Most people believe that the best deals on international airline tickets can be found online. Surf enough Web travel agencies and aggregators, the conventional wisdom goes, and you're sure to turn up the lowest fare. Trouble is, conventional wisdom isn't really all that wise. To get rock-bottom prices on international airfares, a dedicated corps of savvy travelers have begun buying from so-called ethnic travel agencies—small businesses in urban areas that specialize in selling tickets to one country and to a predominantly immigrant clientele. The payoff: fares that are often hundreds of dollars cheaper than the best price available from any other source. How do these agencies do it? Traditional travel agencies sell tickets directly from the airlines, but ethnic agencies often sell tickets provided by wholesalers (or consolidators), who buy unsold seats from carriers at a fraction of the going rate. These savings are then passed on to the traveler.
"The agency I use has the best prices I've found—even better than the ones online," says Shashi Kochar of Naperville, Illinois, who regularly buys tickets from New York's Suma Travels for herself and her family to visit relatives in India. "I've never been to the agency, but I feel comfortable doing business with it. I always save at least a hundred fifty dollars on each ticket."
While determining the number of ethnic agencies is difficult (the American Society of Travel Agents doesn't track them), it's safe to say that there are hundreds across the country, particularly in Asian, Eastern European, Caribbean, and Latin American neighborhoods in large metropolitan areas. They sometimes advertise in foreign-language newspapers, and it's usually easier to find them in the Yellow Pages than online.
Condé Nast Traveler solicited fares from a variety of ethnic agencies all over the United States and found that they do indeed turn up great bargains. In fact, when compared with the lowest rates online—including those posted on ITASoftware.com, Kayak.com, SideStep.com, and the airlines' own Web sites—we found that calling an ethnic agency could save hundreds of dollars. But we also encountered some difficulties. For example, when we called the Allerton Travel Agency in the Bronx to inquire about a fare to Thailand, a representative was somewhat vague about the ticket price and then asked for a first and last name. When we called back to confirm the fare, he tried to tell us that we had committed to buying the ticket, despite the fact that we had never authorized a purchase.
Questionable sales tactics aside, Allerton Travel offered us a fare of $1,285 from New York to Bangkok on either Northwest or United just 14 days prior to departure. That was $100 less than the lowest fare available on the leading travel search sites and more than $1,500 less than the lowest available on the Web sites of the two carriers.
Ethnic agencies, however, didn't always deliver the best bargain. We did find lower fares on some major travel Web sites, but only on itineraries with connecting flights. For nonstop tickets, ethnic agencies came in with the lowest price nearly every time. In our exhaustive search for bargains, we discovered that online consolidators can also pay off in savings. We researched fares on AirlineConsolidator.com and found that, while the results were uneven, the site did turn up some that were cheaper than those on other Web sites; in one case, it even beat the ethnic agencies. From Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur, AirlineConsolidator.com offered a fare of $1,174, which was $185 less than the lowest offered by Kayak.com; it also produced the best price on a route from Honolulu to Bangkok. And from San Francisco to Bangkok, AirlineConsolidator.com offered a $1,208 ticket, a savings of $140 to $263 over other Web sites' fares—even beating an ethnic agency's quote by $484.
Most tickets sold by ethnic travel agencies are consolidator tickets, which are highly restricted—usually completely nonrefundable and nonchangeable. "These tickets will absolutely save you money," says George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog.com, a site that monitors airline pricing. "But personally, I wouldn't buy them. They're kind of use 'em or lose 'em," he says, noting that, unlike regular tickets, they will not be accepted by another carrier in the event of a flight cancellation or an extended delay and will not earn you mileage.
And no matter how well you plan, a snafu is sometimes unavoidable. Richard Carpenter, a pathologist from Irvington, Virginia, used a travel agency that secured tickets from an air consolidator to book a trip to France last year as a thirtieth-wedding-anniversary present for his wife. He locked in a $3,500 package with flights on Air France, but on the day of departure, the couple missed their plane after being delayed by traffic near Washington's Dulles Airport. The carrier agreed to book them on a later flight—for an additional $2,000. "I thought I would only have to pay a hundred-dollar change fee for each of us," says Carpenter. "I was floored."
While he was contesting the fee, the later flight was canceled. At that point, an Air France agent informed the Carpenters that the rebooking would now cost more than $10,000, even though they were told that there were 68 empty seats in economy. With that news, the couple canceled their trip. Carpenter spent months writing to Air France and his travel agency—to no avail. He even contacted the consolidator but says it was unresponsive, telling him that it works only with travel agents.
While the Carpenters' agency, the consolidator, and Air France failed to resolve the couple's complaint, technically all three were within their legal rights. The fact is, not all airline tickets are created equal, and rock-bottom fares usually come with rock-bottom protection.
The best defense
So how to take advantage of the lowest fares while minimizing the risk? Before using any travel agency, consider a few key points:
- The best agencies are often accredited by established trade organizations, such as the American Society of Travel Agents, the Association of Retail Travel Agents, and the International Airlines Travel Agent Network; some states require agencies to be licensed. And if an agent is vague in response to direct questions and doesn't provide a telephone number or address on its Web site, be wary.
- As for consolidator tickets, the Better Business Bureau suggests that you contact the airline directly to check the status of your reservation before paying the consolidator: A reservation may not represent a confirmed seat on the flight.
- The Better Business Bureau also cautions that many consolidators accept only cash or add surcharges for using a credit card. Always use a credit card to protect yourself against travel scams: Never pay for a plane ticket with cash or a check. Credit cards are covered under the Fair Credit Billing Act, which protects you from unauthorized fees and charges for goods and services that weren't delivered as agreed. In other words, if a travel agent doesn't issue the ticket you purchased, the credit card company will help you recover your losses.
© 2013 Condé Nast Traveler