Cheap Airfare Step 3: Going Wholesale
Why pay retail when wholesale is available? That's what consolidators are: wholesale ticket agents who buy blocks of seats directly from the airlines at bargain basement rates and resell them to travel agents for just a bit more.
Unfortunately, as wholesalers they generally do not want to hear from you, Mr. One-round-trip-ticket-please. Those listed below will sell directly to the consumer, though.
It gets complicated, but what you need to know is that consolidator fares are almost always cheaper than the regularly published fare ...but not necessarily cheaper than individual airlines' sale fares. Also, consolidator fares are locked in about six to eight weeks out, so don't come looking here for last-minute bargains.
You might hear consolidators referred to as bucket shops —though never, ever call them that to their face (it's like calling a used auto parts store a "chop shop"). "Bucket Shops" more properly refers to collections of travel agencies that specialize in low fares and that cluster in certain neighborhoods of London, Athens (Greece), and Amsterdam. Still, don't call real bucket shops "bucket shops," either.
One thing to know about both consolidators and bucket shops is that sometimes they'll offer you extremely low prices on what might seem an unusual carrier choice—for example, flying Air India from Chicago to London, or Kuwait Airlines from London to Rome.
There's nothing wrong with this; those planes are merely on long-haul flights that hopscotch from one city to the next and you merely hitch a ride cheaply for one leg of the journey.
Find a consolidator on the up-and-up
The real difference between a true consolidator—ethnic or otherwise—and a bucket shop is how reliable it is. All the ones listed here are reliable, but they are not the only ones. When it comes to others—especially those neighborhood ethnic consolidators—you can always check them out to see if they're legit. Here are some resources to do so:
• Better Business Bureau (Bbb.org)
• American Society of Travel Agents (Travelsense.org)
• International Air Transport Association (iata.org)
• Airlines Reporting Corporation (Arccorp.com)A lot of the smaller fry in the biz are so-called" ethnic consolidators ," outfits that make a business by getting cozy with a handful of airlines (or just one) servicing a certain country or region, getting special contracts, then selling cheap seats to that place both to tour operators and to shop front travel agents in immigrant neighborhoods where the locals want to fly inexpensively back to their homelands on visits.
In other words, if you want to find cheap airfares to China, visit a travel agent in your local Chinatown; fly inexpensively to Delhi via your local Little India; etc.
But can I trust a consolidator?
Most major airlines around the world are as safe as any other, really. I've flown on some pretty oddball ones (that Kuwait Air London–Rome example comes from personal experience) and I never had a problem. Plus, the in-flight meals and entertainment can count as their own cultural experience (note: airline food is bad no matter what cultural context is interpreting it).
Practical upshot: Check these rates, but shop around before you buy, and wait until, oh, six weeks prior to travel to see if a better fare pops up on a sale (though you always run the risk of the consolidator selling out of those seats; the honest ones will give you a fair assessment of how quickly a fare might sell out—though they can't of course, control this very well.)
Note that with the Web and all, the future of consolidators who sell to the public is uncertain. The long-time Titan of the industry, Travac, closed up shop with no warning whatsoever at the end of 2002, leaving behind just one very confused receptionist who showed up to an empty office on Jan 1, 2003.
Meet the consolidators
Everything there is to know about consolidators
My esteemed colleague Edward Hasbrouck, author of the excellent "The Practical Nomad: How To Travel Around The World," regularly updates his free no-nonsense/no-bull FAQ on exactly how airlines and agencies discount tickets and how you can take advantage of it. It's called the Airline Ticket Consolidators and Bucket Shops FAQ, and you can find it at hasbrouck.org.
1800FlyEurope / Auto Europe (www.autoeurope.com) - Yes, I know that's a car rental company—but the great news is that they also do airfares (under the name "1800FlyEurope"), and are consistently among the cheapest (and most reliable) European airfare consolidators out there.
Barring some sale fare elsewhere, this is where I almost always end up buying my transatlantic tickets for the simple reason that they are almost always the cheapest. This is also why I chose to partner with them for this site.
TFI Tours (www.tfitours.com) - One of the biggest classic consolidators out there, boasting up to 80% off retail (though I think that kind of pricing goes to their corporate clients, not the little fish booking a single ticket). Don't let the down-and-dirty interface scare you off; it's just because they're about low fares, not a flashy Web presence.
CheapOAir.com (www.CheapOair.com) - Upstart consolidator and discounter using the power of the Web to weave together the best bargains and negotiated discounts with three reservations systems and fifteen travel service providers—something of a mash-up of a traditional booking service and a wholesaler. It claims 18 million exclusive flight deals, a low airfare guarantee, and 84,000 negotiated hotel rates.
Cheap Tickets (www.cheaptickets.com) - Decent prices, though not always the best; still, it pays to check them out. They've also a "Last-Minute" and a "Specials" section. It's actually an online component of the Cendant corporation (owns Avis and Budget car rentals, plus a host of hotel chains, including Super 8, Ramada, Travelodge, HoJo, Days Inn, and more).
Economy Travel (www.economytravel.com) - They've been in the international consolidator game since the late 1980s. Their Web site has a handy comparison feature that lists regular fares vs. their consolidator rates.
American Travel Abroad (www.amta.com) - Founded in 1946 and based in New York and Chicago, has some of the best Central and Eastern Europe fares out there (especially to Poland and Russia), though they do Western Europe, too. Just use them for airfare; their vacation packages are overpriced.
DFW Tours (www.DFWtours.com) - Major player in the wholesale travel game since 1978, with consolidator contracts on 30 airlines serving 200 U.S. departure cities. It's now part of the sprawling Thomas Cook empire of travel agencies.
Airfareplanet.com (www.Airfareplanet.com) - Newbie formed in the Internet age, but offers consistently lower fares than most outlets.
Picasso Travel (www.picassotravel.net - Around since 1979, and so old-school it's best to call them directly (800-PICASSO) as their web interface is for travel agents only.