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4 airline booking secrets that save you money

Do consolidator fares still exist? Are they different from what you can find online yourself? The answers are yes and yes — but  like any fare, you’ll trade something for the price break.
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If my e-mail inbox is any gauge of the current climate, travelers are looking for ways to cut costs on airfare. I’ve gotten lots of questions lately about “consolidator” fares.

Do the bucket shops of yesteryear — which release blocks of tickets at deep discounts — still exist? Are they different from what you can find online yourself? The short answers are yes and yes — but as with any fare, you’ll always trade something for the price break.

First, some background: Shortly after airlines deregulated in 1978, it became clear to them that advertising discounted fares made it easy for competing carriers to beat prices. To fill up less popular flights, airlines began quietly selling discounted seats through consolidators. You’d often find these fire-sale fares advertised in the windows of storefront travel agencies, or even at small grocery stores and bodegas.

Consolidators have come a long way since then. Airlines now see them as a reliable way to sell a percentage of fares, and negotiate annual contracts, establish revenue targets, and tightly control sales through a specific kind of booking class. The rates are also known as “private” or “bulk” fares. Consolidators have contracts with airlines to sell private fares at lower prices than those that are published.

They usually can’t — or won’t — sell tickets straight to you, but instead offer them through travel agents (including sites like Travelocity) or through specialty companies like the ones that advertise in Sunday newspaper travel sections. Domestic consolidator fares have been all but completely squeezed out by travel Web sites, and because airlines are decreasing their service (mostly domestically), you’ll find even fewer of them available for U.S.-only flights, while tickets to Europe are still a good bet.

How to get a consolidator fare
It’s best not to try to secure these fares on your own. Through years of relationship-building, a travel agent will have a much better grasp of which consolidators are good and which aren’t. If something goes wrong with a consolidator ticket you’ve bought through a trusted online or traditional agency, the agency should absorb your loss.

According to Simon Bramley, vice president of flights for Travelocity, the company’s guarantee to “make things right” would function this way, buffering you from a possible loss.

When to find them
Look for a consolidator fare when you’re traveling coach internationally, you’re traveling last-minute, or both. Because consolidators don’t actually buy the seats, they’re usually granted a window of opportunity either early in the booking process (to ensure that a minimum number of seats get sold) or later (to compensate for unsold seats). Your travel agent can even find last-minute business-class seats for up to 50 percent off.

Ask about restrictions
You may think that because you’re getting a bargain-basement price, your ticket will be nonrefundable and nonchangeable — a heavily restricted “use it or lose it” fare. That’s not always the case, but you should ask your agent about the various restrictions. Two restrictions you’ll always find: You’ll never be able to get an upgrade using frequent-flier miles, and you won’t be able to pay to upgrade to a different, less restricted fare class.

Should I still comparison-shop?
Of course. Many airlines now offer low-fare guarantees. Even if you find an “exclusive” consolidator fare elsewhere, the airline will likely match or beat it. And there’s always the option of searching online fares offered by consolidators but having your travel agent book the ticket for you. An elusive fare can be well worth the wait.