Looking for rock-bottom international airfares? No one has come up with a sure-fire list of the most reliable consolidators offering the best prices, but there are steps travelers can take to ensure finding a dependable company and getting a good fare. Here are 10 suggestions for paying less than the guy in the seat next to you, while making sure your seat is properly booked.
1 Find a travel agent who deals with a range of consolidators. Any licensed travel agent can book tickets with wholesale consolidators, but some agents do more of this type of work. Fernando S. Virgolino, past president of the United States Air Consolidators Association (www.usaca.com), says that if a travel agent doesn't work with any of the dozen members of that organization, "I'd look for another agency." Consider working with a so-called "ethnic agency" that deals with only one country or region, since many have contracts with carriers based in the country, such as Air India or EgyptAir.
Check out the company with the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org). Also, look for membership in the American Society of Travel Agents (www.travelsense.org) and accreditation with the International Air Transport Association (www.iata.org) and the Airline Reporting Corp. (www.arccorp.com).
A good online resource for both consolidators and travel agents who specialize in working with consolidators is Moffits Consolidators Guide (www.moffits.com); registration is free and you can search its database by airline served, region served and state where located.
2 Ask which consolidator your travel agent is using. Many of the top consolidators that can book tickets to destinations worldwide, such as DER, Skylink Travel and Trans Am Travel, are members of USACA, which requires its members to sell at least $20 million annually and to have provided uninterrupted service as a consolidator to travel agencies for at least two years (all current USACA members have been in business at least 10 years). For the many reputable consolidators that are not members of USACA, look at sales volume and years in business.
3Figure out fares before you book. Find out the going rate for consolidator fares to your destination before you approach a travel agent. A good resource is www.jaxfax.com, a magazine and Web site geared to the trade but available to consumers. You can look up consolidator rates between cities, with few details, on the Web site for free. If you travel overseas frequently, it's a good idea to pay the $30 subscription fee, which includes a password you can use to access real fares.
4 Check fares with online discounters or consolidators. But if you decide to deal via the Web with a consolidator or a discounter, be careful: There are fly-by-night Web operations that falsely claim to have access to cheaper tickets. Look for professional affiliations and years in business. Ask for the names of airlines it has contracts with. If it's a discounter, ask for the names of the consolidators it works with. The company should post a street address and a phone number on its Web site. One of the better sites is 1800FlyEurope.com, which specializes in Europe; like many online consolidators, it does not tell you the name of the airline until you book, but you can usually figure it out by checking the flight times against airline timetables. Other better-known online consolidators/discounters include Flights.com, Faremax.com, Airlineconsolidator.com and Airgorilla.com.
5Check fares on specialized Web sites. Try Internet sites that deal in "opaque" pricing. Hotwire.com, Priceline.com and Onetravel.com's "white label" flights offer discounted, consolidator-like fares where you don't know the airline or flight times until after you book. Also, check with aggregators -- companies that scout for low fares, then direct you to where to buy them; Cheapflights.com includes consolidator fares from several highly regarded companies.
6Play all the angles. Some wholesale consolidators are also retail tour operators, so you may save money by booking a package deal that includes cheap air. For example, Pleasant Holidays, a top tour operator to Hawaii, owns consolidator Air by Pleasant. District-based Picasso Travel, a top transatlantic consolidator, offers tours to Europe.
Ask your agent to consider combining published airfares with consolidator fares. For example, Norma Dugger, a travel agent with Portfolio Travel in Washington who is a certified Australia specialist, pointed out that consolidator fares to Australia are usually cheaper from the West Coast and can be combined with coast-to-coast sale fares.
7Make sure what you see is what you get. Initial consolidator quotes usually don't include taxes and fuel surcharges, which can add up to $250 per ticket. Get a price that includes everything before purchasing. Ask if the ticket allows frequent-flier miles.
8Don't buy until you double-check the fare. Once you get a quote for a consolidator ticket, compare it with buying from the airline and/or a third-party booking site, such as Travelocity.com or Orbitz.com. Fare wars, intense competition in a particular market and promotions touting a new route or service can cause airlines to undercut the contracts it has signed with consolidators.
9Follow up with the airline. After you book and pay for your tickets, call the airline and double-check the booking to make sure it has a record of the transaction.
10Get your tickets. Don't allow a long period of time to pass between payment and issuance of tickets. In the months before consolidator Euram went belly-up in 1998, consumers were being asked to pay months in advance, but getting their tickets just a week before travel -- an early red flag. Many consolidators issue e-tickets now, which is fine, but make sure they are sent to you pronto.
-- Carol Sottili