What’s up with Consolidators? (Ask Cranky)

Ask Cranky, Fares

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?

Dan L

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 Ask Crankyyou 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.]

13 comments on “What’s up with Consolidators? (Ask Cranky)

    1. There aren’t any that I know off hand to be problematic. If it’s a retail agency, you can also look at the BBB rating online to see if there have been complaints. I had posted about an issue with Cheapoair here on the blog before, but they responded to our client and offered him compensation for the problem. So I have no issues with them anymore.

  1. In the ‘old’ days, you would have even had the airlines themselves telling you which consolidators to go to depending on where you were going.

    I always thought the term ‘bucket shop’ was more a European term. Mainly in the U.K. where their always seemed to be a lot of them.

  2. Thanks for answering my question, Cranky. My wife and I are planning a trip from DC to SE Asia, and I had been exploring business class options. Webjet returns a price pretty close to a broker that I had found in San Francisco — $4300 from IAD to BKK — and about half of what it would cost to book through the airline itself.

    In the end, the cheapest/best business class option for us happened to be flights on CX from JFK. We took advantage of a mileage sale that AS was running, and bought enough points to outright redeem two business class tickets. Price? About $2350 each. Change fees are $100 each. Perhaps that’s another option to keep in your pocket for your concierge customers? Yes, we still have to get from IAD-JFK (not that big of a deal) but it’s quite worth it for the $2000/ticket we “saved” this way. (I use quotes, because although I think $4000 isn’t bad, it’s a bit out of our league at the moment.)

    1. Dan – We definitely look at mileage options if a customer is interested. Did you really buy all the points? That’s hilarious. Glad it worked out – you should get a great ride on Cathay in the herringbone seats.

      1. Yes, I bought 200,000 points. I needed to use two credit cards, because AS (via points.com) only allows four transactions per credit card (not sure of the time window, though), and there’s a limit to the number of points per transaction.

        AS gave me a 72-hour hold on an award reservation that I had booked, which gave me the time to go buy the miles. I’m not sure if I would have done that without the ability to hold a rez — I didn’t want to spend $4700 just to find the seats go poof.

  3. Just went to Berlin on a Vayama flight that cost $798 from Dallas, with 5 days notice in late May, traveling to TXL on Delta & Air France and back on KLM equipment, but as Delta codeshares. Yes the cost was amazing, but advance seat reservations (even asking to PAY for them) and web check-in were impossible. When push comes to shove, not one of those airlines (AF, KL, DL) seemed to claim ownership of the ticket for the purpose of seats and checkin. Luckily, I got to the airport early, checked in and got OK seats, but was wondering if this was common for carriers to purposefully claim ignorance about these sorts of things when it is a codeshare and/or consolidator ticket?

    1. With codeshare, it’s a weird world of trying to figure out who can and can’t assign seats. The operating carrier nearly always can if they so choose while the marketing carrier sometimes can. With consolidator tickets, the issue of who is in charge changes if it’s related to pricing issues. The airline doesn’t really have the info on what was paid, so it’s the agency who runs the show.

  4. Very handy post – I’m looking for a last-minute business class fare right now. Thanks! Any idea if frequent flyer qualifying miles are typically accrued?

  5. Another small but important point you don’t make here: Chances are that if you go through a consolidator, you will not get pre-assigned seats. That means you show up at the airport 90 min before your flight without seats, check in, and get offered “middle up front or middle in back,” and your party of three won’t be sitting together.

    This is a MAJOR issue for people traveling with children. Rarely on busy flights (and aren’t they all busy?) you will not be able to find seats together even for two people, much less for larger families. And there’s really not much airlines can do about it.

    The answer: If you go with a third party company, once you know your airline, CALL THE AIRLINE AND BOOK YOUR SEATS! It’s not the nice person at the counter’s fault that you won’t be sitting together, and it upsets them as much as it upsets you. Save yourself tears and frustration. If you buy through a consolidator, remember that you have to do a little more legworks (and homework) if you want to make your travel hassle-free.

  6. The premise behind consolidators for carriers is that they they know very well that fewer than half of travelers will pay the “published” pricing they list on their websites for premium cabin travel. However, for the half that will pay regardless of the cost it causes a conflict to lower fares on their own website for the traveler that is willing to pay more. I suspect that on this board, most of the viewers can not conceive fare of $10,000, $15,000 or $30,000 for business or first but there is a segment of the market that pay it and for the carriers they are competing with private aviation, not other commercial carriers.

    So for the half of the market that can’t afford the pricing premiums, the consolidator channel allows carriers to distribute inventory at below market prices without distorting its retail channels of distribution. This is why most of the “wholesale” prices do not show up on mainstream websites like Expedia, Travelocity, etc..>They still try to keep it hush hush.

    A common misconception is that the consolidator prepays or assumes inventory risk. I don’t any that do this. They are simply given a set of terms and prices that if all the restrictions are met (i.e. min stay, advance purchase, booking class requirements) then a much lower fare can apply.

    The carriers do treat these wholesalers like crap. As a traveler, I would be EXTREMELY concerned with the protection of your personal data and ask that it be destroyed after your sale is complete. Purchasing an airline ticket is no longer just agreeing on a price and making payment, but now involved providing birth dates , passport number etc. Personal information that if in the wrong hands can be misused.

    Several of these airlines have these consolidators in the technical dark ages keeping them for using technology to manage this data. Sure, they have reservation systems but these systems were built 30 years ago.It is quite routing for one wholesaler to buy from another and take your personal details and e-mail it to their brother, cousin, ex wife etc that may have a deal that you are looking for…Point being…In most of these shops they are NOT EQUIPED IN THE LEAST to manage the data…If the savings is not sensational, avoid this segment altogether or consider paying by paypal

  7. Thank for posting absolute garbage.

    All the links you posted are directly linked to the big airlines and the monopoly they practice of maximum pricing. Not true you say? Yes, they are – all of them. [i.e. Travelocity parent company own American Airlines, WEbJet.com is 100% tied to Cathay Pacific, etc.]

    And the fact you advocate further airline mergers might be an indicator you are smokin’ crack.

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