I’ve got a nice big backlog of Ask Cranky posts, and I thought this would be a good time to starting clearing that out. Today, we’re talking consolidators.
Can you do a piece on consolidators/consolidator fares? It’s probably the largest aspect of the industry that I’m in the dark about. I’d like to see something with a bit of depth. How do they work? Why do they even exist? At the basic level, I understand that they buy blocks of tickets at a discount. But why can’t the airline just sell them through their own systems with whatever restrictions they want? Are all online agencies consolidators? If not, how can you tell? When are they just fronts for the same thing you can buy directly from the airline? Are there any real differences between Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Cheaptickets, Cheapoair, and others that I’ve forgotten?
Ah yes, consolidators. It’s sort of the mystery of the travel world for many people. They have this reputation as being amazing sources of cheap fares, but how can you find them? Are they reliable? What’s the catch? Let’s get started.
For you as a traveler, when you hear about consolidators, bucket shops, and wholesalers, it means the same thing. Discounted airfare. You’ll have the best luck finding these on international routes, in particular in premium cabins, and you can save a lot of money.
For example, we had a Cranky Concierge client who recently needed to fly from Chicago to Hong Kong in business class. American was showing an option on its website for $9,000 roundtrip. We found those same flights on Webjet.com for a mere $3,500 roundtrip. Yeah, big difference.
There are a couple things to keep in mind about these fares. Yes, you can save a ton but there are nearly always additional restrictions. The change fee on this, for example, is $400 plus a $50 Webjet fee, so it’s not entirely flexible. Any changes are required to go through the agency and not the airline, so that can cause issues while you’re traveling. Often you won’t be able to earn miles on cheap seats like these either.
In this particular case, the deal appears to be that Webjet isn’t even allowed to show the airline name. It simply says “Major Airline.” Of course, it’s easy to figure out since it shows flight numbers and flight times. Not hard to put two and two together.
Often the biggest question about something like this is . . . why? The idea is that airlines can find non-traditional outlets to help sell seats that they wouldn’t have sold otherwise. Go to your nearest Chinatown and you’ll find great deals on flights to China at bucket shops around the area. That’s the best way to reach a large audience that can help fill your airplanes. In many places, this is the way they book travel every time.
With the web, things have become more complicated. Cheap fares are offered to the world as soon as they go online, so you would think that this practice would disappear. But it still continues, likely as a legacy of the past. There are good deals to be found, for sure.
But how do you know if these guys are reputable? It’s a lot easier now in the world of e-tickets. Pay with a credit card and as soon as it’s booked, go directly to the airline to check on your reservation. If all looks good, then you’re set. If not, then you can immediately dispute it with your card.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you aren’t necessarily dealing with a consolidator directly. Consolidators will often sell to travel agents, so you can buy fares through retail agents who get the fares through consolidators and you’ll never know the name.
Some places only sell consolidator fares. If you go to Airfare.com, for example, you’ll see that there are very few options given. That’s because published fares aren’t shown. Others just mingle the fares shown, as you’ll see on a site like Travelocity or Expedia. You wouldn’t know if it was a consolidator fare or not at first blush.
I’ve had good luck with Airfare.com, Webjet.com, Cheapoair, and others in the past. You can also go to a travel agent to do the legwork for you, or to Cranky Concierge, of course. In the end, it’s worth checking out because it can save you a lot.
[Edit 1/26/2015: This is a very old post, but for Cranky Concierge clients who may find it, you should know that we do not work with consolidators anymore. We do have access to some discounted airfare directly through airline agreements but not through consolidators for a variety of reasons.]