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Lowest Air Fares Are Worth the Hunt : Consolidators Can Save a Bundle on Late Tickets for Overseas Routes

March 05, 1989|JERRY BROWN | Brown is the West Coast bureau chief of Travel Weekly, a trade publication. and

If you're looking to save a buck or two on your summer vacation, you might want to consider all of the options before buying an airline ticket.

You'd be surprised how many people don't . . . and how much you can save if you do.

Take London, one of the most popular overseas destinations for Americans.

This year the advance purchase excursion (APEX) fare on scheduled flights between Los Angeles and London will be the same as it was last year, about $850 round trip. You may pay that much, only to find that the guy in the seat next to you paid $699.

And there will be nothing illegal about his ticket.

Rather, he will have booked passage through a consolidator, who is in the business of putting people into aircraft seats that are unsold as the flight approaches. In return for the consolidators' 11th-hour sales efforts, the airlines allow them--legitimately--to offer a lower fare.

Airlines Deny Low Fares

You cannot get a consolidator's fare direct from the airline. A reservation agent probably wouldn't be able to find it on his or her computer unless he had been trained to know exactly where to look.

The airlines, in fact, often deny that they are involved with consolidators. To do otherwise would be to admit that they can't fill their planes without help and, more importantly, that they permit certain operators to undercut published rates.

Nevertheless, many of the biggest international carriers, including some based in the United States, are allied with one or more of them.

So consolidators have to live by a somewhat bizarre set of rules. For instance they may never--on pain of losing their contracts--advertise the name of the airline, or use it in promotional flyers stuck under car windshield wipers or on supermarket advertising boards.

Ads Are Circumspect

Only when you respond to one of those solicitations will you be told the identity of the air carrier.

That's why you will find newspaper advertisements that say simply: "Book now for summer flights. London $649, round trip," followed by an address and telephone number. Or "Scheduled airlines, no surcharges," followed by a list of destinations in Europe and the special fares for each.

It's the rule. No airline names to be used, period.

But dial the listed company numbers and an agent will take your reservation and give you the name of the airline. In some cases they'll give you a choice because they have access to more than one.

There are dozens of consolidators from coast to coast, including AirKit in Los Angeles, Continental Travel Shop and Flight Coordinators in Santa Monica, C. L. Thompson in San Francisco and Bon Voyage Travel in Beverly Hills.

Cheap, But at a Cost

Be aware of some of the company's rules and restrictions before you buy from one. The worst way to choose an airline seat is on the basis of price alone.

Think about this, for example: Some airlines will not allow a consolidator to book a seat until 30 days before departure. They want to give themselves as much time as possible to fill it at full fare before making it available for sale at a discount.

So if you want firm vacation plans months in advance, maybe consolidators are not for you.

Then again, you may not be able to pick up your ticket instantly from a consolidator. Because of the terms and conditions of their contracts, they can't get one to you in less than two days.

In other words, they don't have book now/fly tomorrow capability.

Destinations Limited

Also, check out deposit requirements and cancellation penalties before making a decision.

And be aware that consolidator fares are not available on domestic services, or to many other parts of the world. They're fairly widespread to Europe and to some of the North Pacific (Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the like). And on a much more limited basis to Central and South America.

You might check with a travel agent; many of them do business with consolidators and can help you sort out the good from the bad.

A favorite dodge of some entrepreneurs is to advertise a "special fare" or "low, low air prices" or something equally innocuous when, in fact, they have no airline arrangements. The advertiser will take your money and then go shopping for a seat among legitimate consolidators.

The hope is to find a company with a seat left over from, say, a group booking that fell short of its guarantee, and who is willing to sell it at a discount on the discount. He or she then pockets the difference.

The problem in dealing with that kind of fringe operator is that the seat may not materialize. When you find that out, it may be too late to book elsewhere.

London Fares This Year

I mentioned a Los Angeles-London fare of $699 and another of $649. They're both valid this summer through consolidators. One is a nonstop, the other (the lower one) is a one-stop.

Consolidators are not the only alternative to booking at published airline prices. There are also charters.

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