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Saving Yourself

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 23, 1999; Page E01


They have long been the first place many travelers look for international airline tickets – or the second place, after travelers get sky-high price quotes from the airlines themselves. They are air fare consolidators, those (usually) small businesses that sell deep-discount airline tickets, often via tiny ads in the newspaper listing little more than prices, destinations and a phone number. Consolidators are not always the easiest firms to deal with, with some staffers gruff on the phone or with accents so thick they can be hard to understand. Some consolidators 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. And so they remain an important budget travel tool.

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 final destination. It's a good time for bargains – and prudence.

Traditionally, consolidators have operated by procuring seats at deep discounts, either by purchasing blocks of seats in advance from airlines or via contracts that give the consolidators access to a certain number of tickets at a certain price. The ticket firms then add a modest markup and sell them to the public, often at prices from 20 to 50 percent lower than the airlines' best published fares. Consolidators traditionally have been small, low-overhead operations that make the owners 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. In theory, everybody wins.

But nothing is simple in the travel business 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 in the field. Other consolidators that formerly sold only to travel agents have opened retail arms, creating more competition.

Meantime, airlines are beginning to explore alternatives to selling through 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 (Northwest, for example, sells tickets in select markets – primarily Los Angeles and New York, through subsidiary MLT Vacations of Minneapolis).

On the consumer side, a lot of 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, either solo or teamed up with other travel sites. And online-only agents, afraid of losing the most budget-conscious shoppers to brick-and-mortar consolidators or other sites, have sprouted consolidator arms or partners.

In short, it's a pretty active and messy scene in discount air travel right now – in flux but, for the time being at least, quite viable. In the two charts that we publish on these pages, we've gathered information about both local and national air ticket consolidators that can help you make a decision about which firms to consider. For each consolidator, we indicate which airlines' tickets it sells, whether it has areas of geographic specialization, and which professional and trade groups it is a member of. For national firms, we provide data indicating the amount of business each does and, where available, quality ratings drawn from a well-respected trade publication.

No matter how careful you are in choosing a consolidator, though, there are certain disadvantages you need to be aware of. Most consolidators are the travel equivalent of warehouse retail stores – low prices, limited selection, minimal service. Consolidators generally do not coddle customers – 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 or even impossible. You may not get frequent-flier points. And though airlines are reluctant to admit this, passengers who have paid 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 (and even though the experts advise against dealing with such last-minute-delivery firms, many consumers still bite at the bargains). Add to all of this the stigma of financial instability created in this area last year when Euram Travel Centre, a high-profile local ticket consolidator with a track record, went bankrupt and stranded hundreds of local customers with neither tickets nor refunds.

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. More important, if problems arise, your agent probably has more leverage than you in dealing with the consolidator, and may even cover you if the discount dealer goes bankrupt (yes, it happens).

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 for their effort; either way, going through an agent can add $10 to $50 per ticket). But, in exchange for a few extra dollars, by using an agent you can save yourself potential grief.

If you plan to use a consolidator yourself, a few tips can make the process easier (see below). For instance, it's wise to check whether the firm is a member of the American Society of Travel Agents (a travel agent trade group) and the Airlines Reporting Corp. (a group that accredits agencies to sell airline tickets). But these memberships guarantee little: ASTA's core members, which include over half of traditional travel agencies in the United States, 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 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. During last year's flop of Euram – a member of ASTA and ARC – neither group came to meaningful aid of consumers.

(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.)

All this said, if you're going to use a consolidator, there's certainly no harm in choosing a firm with active associations with ASTA and ARC. Better Business Bureau membership, which implies a good-faith intention to resolve consumer disputes, is an even better credential. We checked out each of the firms profiled in our charts with their local bureaus and suggest you do the same before working with a company not listed here. (The D.C.-area bureau may be reached at 202-393-8000.)

If you're serious about this stuff, a guide compiled for travel agents but available to the general public can help. The Index to Air Travel Consolidators ($48.50, from Travel Publishing, Oakdale, Minn., 1-800-241-9299) carries ratings of consolidators based on surveys of the travel agents that buy from them. The scores run from a low of 1 to a high of 10 and include the number of ratings the consolidator received. But the guide doesn't cover every consolidator, and includes many firms that sell only to travel agents. For the companies we profile, we include the guide's rating when there is one.

Purchasing travel insurance can offer some protection. You can insure just an airline ticket (as opposed to a whole trip), before or after buying the seat, and can collect on the policy if either the airline or the agent goes out of business. However, you can't file a claim for unreasonable delay in delivering a paid-for ticket – and can't file a claim for failure of delivery until after your plane has left. If disaster strikes within days of departure, you're out of pocket if you can somehow reschedule at your own expense, as claims usually take one to two weeks to process. One firm, Access America (1-800-654-1908), offers basic coverage for about 4 to 8 percent of the value of the insured items.

Consolidators who have gone online 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). and claim to have access to all consolidator fares, but I recently found a better deal – about 20 percent better – on a Dulles-Quito, Ecuador, ticket through Monica Travel, a small local consolidator specializing in Latin America, than I did through either of these Web sites.

Bottom line: You hate it when we say this, but caveat emptor. Know the rules, do background checks, get multiple quotes, don't accept delays or vague responses and trust your instincts. And, 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.

John Briley is a frequent contributor to the Travel section.

Tips for Using Consolidators

buttonAlways use a credit card for ticket purchases, even if the firm charges a few extra bucks for taking plastic. Why? 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.

buttonWhen booking, ask when – exactly 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, you're dealing with 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.

buttonIf 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.

buttonBefore 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 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.

buttonAsk up front about frequent-flier mileage credit. In almost all cases, whether you get credit depends on each 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.

buttonIf 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 other times it's available if you're flexible.

buttonIf 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.

buttonAlways 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.

buttonSeriously consider purchasing travel insurance, which averages about 4 to 8 percent 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.

buttonIf you're absolutely 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 bucks 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.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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