Matt Collins

How to find airline deals and travel for less.

my e-mail inbox is any gauge of the current climate, travelers are
looking for ways to cut costs on airfare. I’ve gotten lots of questions
lately about “consolidator” fares. Do the bucket shops of
yesteryear—which release blocks of tickets at deep discounts—still
exist? Are they different from what you can find online yourself? The
short answers are yes and yes—but as with any fare, you’ll always trade
something for the price break.

First, some background: shortly after airlines deregulated in 1978,
it became clear to them that advertising discounted fares made it easy
for competing carriers to beat prices. To fill up less popular flights,
airlines began quietly selling discounted seats through consolidators.
You’d often find these fire-sale fares advertised in the windows of
storefront travel agencies, or even at small grocery stores and
bodegas. Consolidators have come a long way since then. Airlines now
see them as a reliable way to sell a percentage of fares, and negotiate
annual contracts, establish revenue targets, and tightly control sales
through a specific kind of booking class. The rates are also known as
“private” or “bulk” fares. Consolidators have contracts with airlines
to sell private fares at lower prices than those that are published.
They usually can’t—or won’t—sell tickets straight to you, but instead
offer them through travel agents (including sites like Travelocity) or
through specialty companies like the ones that advertise in Sunday
newspaper travel sections. Domestic consolidator fares have been all
but completely squeezed out by travel websites, and because airlines
are decreasing their service (mostly domestically), you’ll find even
fewer of them available for U.S.-only flights, while tickets to Europe
are still a good bet.

How to get a consolidator fare

It’s best not to try to secure these fares on your own. Through
years of relationship-building, a travel agent will have a much better
grasp of which consolidators are good and which aren’t. If something
goes wrong with a consolidator ticket you’ve bought through a trusted
online or traditional agency, the agency should absorb your loss.
According to Simon Bramley, vice president of flights for Travelocity,
the company’s guarantee to “make things right” would function this way,
buffering you from a possible loss.

When to find them

Look for a consolidator fare when you’re traveling coach
internationally, you’re traveling last-minute, or both. Because
consolidators don’t actually buy the seats, they’re usually granted a
window of opportunity either early in the booking process (to ensure
that a minimum number of seats get sold) or later (to compensate for
unsold seats). Your travel agent can even find last-minute
business-class seats for up to 50 percent off.

Ask about restrictions

You may think that because you’re getting a bargain-basement price,
your ticket will be nonrefundable and nonchangeable—a heavily
restricted “use it or lose it” fare. That’s not always the case, but
you should ask your agent about the various restrictions. Two
restrictions you’ll always find: you’ll never be able to get an upgrade
using frequent-flier miles, and you won’t be able to pay to upgrade to
a different, less restricted fare class.

Should I still comparison-shop?

Of course. Many airlines now offer low-fare guarantees. Even if you
find an “exclusive” consolidator fare elsewhere, the airline will
likely match or beat it. And there’s always the option of searching
online fares offered by consolidators but having your travel agent book
the ticket for you. An elusive fare can be well worth the wait.