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Travel Insider

Ticket to a Cheap Trip May Be in a Consolidator's Bin

Flights: Discounted fares can be a good bargain, but keep your eyes open for those pesky restrictions.

March 29, 1998|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Two bits of advice for anyone who is flying far and wants to get there cheaply: Consider consolidating. But use care.

Consolidators are the airline industry's version of those remainder bins you see in the front of bookstores, the ones with the marked-down Civil War histories and Dennis Rodman memoirs. But in the consolidators' bins are bargain tickets to London, Paris, Rome and beyond.

Even in these boom times, airlines can't sell all their tickets at advertised prices. So they quietly sign contracts to provide large amounts of tickets at lower rates to these outlets. Most of the best bargains are on international coach seats, but domestic tickets are worth considering if you've missed the advance-purchase deadline.

In a reader survey two years ago, the Consumer Reports Travel Letter found that 89% of those who used a consolidator reported saving more than $100 per ticket, and 21% said they saved more than $300. If you have a death or grave illness in the family, it's a good bet that a domestic consolidator ticket will be more affordable than any of the major airlines' modestly discounted domestic "bereavement" fares.

There are a few strings attached. Consolidators usually can't use the airlines' names in their advertisements (although when you call, they'll tell you the carrier, and the name will certainly be on your ticket). And depending on the consolidator's contract with the carrier, some tickets may not carry frequent-flier mileage credits. Also, cancellations are often costlier.

Be ready for service fees, typically $10 to $15 per ticket, from many consolidators.

Consolidators also frequently sell tours, hotel rooms and discounted tickets on charter flights. Those flights meet the same safety requirements as major U.S. carriers, but on-board services are sometimes spartan, and charters face fewer federal restrictions when it comes to canceling flights or bumping passengers.

When it comes time to pay, many consolidators dangle further discounts (often 3%) in front of consumers who pay by cash, rather than credit card.

Don't do it. Consumer advocates agree it's worthwhile to spend the extra 3% for the protection the credit card affords if a promised service doesn't materialize. The most secure way to capitalize on consolidator prices and protect yourself, many industry veterans agree, is to buy with a credit card through a travel agent.

Most full-service travel agencies (that is, those that book airline tickets as well as hotels, tours and cruises) can buy consolidator tickets for their customers. Some agents resist, perhaps because of reliability concerns, perhaps because booking a consolidator ticket generally takes a little more time and yields a smaller commission than booking through an airline.

Over the years, a few things have gone wrong. Consolidators operate in vicious price-driven competition, with service niceties often streamlined. And since many have operated as wholesalers, making contact only with travel agents, they have been largely faceless in the eyes of travelers.

Now more "wholesale" consolidators are quietly setting up divisions under different names to deal directly with the public. Also, American Express announced recently that in addition to selling other consolidators' tickets, it would also buy up seats on its own, reselling them at discounts up to 30%.

In an effort to brush up the trade's image, several of the largest such companies in 1995 formed the U.S. Air Consolidators Assn., whose members are required to meet several financial-responsibility requirements. Those consolidators generally do business only through travel agents, and so are excluded from the list of Southern California consolidators in this week's section.

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no discounts or subsidized trips. He welcomes comments, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, L.A. 90053 or e-mail chris.reynolds@latimes.com.

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