Navigating Through the Maze of Air Fare Bargains

WASHINGTON POST

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.

These memberships guarantee little, however. ASTA's core members, which include more than half of traditional U.S. travel agencies, must abide by a code of ethics to retain membership. But most consolidators join ASTA as allied members and are not bound by the ethical code. ARC membership essentially indicates that the firm has met basic financial and legal requirements the airlines demand, but ARC is an arm of the airlines, not a consumer protection group.

(Note: While ARC membership may not provide protection, lack of ARC accreditation may spell trouble--it could mean a firm is a mere "reseller," a company that buys tickets from ARC-member consolidators and then sells to the public. Insiders caution that you're more likely to run into problems, or pay higher prices, with a reseller than with an ARC-accredited firm.)

Better Business Bureau membership, which implies a good-faith intention to resolve consumer disputes, is an even better credential.

A guide compiled for travel agents can help. The Index to Air Travel Consolidators (Travel Publishing, Oakdale, Minn.; telephone (800) 241-9299; $48.50) carries ratings of consolidators based on surveys of the travel agents who buy from them. The scores run from a low of one to a high of 10. But the guide doesn't cover every consolidator, and it includes many firms that sell only to travel agents.

Online consolidators have been joined by a growing list of Internet travel agencies that promise to ferret out lowest available fares from all sources, including consolidators. Most operate like travel agents, i.e., accessing only some consolidators, and therefore may not have the lowest fare to your destination (especially since not all consolidators, and thus not all great deals, are on the Internet). Two that claim to have access to all consolidator fares are http://www.economy Travel.com and http://www.1travel.com, but I recently found a better deal--about 20% better--on a Washington-Quito, Ecuador, ticket through a small local consolidator specializing in Latin America than I did through either of these Web sites.

Bottom line: Caveat emptor.

Know the rules, do background checks, get multiple quotes, don't accept delays or vague responses and trust your instincts. While you're at it, price the flights you want to take from conventional sources, and figure out exactly how much you stand to save in the first place.

Times Travel Writer Christopher Reynolds is on assignment.

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Tips on Using Air Fare Consolidators

Here are some recommendations if you plan to book tickets through a consolidator:

* Always use a credit card for ticket purchases, even if the firm charges a few extra dollars for it. If you don't get your ticket, you can have your credit card company perform a "charge-back," which removes the charge from your bill.

* When booking, ask when you can expect to receive your tickets. If you want the documents within a week or two and the company says it cannot accommodate you, find another consolidator. Chances are it's a financially unstable firm that is using your cash to finance ticket purchases for others in line to fly ahead of you. Many firms operate this way successfully for years; others go bankrupt shortly after they start delaying customers' tickets.

* If a firm takes a while to get the tickets to you, call the airline on which you believe you are booked to ensure that you're ticketed. If you're not, cancel the booking with the consolidator. If the consolidator balks, call your credit-card firm and put the transaction in dispute.

* Before you waste time reserving a seat, ask if the quoted price includes taxes and fees. Consolidators customarily list fare-only numbers and don't reveal the total out-the-door cost until after your reservation is run through--while you've waited on the other end of the phone. The resulting price may still be a steal, but it's only fair that you know up front what you'll be paying.

* Ask about frequent-flier mileage credit. In almost all cases, whether you get credit depends on the airline's arrangement with each consolidator, so don't assume that because you earned miles using one consolidator that you'll get the credit every time you buy from that firm.

* If a quoted fare is higher than a promoted price, ask if there's any way for you to tweak your schedule to get the better deal. Sometimes the promoted fare has limited availability, but at other times it's available if you're flexible.

* If a low fare is sold out, ask the consolidator if it expects to have access to more seats at that price as the flight date draws near. Often an airline will release more cheap seats to consolidators for flights that aren't selling well.

* Always verify, both when you make your reservation and when you receive your tickets, the restrictions, cancellation policy, ticket delivery methods and total costs, as well as the name and dates on the ticket. Errors can be difficult or costly to fix if they're not brought up right away.

* Seriously consider purchasing travel insurance, which averages about 4% to 8% of the value of the purchased goods or services. This can protect you if a firm--consolidator, airline or agency--goes bankrupt or vanishes between ticket purchase and travel dates.

If you're wary of working with a consolidator directly, shop for a travel agent who buys from the industry. Many do, and though you may pay a few dollars more than you would on your own, you can still save a bundle off published fares and get the security and service of working with a full-service agency.

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