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How to Use Consolidator Airfares

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Bucket shops, or "travel consolidators," are travel agencies who have arrangements with specific airlines to sell international tickets for considerably less than the airline's published fares.

You can indeed save money on bucket shop fares, and experience a completely successful trip abroad. However, this segment of the travel industry contains enough landmines that you should use bucket shops 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, such as Budget Travel.

One of the best sources for a reliable bucket shop referral is a friend from the same ethnic group as your destination. If it's 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.

A Cautionary Tale: 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 India is not necessarily the one you want to use for South Africa.

  • Consolidator discounts excel at Asian, 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 bucket shop 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 today?"

  • 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 bucket shops 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!

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