Reports about finding the lowest airfares often mention "consolidators" as a good source of cheap tickets, and they often are. But the reports don't always paint a clear picture of what those specialized agencies really do. Here, then, are the basic facts you need to know about consolidators—and when you might want to consider a consolidator ticket.
Broadly, consolidators sell airline tickets at unpublished fares they negotiate with airlines—fares that are not posted on the airlines' own websites or quoted by airlines' reservation agents. Although a few consolidators sell directly to the public, most sell only to retail travel agencies for resale to the public. Some large retail travel agencies do a little of their own consolidating.
The best consolidator deals now are for international business and first class. Airlines stopped or greatly reduced economy-class consolidation once deregulation allowed them to offer their own discounts and use their own "back door" discount outlets. Currently, Hotwire and Priceline are the main back door channels for economy tickets. But most big lines still try to keep their list prices for premium tickets high, so they still discount through anonymous consolidator channels. Deals in business and first class are often half price or less—great prices for premium service, but still much more expensive than the cheapest economy tickets.
Airlines making consolidator deals try to follow a "don't mess up your own backyard" policy that protects pricing on their own major nonstop routes. That means the lowest prices are often on connecting flights through some other line's big hub.
Consolidator fares don't always undercut the airlines' lowest advertised "sale" fares. If the restrictions are acceptable, it's hard to beat those sale fares anywhere. But in the absence of a good fare promotion, unpublished consolidator fares are often the lowest available.
Some consolidator tickets carry the same conditions as published fares, while others do not. Some consolidator tickets do not allow refunds, frequent flyer credit, advance seat assignment, meal and hotel expenses in the event of delays, transfers to other airlines in the event of cancellation, and such. Specific conditions depend on each contract between consolidator and airline.
Contrary to many published reports (and even some consolidators' websites), consolidators do not generally "buy in bulk" and resell tickets to the public. Instead, they contract for access to seats in special fare "buckets" and seat inventories designated specifically for consolidators. But they actually buy tickets, one at a time, only after their customers have paid. This is important because virtually all of the problems consumers have with consolidators arise because of glitches that occur between the time a retail agent takes the money and the time the consolidator actually buys the ticket.
Some discount agencies and websites openly promote consolidator tickets, as such, so you know what you're getting. Other agencies and websites, however, may try to sell you consolidator stuff without informing you. Some travel agencies buy consolidator tickets, resell them as regular tickets, and pocket the difference.
I can't recommend individual consolidators, since I can't test them rigorously. But the better consolidators belong to the United States Air Consolidators Association (USACA) and retailers that sell consolidator tickets participate in BBB Online and major trade associations.
Given those facts, here are some guidelines for buying consolidator tickets:
- When you're shopping for airfare deals, always start with the airlines' advertised "sale" fares. Consolidators often can't do any better—or even as well.
- But at least look for a consolidator ticket, especially if you think the best published fare you can find is overly high—or if you need to leave right away, or stay longer than 30 days, or such.
- Always ask (or find out) about exactly what sort of "discount" an agency is offering you before you buy. Be especially careful to check the conditions attached to the ticket.
- Accept a consolidator deal only if it's significantly cheaper than the next alternative: Except for price, it's almost always a less attractive proposition than a published-fare price alternative.