recommend paying by credit card so that you can refuse the charge if you do not receive your tickets. It's easy, inexpensive, and practical insurance.

There really isn't a "catch" to consolidator fares. All you need to do is plan ahead, know where you would like to go and be a bit flexible.

Related Links:

Association of Special Fares Agents An international trade association of discount agencies. Member agencies are screened and must meet certain qualifications. Many agencies are listed on this site.

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