Cheap Seats: The 'Ins and Outs' of Airline Consolidators

By Kent St. John

They used to be called "bucket shops."

Hidden between curry restaurants in London or Amsterdam, or lined up along the tourist strip in Bangkok, these ticket sellers--favorites of backpackers and low-budget travelers--offered handwritten, last-minute airline tickets--essentially leftover seats on charters--at outrageously discounted prices. For the intrepid traveler, these consolidators were the best deals in town.

The lady under the umbrella on Khao San Road still sells cheap tickets, but today's consolidators are a more respectable bunch. Worldwide companies--both online and off--now book about 20% of all overseas air tickets at a savings of up to 70%.

Consolidators also sell a large percentage of domestic travel tickets. Many consolidators sell only to travel agents, while others sell to the public. Still others call themselves "Discount" ticket agencies and add a commission to their consolidator's price.

More travelers- not just backpackers-- are also discovering the benefits of consolidators, who often sell tickets during peak periods more cheaply than the airlines, and have fewer advance purchase restrictions. Some consolidators also specialize in off-the-beaten-path destinations or around-the-world tickets, providing the best resource for certain kinds of travel.

Considering the benefits, consolidators should be key players in any traveler's low fare search. But as with any other discount travel opportunity, it pays to know the pros and cons before you purchase tickets through a consolidator. A little bit of knowledge can help you take advantage of the best deals in the air.

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.

Problems with consolidator tickets

You can't change airlines. Your ticket is usually restricted to the airline the consolidator has booked for you. It's difficult, if not impossible, to change to a different airline due to delays or canceled flights. You will, however, be placed on that airlines' next flight.

Difficult refunds. If your plans change, getting a refund (if at all possible) must be done through the consolidator, not the airline. Many consolidator tickets are non-refundable.

No benefits. You get what you pay for--cheap transportation. Though you will most often be booked on major airlines, don't look for frequent flyer miles, advance seating or special meal consideration (althoughPlan a trip to the destination of your dreams!, if you get to the airport early, you can still request a window seat or vegetarian meal).

Safety and Security

Pay by credit card. Although many consolidators add a surcharge of 2% to 5% to cover the fee the credit card companies charge, the ability to stop or cancel the payment if the ticket is not correct is invaluable.

Get your tickets rapidly. Be wary if the consolidator cannot get your tickets to you in a reasonable fashion: if something is wrong you will need time to correct it. Ask for overnight delivery and always call the airline and check your reservation before you depart.

While most consolidators are reputable and conscientious, and your flight will be no different than had you paid full price, purchasing trip cancellation insurance--which will refund the ticket price if there are problems--gives peace of mind.


Wholesale consolidators

These companies buy in bulk from airlines and market seats to travel agencies. When you use an agency ask them to include consolidators such as AIT, Airplan or Agents Advantage in their search for a low-cost fare.

Retail consolidators

These companies purchase in bulk and sell to both the general public and travel agencies. Try Air Travel Discounts (888-888-2621), All Destinations (800-228-1510) and the Cosmopolitan Travel Shop (800-548-7206). Online look at and

Discount travel agencies

These agencies buy tickets on an "as needs" basis, usually from the wholesale or retail consolidators. They add a commission and resell the space. If you can't get what you need from a retail or wholesale consolidator, check out Automated Traveler (800-683- 6336) and Airfare Busters (800-232-8783)

Try these airline ticket consolidators the next time you're heading out for a long haul journey.

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