On the Road: Understanding airlines’ consolidator tickets - The Buffalo News
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On the Road: Understanding airlines’ consolidator tickets

It all seems so easy, doesn’t it? You go online, you buy an airline ticket, you go and you come back. That’s the best-case scenario. Worst case? You’re stuck in the Des Moines airport because bad weather has grounded you.

But what if that ticket is part of a package? Or what if you bought from – gasp! – a consolidator? (Yes, they do still exist.) Then what? And who even uses a consolidator these days?

You’ll often see packages for sale on online travel agencies, or OTAs, such as Travelocity, Orbitz and Expedia. You’re buying a bundled vacation — air, hotel and sometimes car – and you’re saving lots of money. But that airline ticket, called a bulk ticket, is a different animal.

If you have a bulk ticket and you have a problem with the air portion of your package, “call your online agency immediately and then, while you’re on the phone with them, you’re walking to the airline ticket counter,” said Rick Seaney, co-founder and chief executive of FareCompare.com, an airline ticket comparison site. The OTA will know the inner workings of your package, but the airline is the one with the power to help.

One of the issues, Seaney said, is that you may not know you have a bulk ticket. “If you get back a confirmation on your hotel, car and airline, and (it has) a reservation number but doesn’t (show) any monetary value, then likely it’s a bulk ticket,” Seaney said.

With such packages, it’s vitally important to read the fine print – so boring, so necessary – so you’ll know under which restrictions you’re operating.

Like bulk tickets, consolidator tickets also are unpublished airfares. We used to hear more about consolidators in the olden days – those days being before the Internet became the main conduit of low-priced fares, said Joe Brancatelli, whose JoeSentMe.com newsletter is the business travelers’ bible.

“To some extent, they are the outlet mall of the airlines,” he said.

They offer amazingly good deals on airfares that would ordinarily be out of reach for those of us who are leisure travelers (and also for small-business owners).

Consolidator tickets are different, a little out of the mainstream and often misunderstood.

But some consolidators operated in a gray area that tended toward black. Which is to say some of those who sold those tickets were crooks who took your money and ran.

So how do you know who’s a good guy and who’s shady?

“The problem is, under the umbrella term [‘consolidator’], you have all kinds of people selling all kinds of tickets,” said Blake Fleetwood, president of CookTravel.net, which sells international first- and business-class tickets

His recommendation: Know who you’re dealing with or leave it to your travel agent “who’s not going to steer you to a bad ticket,” he said.

“Basically, your travel agent should have a regular consolidator that he works with and has for many years and trusts very much,” Fleetwood said.

That’s true for Sonia Robledo, owner of the Travels by Sonia agency in Riverside, Calif. “I will not deal with people I don’t know or haven’t worked with,” she said. Because of her long association with some vendors, she knows how to navigate those deals.

She buys the ticket from the consolidator who gets a commission from the airline, and she then sells it to the client at a slightly higher price, which is pretty much the way selling any product works.

But, she noted, sometimes those tickets make for difficult travel: You might have to make a couple of connections on a consolidator ticket. You must weigh the cost of the ticket against the inconvenience, she said.

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