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Navigating Through the Maze of Air Fare Bargains

Discounts: As ticket consolidators go head-to- head with online agents and other cut-rate brokers, the watchword is caveat emptor.


Air-fare consolidators are those businesses that sell deep-discount airline tickets, often via newspaper ads listing little more than prices, destinations and a phone number. They are not always easy to deal with, with some staffers gruff on the phone or with accents so thick they can be hard to understand. Some change office locations, phone numbers and even names with unsettling frequency.

But--and it's a big "but"--consolidators usually have the best prices for air travel.

Like most elements of the travel business right now, air fare consolidators are changing direction in mid-flight, and even they don't know their destination. It's a good time for bargains--and prudence.

Traditionally, consolidators procure seats at deep discounts, either by purchasing blocks of seats in advance from airlines or via contracts giving them access to a certain number of tickets at a certain price. They then add a modest markup and sell them to the public, often at prices 20% to 50% lower than the airlines' best published fares.

Consolidators traditionally have been small, low-overhead operations that make a tidy but not spectacular profit. Airlines have used them because consolidators help them fill seats they are unlikely to sell at retail price. Customers use them for low-price, no-frills tickets. Theoretically, everybody wins.

But nothing is simple today. Ever since 1995, when the major airlines began reducing the sales commissions they pay to traditional travel agencies for selling tickets, several big travel companies have begun entering the consolidation business, where profit per ticket sold can be higher than in retail air ticket sales. This has created a few conspicuous--and large--new players. Other consolidators that formerly sold only to travel agents have opened retail arms, creating more competition.

Meanwhile, airlines are beginning to explore alternatives to consolidators, including using Internet sales and even auctions to fill unsold seats. During the off-season, many airlines have reduced their own advance-purchase sale fares to the point where they rival consolidators' discount fares. Many major airlines, among them American, Delta, Northwest and United, give bulk prices to discount ticket sellers (which are not consolidators) to move excess seat capacity, thereby unloading the seats in blocks without formal consolidator contracts. The discount peddlers often are subsidiaries of the airlines themselves.

Many travel discount shoppers now look first to the World Wide Web for deals, draining attention and at least some business from traditional consolidators and forcing others onto the Internet.

In short, it's a pretty active and messy scene in discount air travel.

You should be aware of certain disadvantages. Most consolidators are the travel equivalent of warehouse retail stores--low prices, limited selection, minimal service. You rarely get patient explanations of travel options or offers to research hotels or side trips. Tickets are usually highly restricted, and changing your itinerary after you've paid can be a nightmare, even impossible. You may not get frequent-flier points. And though airlines are reluctant to admit this, passengers paying consolidator prices often get lowest priority when cancellations occur. Some consolidators don't deliver tickets until shortly before the trip, which can be nerve-racking. (Even though the experts advise against dealing with such last-minute-delivery firms, many consumers still bite at the bargains.)

One of the easiest ways to insulate yourself from at least some of these indignities is to use a travel agent to make your consolidator purchase. Most travel agents deal with consolidators, often with wholesalers who sell only to the trade. Agents usually work with a short list of consolidators whom they've come to trust. If problems arise, your agent probably has more leverage than you do in dealing with the consolidator, and may even cover you if the discount dealer goes bankrupt.

The downsides of using an agent: Agents usually don't access all consolidators and may miss certain deals, and most agents mark up consolidator fares, adding to the cost of the tickets. Others charge service fees. Either way, going through an agent can add $10 to $50 per ticket--but you can save yourself potential grief.

If you plan to use a consolidator yourself, it's wise to check whether the firm is a member of the American Society of Travel Agents, a trade group, and the Airlines Reporting Corp., a group that accredits agencies to sell airline tickets.

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