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Airline Consolidators: What You Need to Know

In the eternal quest to get a better airfare, many travelers overlook an important source of cheap flights: Airline consolidators.

Consolidators sell tickets to individual travelers at low fares that aren’t available to the public; they buy those cheap tickets from airlines with which they have contracts. The best prices are on international long-haul business and first class tickets, but consolidators can also sometimes beat published economy fares. Consolidators are able to offer little on domestic tickets. The best deals are usually on flights within a week or two before departure, when published fares are generally very high.

As with airline sale fares, these lower prices often carry more restrictions. When you purchase through a consolidator, you may not be eligible for frequent flyer miles or advance seat selection, and you won’t have much flexibility to make changes to your itinerary without paying significant change fees. Airfare consolidators also tend to have limited staff, so customer service may be minimal. But these restrictions may be worth it in exchange for a rock-bottom fare.

Tips for Using an Airline Consolidator

1. Before shopping for a consolidator ticket, make sure to check all available published-fare options, including both legacy and low-fare lines. Airlines’ lowest published fares—especially flash sale and low-fare line fares—are often less than any consolidator fares.

2. Before booking with any consolidator, do your homework to make sure it’s a reputable company. Check for memberships in trade organizations such as the United States Air Consolidators Association (USACA), American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), International Air Transport Association (IATA), or United States Tour Operators Asociation (USTOA). We also recommend checking the company’s reputation with the Better Business Bureau or on review sites such as Trustpilot.com.

3. Fares vary among consolidators, so shop around with more than just one. And make sure any consolidator price you are quoted includes all applicable taxes and fees.

4. The tickets you purchase from consolidators may not be eligible for frequent flyer mileage.
If this is important to you, verify eligibility with the airline and consolidator before purchasing the ticket. Some consolidators allow you to enter frequent flyer mile information when making your reservation.

5. To protect yourself, always use a major credit card to purchase your airfare. If there is any problem obtaining a valid ticket, you will then have some recourse for denying payment through your credit card company.

6. A day or two after you buy a ticket from a consolidator, verify your reservation with the airline and make sure you have a confirmed seat and are not waitlisted. Consolidators typically do not “own” an inventory of tickets; they buy your ticket from an airline only after you’ve paid, and sometimes they don’t or can’t follow through with the airline. If the airline doesn’t confirm your reservation, check with the consolidator immediately and be prepared to abort the entire transaction if it can’t guarantee your seat.

7. Ask plenty of questions. What happens if you miss your plane or your flight is canceled? What if you need to alter your itinerary? Make sure you obtain clear and accurate information from your consolidator regarding all policies and fees for ticket cancellations, changes, refunds, reticketing, and expiration dates — and then verify these with the airline.

Finding an Airline Consolidator

Here is a short list of airfare consolidators that offer fares to the public. (Many consolidators only sell to travel agents). The consolidator industry is competitive and turnover is high, so research the consolidator website carefully to ensure it’s reliable before you book.

More from SmarterTravel:

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

By Ed Perkins

A nationally recognized reporter, writer, and consumer advocate, Ed Perkins focuses on how travelers can find the best deals and avoid scams.

He is the author of "Online Travel" (2000) and "Business Travel: When It's Your Money" (2004), the first step-by-step guide specifically written for small business and self-employed professional travelers. He was also the co-author of the annual "Best Travel Deals" series from Consumers Union.

Perkins' advice for business travelers is featured on MyBusinessTravel.com, a website devoted to helping small business and self-employed professional travelers find the best value for their travel dollars.

Perkins was founding editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, one of the country's most influential travel publications, from which he retired in 1998. He has also written for Business Traveller magazine (London).

Perkins' travel expertise has led to frequent television appearances, including ABC's "Good Morning America" and "This Week with David Brinkley," "The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather," CNN, and numerous local TV and radio stations.

Before editing Consumer Reports Travel Letter, Perkins spent 25 years in travel research and consulting with assignments ranging from national tourism development strategies to the design of computer-based tourism models.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, Perkins lives in Ashland, Oregon with his wife.

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