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Buy Consolidator Airfares Safely

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Plane in blue sky with clouds. Copyright FOTOLIA

"Travel consolidators" also known as "bucket shops" are travel agencies that have arrangements with specific airlines to sell international tickets for considerably less than the airline's published fares.

You can indeed save money on consolidator fares, and experience a completely successful trip abroad. However, this segment of the travel industry contains enough landmines that you should use consolidators only if you follow the tips given in this article.

Although financially secure vendors like Priceline may match or exceed bucket shop international discounts, and provide you with a more comfortable purchasing experience, the consolidator option is still worth exploring. Their tickets often permit you to change your destination or dates for a fee, which Priceline 'Name your own price' tickets, for example, never allow.

But, study these guidelines and proceed with caution!

How to find a reputable consolidator:

You may see ads for consolidator airfares in major newspapers and on the Internet. However, even though the newspaper or website may have a good reputation, the consolidator which advertises there could be at best, disorganized, and at worst, downright dishonest.

Over the years, I have heard many tales of fly-by-night, shady bucket shops (and have had run-ins with several myself), and so I now use these only if I have a solid recommendation from:

  • A friend who has used the same consolidator over time,
  • A report from the Better Business Bureau, or
  • An article in a respected travel journal.

One of the best sources for a reliable bucket shop referral is a friend from the same ethnic group as your destination. If comfortable, ask your friend to obtain the price quotation. On many routes, travelers whose families originally came from the destination country get the lowest quotes.

Follow these tips before using consolidators:

  • If you reside in the U.S., use only American consolidators. It could be very difficult to pursue a transaction that turned sour if you use a foreign travel consolidator.
     
  • Shops tend to specialize in specific countries. The one you use for Thailand isn't necessarily the one you want to use for South Africa.
     
  • Consolidator discounts excel at Asian (less so Japan), Middle Eastern, eastern European, and African destinations. Discounts are less competitive to Australian and western European cities, such as Amsterdam and Paris, because airlines frequently publish deeply discounted specials to these destinations.
     
  • Realize that bucket shop advice may often be biased. Airlines that give consolidators special deals expect them to push business their way. A consolidator may not tell you if another shop sells a cheaper or more convenient itinerary.
     
  • Request that quoted fares include all taxes and fees. Extra fees can be a way for a sketchy bucket shop to amp up the price considerably. So get the total price before making a reservation.
     
  • Savings tend to be greatest when you deal with a company that writes its own tickets, instead of an agency that orders tickets from somewhere else. Confirm this with the agency. A good question is, "Can I pick up my ticket now?"

How to purchase

  • Pay with a credit card. If the consolidator turns out to be a scam, you may be able to stop payment with a credit card, but you can't with cash and most likely can't with a debit card.
     
  • Ask to have their rules for canceling or changing flights in writing. These can be emailed or faxed to you if you cannot get to their office. Some bucket shop tickets may allow you to change flights and dates, others may not. Also, fees for changes may vary considerably.
     
  • Try to buy travel on one airline (or its partners), with as few connections as possible. Any time you increase your number of connections or airlines, you increase your risk of complications, especially if you're traveling with separate tickets for each airline.
     
  • Suppose you're flying to Delhi via Moscow on separate airlines. If you miss your Delhi flight because the Moscow flight was late, the Delhi airline in Moscow may tell you it's not responsible for re-booking fees, a hotel overnight, etc.
     
  • In addition, bucket shop tickets are often marked "non-endorsable." This means that if you miss a connection, you can't be rerouted on another airline. On top of that, you may not have the visa required to leave the airport terminal if you have to wait a day or two. So it's always best to fly with as few connections and airlines as possible.
     
  • If possible, pick up your ticket at the consolidaor, instead of having it sent to you, so that you can examine it carefully before leaving the store. Make sure that you have coupons for each flight, correct dates, etc.

Have I scared you off?

Some consolidators are reputable and some are not. I am not promoting them, nor am I saying to stay completely clear. I have used them and saved money.

I just want you to be armed with the best strategies for protecting yourself and setting up a comfortable trip when you find a reputable one. (And, remember the best source is a trusted friend who has used the same bucket shop many times.)

Let's say better safe than sorry, rather than better save than sorry!

Image above: Aviondansesnuages (c) FOTOLIA

Comments

Stefan
April 23, 2015

Good blog! Do you happen to know a reputable US based consolidator specialized on Thailand? Thanks!

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Don Nadeau
April 23, 2015

Thanks, Stefan!

Sorry can’t help you with a specific recommendation,

Even if you get a personal recommendation, please vet with the suggestions above, unless that person has used that consolidator a several times over at least several years. This I say from experience.

Going Thailand!  Do try the durian fruit ice cream. It’s waybetter than how the fruit itself smells (ghastly) before processing. :)

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Don Nadeau
April 23, 2015

I meant enjoy Thailand. Must be bloated with durians here. :)

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Paul M
June 24, 2015

Great advice, Don. I used to try to use bucket-shop sellers to travel to out-of-the-way destinations, but it was always a dodgy experience. You have to make some quick judgments:first, do they know what they’re doing, and second, do you trust them?

You bring up some other great questions, too, especially about flight connections and potential problems on that front. I think getting someone of the same ethnicity to book the tickets is a great suggestion—but then, some people specialize in bilking their countrymen, too.

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Don Nadeau
June 27, 2015

Thanks, Paul.

The travel industry needs to follow the same professional standards as other professions. It cries for far more oversight than exists now.

A doctor does not legally administer to patients without having shown that he or she has gained appropriate knowledge. A chartered accountant or certified public accountant must adhere to certain ethical standards. Their advice should be for the benefit of the client, not themselves..

Currently to open a travel agency you must seek approval to sell airline tickets. If you have sufficient funds, a manager with a certain level of experience (with no passing of tests or whatever required of other employees), and no criminal record, your doors can open in most jurisdictions.

That’s not enough. The industry itself should demand more for its own benefit.

Paul, thank you again.

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