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SENIOR AIR FARE MAY NOT BE THE BEST DEAL

All too often, senior travelers automatically assume that an available "senior" discount is necessarily their best buy. Not so. A deal available to travelers of any age may well be better. One obvious case is on an international air trip, where a discounted ticket from a consolidator often beats the standard 10 percent senior discount by hundreds of dollars.

Consolidators are the "outlet stores" of the airline business. They sell discount tickets that can cut your airfare by as much as $200 to $300 on a long overseas trip. Reductions are greatest on flights to Asia, all year, and to Europe in the summer, when list prices are high.

To Asia, a typical list price economy round-trip excursion from the West Coast might be priced between $1,000 and $1,200. The standard 10 percent senior discount would cut that figure by $120. But a traveler of any age can buy a consolidator ticket for, perhaps, $700 or $800, knocking anywhere from $200 to $500 off the cost.

To Europe, a typical peak season list price economy round-trip excursion from the East Coast to London or Frankfurt might be priced at $700 to $900, with a senior reduction between $70 and $90. A consolidator ticket, on the other hand, might well cut $200 or more off the list price.

Those reductions sound great, but there are a few cautions. Consolidator tickets are highly restricted. Most entail one or more of the following limitations: (a) a refund only through the consolidator, a refund penalty that's higher than the airlines' usual fee, sometimes no refund at all; (b) no frequent flier credit; (c) no switching to another airline if your flight is canceled or delayed -- you'll have to wait until your original airline can get you going -- and no meals or overnight accommodations; (d) no seat assignment until you arrive at the airport for departure; and (e) no special meals. Moreover, restrictions that apply to cheap list-price tickets may also apply.

You can't put a dollar value on most of those limitations, but you can on frequent flier mileage. Credit is worth 1 cent to 2 cents a mile, so on a round-trip to Europe, for example, the credit you earn is worth anywhere from $70 to $220, depending on the route and how you value the credit. If frequent flier credit is important, don't buy a no-credit consolidator ticket unless it undercuts the airline's best list price, less the 10 percent senior discount, by at least the value of the credit you'd lose.

There's nothing wrong or shady about a consolidator ticket. If airlines didn't want you to have them, they wouldn't cut deals with consolidators.

But you may run a risk if you buy your consolidator ticket from a discount agency or one that advertises itself as a consolidator. While many such agencies are fine, a few may be on thin financial ice. A shaky agency may delay buying your ticket for several weeks or even months after it has your money. During that time gap, the airline may sell out the seats it has allocated to consolidator travel. You may wind up not having the seat you thought you bought -- and the consolidator promised. And if the consolidator fails during that time, you get neither your ticket nor your money back.

The worst horror stories I've heard about consolidator tickets are from travelers who bought from a discount agency far from their home city, then didn't get their tickets on time -- or at all. They couldn't go to the agent's office to demand timely ticket delivery, nor could they conveniently apply any legal pressure such as small-claims court.

You can easily avoid the risk. Some of the biggest consolidators are strictly wholesalers that sell only to travel agencies. Go to a travel agency you trust, in your home city, and ask an agent there to (1) find the best available consolidator fare and (2) check on any better senior deals that might be available. That way, you'll pay minimum price at minimal risk.

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