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If you've been shopping for discount airfares online, you may have encountered "consolidator fares" and not understood why they are the excellent online travel bargain they are.

What are consolidator fares?

Consolidators are companies that buy large quantities of tickets from the major airlines at bulk prices and resell them at attractive discounts. Particularly on international flights, consolidator fares are generally the best discounted airfares available. They are usually cheaper than the lowest published airfares available from the airline companies.

Consolidator fares should not be confused with standby tickets or charter fares. While some agents who deal in consolidator air fares also deal in charters, there are important differences. Consolidated tickets are bookings on regularly scheduled flights of major air carriers, which are generally much more dependable than charter operators.

Why do the airlines sell to consolidators?

Or... why do airline companies apparently compete with themselves? Basically, to help fill seats.

By selling excess capacity at reduced prices to wholesale air consolidators, an airline can sell tickets that otherwise might not be sold. Wholesale consolidators then resell these consolidated tickets to retail consolidators and to approved travel agencies. This results in cheap airfares for you.

There are important differences between domestic and international airfare regulations, though, which cause international airfares to be available at far greater discounts.

International Fares

Official "published" international airfares are largely governed by IATA, a body of all major international air carriers, assisted by treaties among member governments.

IATA regulations forbid the direct discounting of tickets directly to passengers. Business travelers, and others who need a maximum flexibility or choice of flights, buy from the airlines at the expensive official prices.

The airline companies, though, can't fill their planes at these prices. Conveniently, IATA allows its members to offer consolidators large commissions... effectively discounts... and then it looks the other way when the resellers pass some of the savings on to passengers.

Sometimes there are restrictions on where the tickets can be sold, or whether the name of the airline can be mentioned in advertising. The regulation system is set up to help fill empty seats while maintaining full priced ticket sales to those who need them.

This is how all international airlines get around the IATA rule against discounting while maintaining a two-tiered pricing system. Often, the discounted tickets you receive from a consolidator will be printed with the official published fare. The difference between price you pay and the published airfare is the amount of saving that the retail consolidator is willing to pass on to you.

Retail airline consolidators and discount agents who specialize in consolidator fares generally do not mark up their ticket prices as much as typical travel agencies do. Because consolidated tickets are bought in bulk, they can generally be discounted deeper than regular travel agent discounts. Consolidator fares will save you between 10% to 70%, depending on carrier, the consolidator, the time of year, and your destination.

Savings are highest on international airfares during tourist season, when ticket prices are high.

Domestic Fares

On domestic flights, US airline deregulation in 1978 theoretically made it possible for the airline companies to offer domestic tickets at the same discounts as consolidators and agents.

In practice, though, the airlines attempt to keep their direct ticket prices as high as they can... whereas consolidators and discount agents are often willing to offer low fares to attract customers. Consolidator and agent discounts can often provide discount airfares within the US and Canada at a substantial saving.

Savings are not as great as on international flights, though... and the best domestic bargain fares tend to be on popular, long distance flights (cross-country routes, flights to Hawaii, etc).

The airlines also sometimes offer bargain web fares on domestic flights to attract customers, and it pays to shop around. A good discount travel agent or retail consolidator is constantly searching for the best airfare discounts available.

Beware, though, of agents who promise the "best" or "cheapest" fares. It is a promise that is often intentionally misleading, and it is an impossible promise to keep.

Limitations and Tradeoffs

Consolidator airline tickets on regularly scheduled airlines are the same as regular full price tickets, but there are tradeoffs, and different restrictions sometimes apply.

When You Fly

Consolidated airfares... in contrast with typical excursion, discount, or supersaver fares... don't have Saturday stay-over requirements, minimum or maximum stay periods, or advance booking requirements. This can be a big saving for the personal and business traveler.

Consolidators can in fact be the best sources for cheap flights when you have little advance notice of your trip. You can sometimes get discount tickets from consolidators up until the day of departure. But tickets don't get cheaper at the very last minute, and sometimes all seats get sold, so it is best to plan ahead.

Airline ticket prices vary according to the travel season. Consolidators are generally your best source for discount international airfares during the peak vacation season, when published airline prices are high. Though the biggest savings are in the vacation season, the cheapest fares will still be for off season travel.

How You Fly

Consolidators don't serve all routes or destinations. They tend primarily to service major gateway cities.

As with most bargain fares, consolidator airfares are more likely to be available for coach/economy class than for business or first class tickets. They are also more likely to apply to flights with stop-overs than to direct flights.

Consolidated tickets have assigned seats, but consolidators generally require you to make seating arrangements directly with the airline after you have received your ticket.

Most consolidator fares do allow you to accrue frequent flyer miles.

Refunds and Penalties

The penalties applying to consolidator fares are basically similar to those applying to published fares, but consolidator fare penalties tend to be somewhat higher.

Since 9/11, US airlines have become more restrictive on most types of tickets. The lowest cost tickets for either published or consolidator fares tend to be the least flexible.

Many consolidator fares are non-refundable, and some are non-changeable. Most published web, sale, and coach class airfares are non-refundable too. Some are non-changeable as well.

On international flights, where permitted, most consolidator penalties to change dates of travel are $50-$100 more than penalties for changing published fares. The penalties vary from airline to airline.

Passenger name changes are generally not allowed on any specially priced ticket.

Most airlines will not waive their penalties on any discount tickets for medical reasons, passenger accidents, etc.

Travel Insurance

If your air ticket investment is substantial for any kind of fare, you should strongly consider purchasing travel insurance from a company like Travel Guard or Travel Safe.

Finding an Airline Consolidator

If you can live within these restrictions, which are similar to most bargain fare restrictions, consolidators represent one of the best ways to save money when you travel.

Travel books listing consolidators grow dated very quickly, and the internet has become the best way of finding an airline consolidator. Dealing with a consolidator online is much like dealing with any other kind of business on the internet.

Like all other online businesses, consolidators offer varying degrees of service and dependability. Look for indications on the website of a responsible business entity.

Make sure there's a way of contacting the company outside of the internet. Avoid doing business with consolidators who don't offer telephone support, preferably toll-free.

See if the company's been in business a while. A local address and telephone number is also an indication of stability.

It's generally wise to pay for your tickets with a credit card if you can.

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