This was a good spring for air fare bargain-hunters, with domestic fare wars breaking out on all sides. But come the peak travel months of summer, the cost of travel near and far will rise along with demand. For many frugal travelers planning overseas trips, that's the cue to start consulting consolidators.
Consolidators are independent companies that act as brokers for tickets the airlines can't sell at regular prices. Most major U.S. and European airlines use them. The editors of Consumer Reports Travel Letter call them "the airline equivalent of factory-outlet stores" and say "they can be hard to beat."
Still, many remain squeamish about using consolidators. A large number of them, after all, are small-scale outfits with short lives and overworked reservationists. Some of them place newspaper ads that announce very low fares that may well turn out to be unavailable. Some ads include a phone number but don't include the name of the business, which understandably gives many travelers pause.
But consumers shouldn't necessarily let those worries sour them on the entire consolidator concept. Find the right consolidator handling the right ticket, and you could save as much as 30%.
Much of the consolidator business has arisen in the last 10 years, and the marketplace is still evolving. Some consolidators sell tickets only on a "wholesale" basis to travel agencies. Some companies have no direct contract with airlines, but act as ticket brokers selling directly to the public. Some sell both wholesale and retail. Most consolidator tickets are in the least-expensive coach or "excursion" class.
As part of their contractual agreements, the consolidators can't name specific airlines in advertising, but they can specify prices--which are often well beneath the most deeply discounted "brand-name" fares.
One prudent way to find a consolidator is to buy your ticket through an experienced travel agent who has dealt with them before. Though agents with organizations like American Express may decline to do business with consolidators (there's less profit in it), industry authorities say more travel agents are dealing with consolidators than ever before.
Whether you use a travel agent or seek out a ticket yourself, be sure you understand the restrictions on the ticket before you buy. Pay special attention to cancellation penalties, often more severe than those on conventionally purchased tickets.
Ask in advance about what kind of payment is accepted. Many sellers of consolidators, who run small businesses on tight budgets, decline credit cards or add extra fees when they are used. But travel authorities recommend paying with a credit card, so you can stop payment if tickets aren't forthcoming. Expect to get your tickets promptly, either through the mail or, to be doubly safe, in person.
Once you have the ticket in hand, it will show the airline involved, and you can call that carrier to double-check the ticket's authenticity. (In years past, travelers were unable to claim frequent-flyer credits on consolidator tickets, but consolidators say most carriers' contracts now allow it.)
Some general rules of thumb: The farther you're flying and the greater the demand, the greater your chances of saving big money with a consolidator ticket. As with any substantial purchase, consumers should compare prices before committing to one seller.
The list below is a sampling of veteran agencies that sell consolidator tickets, along with background details supplied by company officials. Each of the firms listed below generally accepts credit cards, though some offer discounts for cash. Inclusion here is not an endorsement. Other discount ticket agencies are often listed in telephone books along with travel agents as "airline ticket agencies."
Australia New Zealand (ANZ) Travel (tel. 800-281-4449), based in Laguna Hills. In business more than 10 years. Airline tickets to Europe, Hawaii, Asia and the Americas; hotels, tours and cruises.
Cheap Tickets (tel. 800-377-1000). An 8-year-old Honolulu-based company with branch offices in Westchester and Fullerton. Airline tickets to the U.S., Hawaii, Europe, Asia and the Pacific; some Hawaiian hotels and rental cars.
Continental Travel Shop (tel. 310- 453-8655), based in Santa Monica. In business 30 years. Tickets to Europe.
Costa Azul Travel (tel. 213-525-3300). Headquartered in Los Angeles, with a Latino emphasis. (Most agents speak Spanish and English.) Airline tickets to Latin America, Africa and Europe; beginning to book hotels, resorts and cruises.
Magical Holidays (tel. 800-433-7773). Founded in 1981 in New York; San Francisco office open 1989. Specializes in Africa and Latin America; hotels, cruises, tours.
STA Travel (tel. 800-777-0112). Emphasis on student and youth travel. Based in London, three offices in Los Angeles area. Airline tickets to Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, South America.
Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.