This article is a bit long but I want you to come away with a deeper understanding of consolidator fares. I have some articles related to accruing frequent flyer miles and upgrading from a consolidator fare using miles which you should read if that applies to you.
Is it possible to get a cheap ticket for international travel? Absolutely, if (a) there are seats available, (b) if you purchase a consolidator fare for your international destination and (c) if your reservation can be ticketed in time.
Let’s say you want to fly to London in 3 days. You want to find a travel agency or a website that offers consolidator fares – also known as ‘bulk fares’. http://www.foraticket.com and http://www.cheaptickets.com are good examples and many retail travel agencies have access to consolidator fares as well.
The primary reason to purchase bulk fares – consolidator fares – is to save money. Expect savings of 10 to 40% off the airline rate only if there are seats at the discounted price. If availability is low, don’t expect a big discount. As seats fill up, the price between the airline and the consolidator reduces and in some cases, the airline price is lower than the consolidator price. It is a worthwhile endeavor to check the consolidator price.
Let me start by describing a consolidator and continue with a description of a consolidator fare.
What is an airfare consolidator? A consolidator is a wholesaler for airfare. The consolidator goes to one or more airlines and promises them a certain amount of business in return for deep discounts. A consolidator may come to United Airlines and request the option to buy seats at 30% of the airline rate from Los Angeles to London in return for a guaranteed amount of business every year. The consolidator then makes these discounts available to travel agencies which make them available to you, the traveler. Large consolidators have dozens of airlines whereas small consolidators have a few. Some are focused on being a wholesaler to one part of the world like India or the Philippines or Mexico, others have just 1 airline wherever they fly.
Consolidators are not limited to just airfare, there are hotel consolidators and cruise consolidators and so on. In this article I will refer to airfare consolidators.
Most consolidators will deal exclusively with travel agents or online travel agencies so as an individual traveler you can’t buy from a consolidator. I don’t see alot of earlier articles referencing this point. Naturally your next question is, what’s the point if I can’t buy them as a traveller? The point is to find a travel agency or online travel agency that sells consolidator fares. Oftentimes online travel agencies are hybrids that are retailers (ie: have a website) and consolidators with 1 company. If you don’t’ know what type of fare you’re buying, ask the agency if they have consolidator fares to Europe/London/wherever you are trying to go.
Am I buying the same seat on the same flight? You’re buying the same seat on the same airline with more restrictions at a lower price. At the end of the day, some of the seats on a plane are sold through consolidators in which case the airline knows ‘30% of flight 192 from LAX to DEL is already sold’. The remaining open seats on the same flight will be sold by the airline on their own website and through other distribution channels.
Are there business class consolidator fares? Absolutely. The savings are even greater for business class fares given the difference between the airline direct rate and the consolidator fare. Try http://www.destinationtiger.com or certain American Express Travel Agencies for discount business class deals and business class discount fares.
Now that you know what an airfare consolidator is, what’s a consolidator fare? A consolidator fare is a special type of fare offering you a fixed price for a particular route assuming there are open seats and you abide by the rules for the fare.
The key is seat availability. What good is a price if you don’t have a seat to go along with it! This is what gets people frustrated when they see a great fare but when they attempt to purchase they come to find out there aren’t any seats at that price. There are seats (or I should say WERE seats) but they’re not there for very long. The key is to call right away – and literally I mean minutes after you get the airfare special. Especially for the ‘too good to be true fares’ like $400 from Los Angeles to Sydney in Economy on United or the $248 round trip to London.
Tips on taking advantage of these deals: there are legitimate rock bottom deals where you think the price is a misprint. The key is to read the rules. This is where many go wrong. They just think any date and any city pair will get that price and when they don’t, they get frustrated. The reality is there are at best a handful of seats with a lot of restrictions that you have to find out about and then match your itinerary to. What dates do you have to travel between and how long and how short must the trip be to get this price? What cities are covered? What airline and how do you buy it the fare? Anything that does not match these rules disqualifies you from the special.
If the fare special is Los Angeles to Sydney on United with a 6 day minimum day and 8 day maximum stay and you try to book from New York to Sydney for 10 days, guess what, you’re not going to get that price. So you have to read the fine print or click the link on the e-mail and read the terms to find out the details.
Oftentimes the restrictions – the rules or terms and conditions – are not in plain view or are only partially listed. Travel agencies are getting better and you should be savvy about looking out for them. If you see language like ‘travel from 10 MAY through 25 JUN’ then you must start and come back between these dates. If you see language like ‘Must be ticketed by 10 JUN’ then you must pay by 10 JUN regardless of what the trip is. There are any number of rules and all must be satisfied you to qualify for the fare.
These rock bottom fares that I mentioned above are really a subset of a larger pool of consolidator fares only with even greater restrictions than average consolidator fares. Of course there are sites and consolidators that do a ‘bait and switch’ that put a fare just so you call and try to up sell you. Unfortunately people get disenfranchised and automatically assume all consolidator fares are that way – don’t make this mistake.
Consolidator fares are within reach and viable options for many leisure trips. If you’re on a site, check a few days before or after to see if there is a lower price. Even a 1 day difference can change the fare if there are seats open on the new date or if a lower priced consolidator fare applies or if the seasonality changes. If you’re dealing with an agent, have them check a few days before or after in hopes of finding you a lower fare.
If you get a good travel agent, they’ll search date(s) in hopes of getting you that good deal. If you get an agent who doesn’t put in the effort, they’ll give up so keep on them.
Seasonality: seasonality dates are something you should be aware of because they point out when the next change in price is. Consolidator fares have start and end dates, called ‘validity dates’. The rules will often say “Valid from 01 MAY through 31 JUN” which tells you three important things:
(i) The fare you’re looking at is valid from 01 MAY through 31 JUN
(ii) There is a different price before 01 MAY
(iii) There is a different price after 31 JUN
This only matters if your departure date is close to either of these dates. If your departure dates is 31 JUN, check 01 JULY, maybe you’ll find a lower fare. Or maybe it’ll be a higher fare. At least you’ll know.
You don’t want to buy a ticket departing June 1st and pay $1000 knowing you could have bought a ticket leaving May 30th for $800. Make sure your trip leaves before the price jumps. Shift your travel dates if there is a drop in price close to your departure date. Departure dates are usually the key to seasonality though some consolidator fares look at when you depart and return.
Typical Restrictions: each consolidator fare has restrictions for how far in advance you are required to buy the ticket, how much you pay to change the itinerary date after its been ticketed, how much you pay to cancel the itinerary after ticketing, the minimum number of days for your reservation, the maximum number of days you can stay, whether you have to have a Saturday in your itinerary “Saturday night stayover”, and whether you can accrue mileage or not. Think of these restrictions as ‘rules’ and the key is knowing the rules so you’re not surprised by them after the fact. Some fares require you to book 24 hours in advance or book 7 days in advance or may not have any advance restrictions at all. It all varies but the good news is, a travel agent or the agency website will match the restrictions to your trip.
Just worry about (a) change fees, (b) cancellation fees, (c) whether you accrue points and (d) if you can upgrade to business class if this applies to you.
Don’t assume anything. Don’t assume you can change your itinerary. Don’t assume cancellations are allowed. Ask and get it in writing if possible. Rules are fine just as long as you’re in the know.
Some consolidator fares offer a discount rate but force you to pay a high fee if you want to change or cancel your flight. Each consolidator fare is different and varies by airline, city and seasonality among other things. The key is to know the restrictions in advance BEFORE YOU pay for your ticket.
Most of the time, for leisure travelers, the restrictions are not too burdensome unless you have to change your itinerary or cancel your itinerary. What you get is a cheaper price and what you give up is flexibility.
So from Los Angeles to London the price may start at $300 + tax in Q class, it may be $400 in L class and $1800 in Y class. These letters are called the class of service. Think of each ‘class of service’, each letter like Q or M or L, as a unique price. And for any given route, there may be 10 to 15 classes of service which means there are 10 to 15 different possible prices for that reservation.
How did the person next to me pay so much more (or less) than I did? You could have been the person buying the fare at one class of service sitting next to a person paying a different fare on another class of service. This is why pricing for international fares varies so much. You could have bought a consolidator ticket and be sitting next to somebody who doesn’t even know what a consolidator ticket is and bought the itinerary directly form the airline.
It all depends on when you booked it, whether you have a consolidator fare (versus an airline “published” fare) and if there were seats available. As seats fill up, the price goes up.
For Los Angeles to London trip, there may be Q class at $300 + tax, L class at $400, M class at $500, N class at $600 and B class at $1000 and Y class at $1800. If you were fortunate enough to buy when Q class ($300) seats were available – that may be 1 day in advance or 6 months in advance of your actual travel date – you’re paying a lot less than the person buying the N class ($600) fare.
Fares vary for any given city, date of travel, length of travel and by airline. The agency I worked at had 10,000,000 fares in their database and they changed every few months. This excludes ‘specials’ we’d get via email which are really seats the airline does not expect to sell by itself that it uses wholesalers to fill.
A travel agency specializing in consolidator fares (or a wholesaler that also sells retail) will have a master list of what fares are available at what price along with a reservation system to see if there are open seats. You give them your itinerary; they’ll tell you what options you have.
If they check and see seats available in Q class, you can get that $300 price if you meet the rules for the consolidator fare. If there are seats, you’re in luck and off you go. If Q class has 0 seats available, you’ll have to pay the fare associated with the next lowest priced seat. That is how you can buy a last minute international ticket – just find a travel agency that has consolidator fares and hope for open seats on the flight.
Differences in Fare Classes: the higher the price, the less restrictive the ticket. If you’re buying Y class – which is the highest priced economy ticket you can buy – you can cancel and change at your whim without a fee. However if you bought a Q class ticket, you may have to pay $300 to $500 per change per adult. Sometimes a fare will be so restrictive that you cannot change or cancel at all. Whenever you buy a ticket, ask what the change and cancellation fees are and whether you accrue mileage with the ticket.
Some online travel sites don’t display rules for each fare and just put a blanket ‘No cancellation/No changes’ for every fare. You the traveler lose the opportunity to change and the travel agency does not have to worry about those pesky support calls requesting changes and cancellations after purchase. Some fares legitimately do not allow changes or cancellations but if you see EVERY fare for EVERY itinerary on a website for varying city pairs, start asking whether it’s a blanket rule or not.
As a general rule, most consolidator fares do not allow cancellations at all after purchase but most consolidator fares do allow changes with a hefty fee. 60% of consolidator fares do not allow mileage accrual. Each fare is different so ask your agent.
Date Changes: if the fare allows changes but the same class of service is sold out, you’ll have to pay the difference in fare and the change fee.
Routing Changes: consolidator fares almost never allow changes in routing meaning if you bought Los Angeles to London and back you cannot change from Los Angeles to Paris and back after ticketing.
Open Jaws: open jaw is an itinerary where you fly into one city and fly out of another (Los Angeles to London returning Paris to Los Angeles). You can do open jaws if there is a consolidator fare that allows open jaws. It’s a general rule to do open jaw cities close to one another and for cities where the airline flies; this will ensure the lowest price. You’re likely to find a matching fare for Los Angeles to London returning Paris to Los Angeles rather than Los Angeles to London returning Johannesburg to Los Angeles. Some clients do get creative! The bottom line is whether there is a consolidator fare that matches your itinerary. Open jaws will reduce the number of consolidator fares that match your itinerary and given the smaller pool of fares will likely increase the price so check both the open jaw price and the point to point price and do the math.
Double Open Jaws: double open jaws are even harder to find a consolidator fare (where you go from Los Angeles to London returning Paris to New York). Double open jaws will significantly reduce the number of consolidator fares that match your itinerary and will likely increase the fare so check both the double open jaw price, the single open jaw price and the point to point price and do the math.
Mileage Accrual: some consolidator fares allow frequent flyer points to be accrued, other times at a reduced rate and yet other times no accrual at all. There is a false belief that consolidator fares never allow mileage; some do and I’ve taken full advantage of them. Some even allow elite points and are great ways to earn status and get your yearly quota in.
I have a separate post on frequent flyer accrual and how to upgrade into business class/first class using a consolidator fare. Be sure to check both whether the consolidator fare allows mileage accrual and whether the frequent flyer program allows mileage accrual.
One last point, the travel agent has no control over the fee or the restrictions or whether you get/don’t get mileage, these rules are set by the airline.
As a general rule, consolidator fares are best for long haul international destinations. You won’t find consolidator fares from London to Paris or from New York to Miami. The higher the fare from the airline, the greater the chance there is a consolidator fare. Some agencies have domestic consolidator tickets but they are usually to Hawaii or for high volume routes like New York to Los Angeles.
Let me tell you a secret: the markup on economy consolidator fares are very low, ranging from $10 to $50 per person. This isn’t very much, often times less than 5% of the gross amount.
My intention is to shed light on the process of buying international consolidator airfare. Some travelers have never bought a consolidator fare in which case I hope this article is eye opening and you save money on your next international trip. Others have bought consolidator tickets in which case I hope you get a few tips and some ‘behind the scenes’ information.
International Travel via Consolidator (Bulk) Airfares. Details and Suggestions. by TravelAlchemist is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at travelalchemist.posterous.com.
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