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Airline Ticket Consolidators and Bucket Shops FAQ


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Archive-name: travel/air/consolidators
Posting-Frequency: monthly
Last-modified: 2001/04/01
Version: 11.3
URL: http://hasbrouck.org/faq
Copyright: (c) 1991-2001 Edward Hasbrouck
Maintainer: Edward Hasbrouck <edward@hasbrouck.org>

See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
Airline Ticket Consolidators and Bucket Shops FAQ

1. About this FAQ
2. Disclaimer
3. Domestic vs. international airfares
4. Airfares within North America
5. International airfares
6. Finding international ticket discounters
7. Last-minute discounts?
8. Dealing with international ticket discounters
9. Making reservations
10. Contacting the FAQ-maintainer

-----------------

1. ABOUT THIS FAQ

This is a monthly posting to the Usenet newsgroups
rec.travel.air and rec.travel.marketplace, answering
Frequently-Asked Questions (FAQ's) about consolidators,
bucket shops, and discounted international airline tickets.

Since its first posting in 1991, this FAQ has benefited
greatly from suggestions from readers of the FAQ and of my
book, and of participants in my travel planning seminars. I
welcome your suggestions for future versions.

I've had to choose between making this FAQ too long and
leaving too many common questions unanswered.  If you have
further questions after reading this FAQ, there's a good
chance you'll find them answered in my books: "The Practical
Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace" (March 2001;
now shipping) and "The Practical Nomad: How To Travel Around
The World" (2nd edition, September 2000).  I also give
travel planning seminars and talks at hostels, bookstores,
travel stores, and other travel events. For more information
on my books and talks, see <http://hasbrouck.org>.

The latest version of this FAQ is available at:
<http://hasbrouck.org/faq>

You can get the latest version of this FAQ by e-mail
by sending any message to <faq@hasbrouck.org>

Other mirrors of this FAQ (not always the most recent) are at:

<http://www.faqs.org/faqs/travel/air/consolidators>
<http://www.travel-library.com/air-travel/consolidators.htm>
<http://www.guidebookwriters.com/regions/rtw/airfares.html>
<http://www.gonomad.com/transports/0012/hasbrouck_miniguidefaq.asp>

2. DISCLAIMER

Neither this nor any of my posting is, or is intended to be,
a solicitation for business.  I'm a travel agent and travel
writer because I love travel, and I want to encourage and
empower people to learn about and explore the world.  I
maintain this FAQ at my own expense on my own time, not my
publisher's or my employer's, for the pleasure and
satisfaction it gives me, not in any hope of remuneration.
Most of those on rec.travel.air are, it appears, traveling
mainly within North America, or on one-way or round-trip
tickets to single destinations.  I am not seeking this
business, and would decline it if offered.  The agency where
I work, AirTreks.com, <http://www.airtreks.com> specializes
exclusively in around-the-world, circle-Pacific, and other
multi-stop international tickets.  One of the most important
pieces of advice I would give anyone selecting a travel
agent is to find a specialist in your sort of travel.  There
is no one best travel agent for everyone or everything, and
I am happy to remain in my small niche.

3. DOMESTIC VS. INTERNATIONAL AIRFARES

Much of the confusion about airfares comes from the fact
that there are *completely* different systems of airfares for
domestic flights within any given country and for
international flights.

The USA is the world's largest air travel market, and people
from the USA travel within the USA much more than they
travel abroad. As a result, many people from the USA --
including many USA travel writers unfamiliar with the inner
workings of the air travel industry -- make the mistake of
applying their experience or knowledge of domestic USA
airfares to international airfares, where they don't
necessarily apply at all.

Domestic and international airfares, and the optimum
consumer strategies for dealing with them, have *nothing* in
common. Any advice about airfares, from any source (no
matter how seemingly authoritative) that isn't explicitly
identified as to whether it pertains to domestic or
international airfares, is useless (at best) and misleading
(at worst), and should in either case be completely
disregarded.

4. AIRFARES WITHIN NORTH AMERICA

Until recently, there were almost no "bucket shops",
consolidators, or similar discounts on travel on scheduled
airlines (i.e. other than on charter flights) within North
America (within and between the USA, Canada, and the
Caribbean).

Domestic USA airfares were deregulated in 1978. For domestic
USA fares, since deregulation, airlines can publish pretty
much any fares they want, and change them at whim. If they
want to lower the fare, they publish a lower fare.  Once
published and filed with the government, a fare is available
directly from the airline as well as from all its
"appointed" agents, including brick-and-mortar travel
agencies, online agencies, and those that sell both online
and offline.

So getting the best domestic USA fare meant learning how to
search whatever computerized reservation system (CRS) the
travel agent or Web site uses (the major ones are pretty
comparable on completeness of listings of published USA
domestic fares), figuring out which seats on which flight
itineraries it applies to, booking seats accordingly, and
issuing the ticket at the price determined by the CRS
pricing robot.

It's natural to assume that by going directly to the airline
and "cutting out the person in the middle" you would pay
less than if you went through a travel agent or an
independent Web site.  But airlines have no reason, and
certainly no obligation, to offer you the lowest price.
Their goal, whether on the phone or on the Internet, is to
convince you to pay as much as possible. Asking an airline
how much they want you to pay for a ticket is like asking
the IRS how much tax they want you to pay: they'll give you
an answer, but there's no reason to expect it to be the one
that's in *your* best interest.

You may be better off buying your tickets (or preparing your
tax return) with the assistance of an independent consultant
-- a travel agent -- not beholden to any particular
airline(s), even if you have to pay for their services.  The
worst place to buy your ticket, if you care about price, is
directly from an airline.  If you buy tickets from a web-
based ticket sales robot, look closely at whether it is
owned by an airline (as Travelocity.com was until recently
owned and controlled primarily by AMR, the corporate parent
of American Airlines, and as Trip.com is owned primarily 
by airline-owned reservation system Galileo/Apollo).

In an effort to deprive the public of the independent advice
of travel agents who might recommend their competitors, USA
airlines have so reduced the commissions they pay travel
agents for issuing USA and Canada tickets that most agencies
have found it necessary to charge fees for this service.

Are travel agents' services worth paying for?  Surveys by
journalists and consumer organizations have consistently
found that good travel agents can use their expertise in
finding the best fares to save most travelers enough money
to cover the agents' fees.  This shouldn't be surprising
when one considers that the CRS's on which all airlines,
travel agents, and robotic Web-based ticket sales sites rely
for their data are owned by one or more of the airlines, and
are optimized for their purposes: getting you to pay more,
not less.  The last thing CRS's are optimized for is getting
travelers the lowest prices. It takes considerable skill and
practice to use these tools to achieve a purpose directly
contrary to the developers' intent.

But in theory, the best published fare for any domestic USA
flight should be available directly from some airline, if
you knew exactly what to ask for.  If you fly often enough,
and value your time cheaply enough, to make it worth
investing your time in learning to make your own
reservations, you can eventually learn to do almost as well
for yourself on domestic USA tickets, in many cases, as all
but the best travel agents.

Don't waste your time, or that of a travel agent, by calling
international ticket discounters for discounts on flights
within North America.

The best deals on airline tickets for travel within North
America are special "Visit USA" and "Visit North America"
fares for foreign visitors that are sold only outside North
America. So foreign visitors should buy their tickets for
travel within the USA in their home countries, and should
not expect to be able to get cheaper prices once they get to
the USA. Tickets within North America are invariably at
least as expensive at the last minute as if you plan ahead,
and usually much more expensive. Drastic "last-minute"
discounts are, for the most part, a myth.

From time to time, some agencies are able to offer discounts
on certain airlines for short-notice travel within North
America, but in all but a few cases their prices are
comparable to, rarely lower than, the lowest advance-
purchase fares.  So they are worth seeking out for last-
minute travel, but less likely to offer significant
advantages over published fares if you can plan ahead.

These domestic USA consolidator deals -- amounting basically
to waivers of advance-purchase requirements -- change often,
and are structured and marketed to make sure that these
tickets are not usable by last-minute business travelers.

Most travel agencies  -- including most brick-and-mortar
travel agencies *and* most online agencies -- are useless in
finding consolidator tickets. Going to three different
published-fare Web sites and asking for prices on the same
flights is like going to car dealers and asking each of
them, "What's the manufacturer's suggested retail price of
this car?"  One of them may point out a model you hadn't
known about, but all else being equal they'll all tell you
the same list price, and looking at multiple sites that only
list the same published fares is largely a waste of time.

Don't be misled by claims to "guarantee the lowest fare".
All that means is that the lowest applicable *published*
fare.  So what?  You want an agency that charges less than
the published fare. (The new airline- owned online travel
agency Orbitz.com uses the even more misleading term,
"publicly-available fare", as though consolidator prices
weren't publicly available.) Unless an agency specifically
advertises "consolidator" prices or "prices lower than the
airlines", you can assume that their offerings are limited
to published (list) prices. If you want discounts, you have
to go to a discounter.  How do you find one?

There is no single source of information or comparisons of
prices from different consolidators.  Each lists only their
own prices.  At present, there are only a few major
consolidators for domestic USA flights and flights within
North America (the USA, Canada, and the Caribbean), as
discussed below.  These are listed merely as a convenience,
*not* an endorsement. Caveat emptor.

To avoid surprises, be sure to ask about all taxes, service
fees, and charges for ticket delivery or other incidentals.
Get a total ("What is the total amount that will be charged
to my credit card for airfare and *all* other fees and
services?") before you agree to pay anything.

* Cheap Tickets (cheaptickets.com) sells mostly by phone,
but does an increasingly large part of its business through
its Web site.  Prior to Priceline, Cheap Tickets was
probably the single largest consolidator of domestic USA
tickets.  The Cheap Tickets Web site lists *only* their
consolidator prices; it's up to you to check a published-
fare site to see if a published sale fare might be lower.

* 1Travel.com / Onetravel.com is the least-known of the
major online domestic USA consolidators, but offers the
widest array of choices and, as of now, the only integrated
display of comparative display of published and consolidator
prices. Of course, they list only their own consolidator
prices, so some other consolidator might have a lower price.
But at least you don't have to check a separate published-
fare site to see how their consolidator prices compare to
current published sales.  They also offer (in the same
integrated comparison), so-called "white-label fares" that
offer many of the advantages of tickets from Priceline
without the drawbacks of hidden prices or unforseeable
schedules. These "white-label" prices are listed with the
number of connections, approximate time of day, and price --
everything except the airline name, which is provided only
after you have paid. (The most efficient interface to the
white-label fares is at <http://www.farebeater.com>, after
you first select flights and then click on "Farebeater
Ultra" to get cheaper options.)
 
* Hotwire.com's entire concept is an imitation of
1Travel.com's "white label" fares. The differences are that
(1) Hotwire sells *only* these tickets on unspecified
airlines, so you have to do your own comparisons of
published and consolidator fares through some other source,
and (2) in exchange for giving them shares of ownership in
Hotwire, Hotwire has gotten more, larger airlines to offer
tickets through it than through 1travel.com.  It appears
that Hotwire has agreements with most of the airlines that
participate in Priceline, and that Hotwire's prices are
similar to the lowest offers Priceline is willing to accept.
So Hotwire seems to have eliminated any reason to bother
with Priceline, even as a last resort. Hotwire initially
sold only domestic tickets within the USA. In February 2001
Hotwire announced that they had started selling
international tickets as well.  But their international
offerings still appear to be limited, and it's still too
soon to tell how their international prices will compare
with other (online and offline) consolidators.
 
* Priceline.com is a consolidator with the huge disadvantage
that they don't reveal their prices.  Don't confuse
Priceline with an auction.  Priceline says themselves that
they are not an auction.  Priceline has contract prices with
airlines just like any other consolidator.  "Name your own
price" is just a pricing mechanism.  It ensures that you pay
as much as you are willing, and no less.  If you offer $50
more than Priceline's contracted cost, or $500 more, the
airline (in most cases) gets the same amount.  Priceline
pockets the difference.  Individual offers to Priceline are
not sent to the airlines, not are they individually
evaluated by the airlines -- they are evaluated only by
Priceline to see if you have offered enough more than
Priceline's contracted cost to make it worth their while. In
most cases airlines don't even know how much you have paid,
or how much Priceline has made on your tickets.  It's
throwing money away to make an offer to Priceline unless
it's lower than the price from Hotwire or 1Travel.com, and
it's unlikely that such a lowball offer will be high enough
for Priceline to accept. So why bother?

* Microsoft Expedia's "Flight Price Matcher" is an imitation
of Priceline's hidden-price system.  (Microsoft recently
paid Priceline to settle a patent infringement lawsuit.)
I've seen no evidence that Microsoft has set their minimum
acceptable profit margins any lower than Priceline, or that
Microsoft has negotiated lower costs from the airlines than
Priceline. You can't make offers to two such services at
once without risking having both accepted, nonrefundably.
So I can't see much reason to bother with this also-ran
unless you just feel better about giving your money to Mr.
Bill than to Priceline's rival billionaire Jay Walker.

In April 2001 the largest online travel agency,
Travelocity.com, which from its founding had limited its
offerings to published fares, finally bowed to competitive
pressure and began adding consolidator prices for air
tickets.  Microsoft Expedia has also begun offering some
regular consolidator prices, not just its "Flight Price
Matcher" scheme. But Travelocity.com and Expedia.com are
still newcomers and minor players in the consolidator game,
and it's too early to tell how succesful their imitations of
1travel.com, Hotwire.com, and priceline.com will be.

Lowestfare.com used to have an exclusive deal with TWA
giving them discounts on all TWA fares, but TWA was able to
get the deal terminated as part of its bankruptcy, and it
won't be transferred to TWA's new owner, American Airlines.
(Lowestfare.com remains one of the larger online
consolidators for international tickets, however.)

Further discussion of online sources for *domestic* USA
tickets is beyond he scope of this FAQ.  I dealing with
these issues in much more detail in my latest book, "The
Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace".

5. INTERNATIONAL AIRFARES

Unlike domestic fares in the USA, international airfares
remain regulated, and the official fares published by the
airlines give little indication of the actual prices at
which agents sell tickets on those airlines.  It's as much a
waste of time to consult Travelocity or any other Web site
for international airfares (especially for more complex,
long-haul, or multi-stop itineraries) as it is to call a
travel agent (rather than checking airline fares yourself on
the Web) for travel within North America.

The differences between domestic and international airfares
are largely due to the differences in how they are, or are
not, regulated.  Unlike deregulated domestic USA airfares,
international airfares are regulated both by international
treaties and by an international airline price-fixing
cartel, the International Air Transportation Association
(IATA).

It's worth noting that *every* USA-based airline operating
scheduled international passenger flights has *voluntarily*
joined IATA. USA airlines' invocations of "open markets",
"free trade", and "open skies" can be dismissed as
completely hypocritical and self-serving drivel until such
time as they exercise their right to withdraw from IATA, as
any of them could at any time.  USA airlines are allowed to
participate in IATA "traffic conferences" only because of a
special exemption granted them from USA anti-trust laws which
normally forbid such industry-wide collusion on prices.

Why do airlines join IATA?  What is the reason for any
cartel? It exists to keep prices, and airlines' profits,
artificially high.

International airfares are set by international agreement
and regulated by the airline cartel, IATA. Most
international airlines are closely related to, if not
directly owned by, their national governments. Most
governments in turn have an interest in protecting the
profits of their national airline, and the IATA fares are
therefore set artificially high.

As a condition of membership in IATA, airlines agree
(voluntarily, remember) to sell tickets only at
IATA-approved prices.  IATA rules officially prohibit
discounting, and in some countries these rules are actually
enforced -- one reason some countries have no local ticket
discounters (although tickets originating in those countries
can often be bought in other countries, if you know where to
look).

Airlines like the cartel because it raises the prices paid
by price-insensitive business travelers.  But it's not the
whole story.  If airlines sold tickets only at IATA fares,
they would have too many empty seats that might be salable
at less-than-official prices.

The revenue-maximization problem for the airlines is how to
get some money for seats that can't be filled at official
fares, without destroying the benefits of the cartel by
allowing people who would be willing to pay full fare to get
away with paying any less.

The system the airlines have developed for preserving the
cartel while actually selling discounted tickets at less
than official fares relies on the intermediary of the travel
agency, and the loophole that neither IATA nor international
airfare treaties restricts how much commission an airline
can pay an agent for selling a ticket.  So the airline can
pay a large commission to a travel agent, then turn its back
and avert its eyes while the travel agent rebates some
portion of the commission to the traveler.

All sales of international tickets on scheduled airlines at
less than official fares are made through travel agencies,
not directly by the airlines, and ultimately depend on
rebating of commissions by travel agents to customers.  This
is how travel agencies can and do, quite legally, offer
lower prices for international tickets than the airlines
themselves.

Airlines know what is happening, of course, but they have to
pretend they don't.  In order to maintain plausible
deniability and keep their hands clean with IATA, airlines
must maintain the fiction that all tickets are sold at
official fares.  Since airlines cannot admit that they are
even aware of discounting, airlines cannot admit to any
knowledge of agents' actual discounted selling prices.
Strange but true: by the nature of the system of
discounting, airlines do not usually know themselves, and
couldn't admit to knowing if they did, by which agents or at
what prices their tickets are most cheaply sold.

All official fares are "published" either in hardcopy in the
Official Airline Guides (OAG) or the Air Tariff, or
electronically in the computerized reservation systems
(CRS's) such as Sabre, Apollo, Amadeus, Worldspan, and
Gabriel.  By the very nature of the IATA price-fixing
system, airlines cannot admit any knowledge of the fact that
agents are selling tickets for less than the official fares.
So only published fares are shown in any CRS.  Since all the
major CRS's are owned by the airlines, no CRS contains any
publicly accessible information on agents' actual discounted
selling prices.

The glut of *official* international fare information
available through gateways to CRS's such as GetThere.com,
Travelocity, Microsoft Expedia, etc. is deceptively
comprehensive-seeming and impressive but fundamentally
useless in finding discounted prices.  If you want to pay
less than the official international fare, you have to buy
your ticket from an agent who gives discounts, not from an
airline directly or from a source (such as a CRS Web site)
that is limited to published fares.

6. FINDING INTERNATIONAL TICKET DISCOUNTERS

I'm often asked for a list of good discounters, but there is
no such comprehensive list.  The closest things to it are
the lists of wholesale suppliers maintained by the best
retail discounters. But those are lists of wholesalers, and
wouldn't do you any good even if any agency were willing to
reveal its list of suppliers, which none with a list worth
anything would do. (Discount retail agents compete at
negotiating deals and tracking down wholesale suppliers, and
guard their information about prices, commissions, and
suppliers zealously.)  Any list of retail discounters would
become obsolete too quickly to be useful.  Instead, I'll try
to give an outline of the types of international airline
ticket discounters and how to find them.

Many people have heard that they can get cheaper deals from
"consolidators" or "bucket shops" than from the airlines.
I'll try to explain what these terms mean, but their
meanings aren't universally agreed upon even within the
industry. If you want a discounted ticket from point A to
point B, the best way to start your enquiry to a travel
agency is *not*, "Are you a consolidator" (they may say,
No", because they are a retail agency and consider the term
"consolidator" to apply only to wholesale-only agencies)
nor, "Are you a bucket shop?" (they may say, "No", because
they consider "bucket shop" to be an insulting, pejorative
term). Ask, "Do you have discounts from point A to point B."

"Consolidator" and "bucket shop" are sometimes used
interchangeably, but aren't exactly the same.

Consolidators are agencies that have discount agreements
with the airlines. In most cases, especially with the USA
and other big airlines, consolidators are wholesalers who
sell only through retail agencies, not directly to the
public. In any case, wholesale consolidators do NOT offer
retail service. If you want a straightforward round-trip
ticket, know what airline you want to go on, and exactly
what dates, and that airline has the best route and price,
fine. But of course many itineraries aren't like that, and
most people need a retail agent's help to figure out what's
the best ticket for them.

Most publicly-available lists of "consolidators"
indiscriminately mix wholesale consolidators who also sell
directly to the public with retail bucket shops. But retail
customers are charged more than wholesale customers by the
same consolidators, so you can often get the same price --
and better service, and advice -- by going through a retail
agency even if the wholesaler is (minimally) willing to deal
with you directly.

Any retail travel agent can buy tickets from consolidators,
and most USA agents who do significant international
ticketing are familiar with some of the biggest
consolidators for major carriers. Bucket shops are retail
agencies that specialize in knowing the full range of
consolidators (every airline has many consolidators) and in
knowing other techniques of fare construction, importing
tickets, etc. for discount prices.

Consolidators basically fall into three categories:

(A) Wholesale-only consolidators

These generally have no retail sales or advertising, and
don't want to be known to the general public.  (You may have
seen the names of some of these consolidators, however, in
the validation box of tickets bought through a retail
agency.) These are the consolidators most local travel
agents know about. They generally deal only with round trips
originating in the country where they are based, and are
common in the USA, UK, and Australia, among other countries
They advertise only in the travel agency trade press, not in
consumer publications.  Often they forbid retail agents who
buy tickets from them from giving out their direct contact
information, since their thin wholesale margins include no
allowance for retail customer service.  They will not sell
directly to the public; if you aren't really a professional
travel agent, they will figure it out.

(B) Destination specialists

Agencies that specialize in a particular destination or
region often have negotiated discounts on tickets to that
region which they offer both to their own (retail)
customers and to other agencies as a wholesaler. frequently
an agency operating and retailing tours to a particular
country will have a discount agreement with the airline it
uses for its tours (generally the national carrier of the
destination) and will also sell wholesale tickets on that
airline. One reason they do the wholesale business, even if
their markup on wholesale tickets is very low, is to boost
their volume of production (sales) with the airline, as many
discount contracts are contingent on a specified sales
volume, and/or have year-end bonuses or additional
commission rebates based on sales thresholds. Sometimes they
are "general sales agents," that is, official
representatives of an airline (usually a small one) that
doesn't have service or its own office in a country.

You can often find agencies like this through publications
targeted at immigrants from the country you want to go to.
Even in foreign-language ethnic publications the travel ads
are generally recognizable, with at least the phone number,
the destination cities, and the round-trip prices in Latin
letters and numbers! Even more than general bucket-shop ads
in the Sunday newspaper travel supplements, a quick glance
at the ethnic press will give you the best idea of the
absolute lower limit of possible prices for tickets bought
long in advance for travel in the most unpopular season on
the worst airlines with the worst connections in the most
undesirable or expensive stopover points.

But if you want the cheapest possible round-trip from the
USA home to India, Ireland, Nigeria, or wherever, no
general-purpose agency, even a general discount agency, is
likely to be able to beat the lowest prices of a no-service,
bare-bones, specialist agency within that particular ethnic
community that sells nothing else but a massive volume of
round-trip tickets to a single destination.

Realize that the lowest advertised price is usually either a
loss leader and/or a bait-and-switch gambit to attract
callers. The lowest advertised prices for transoceanic
tickets from the USA, for example, generally range from
wholesale cost for the cheapest ticket to about $20 below
cost. It is unlikely that you will actually get a ticket for
your itinerary at these prices.

Most advertised prices are exclusive of taxes and perhaps
other fees; even in the most expensive season the lowest
advertised prices are usually for travel in low season,
whenever that is.

On the other hand, shopping solely on price is a good way to
ensure that the agency from which you eventually buy your
ticket has cut its margin so thin that they can't afford to
provide an acceptable standard of service. And even
price-sensitive travelers, especially those who aren't
intimately familiar with their destination, may find that
it's worth paying a bit more for reliability, service, and a
modicum of advice.

(C) "Bucket shops" and other multi-stop specialists

These are discount retail agencies that specialize in trips
more complicated than simple round trips, often to a wider
range of destinations or to multiple destinations. Many
bucket shops negotiate their own deals directly with the
airlines for routes where they can't get good (or any)
discounts from (A) or (B). They use these deals for their
own retail customers, and frequently also to sell to other
bucket shops. (Sometimes they negotiate these deals
specifically to be able to export the tickets to bucket
shops in other countries, as when a Singapore bucket shop
gets permission to discount tickets originating in the USA)
Bucket shops' own deals tend to emphasize one-way tickets,
which are essential for constructing around-the-world
tickets and which often aren't available from other
general-purpose consolidators.

7. LAST-MINUTE DISCOUNTS?

Many people have heard that they can get a cheaper ticket if
they wait until the last minute, when "airlines sell off
blocks of unsold seats cheaply to consolidators, who sell
them for whatever they can get". *This is not true.*
Airlines and agencies don't really work that way. It is
sometimes possible to get a cheap ticket on very short
notice, but you rarely get a cheaper ticket than if you had
planned ahead, and it may be impossible to get a reasonable
price, or even to find any available space at all, at the
last minute. Getting the best price on most around-the-world
itineraries requires having tickets issued in several
different places, often on several different continents; it
takes a minimum of a couple of weeks for your agent to
import these tickets for you from overseas. (This is why, if
you must leave right away, you may have to pick up some of
your tickets from your agent's overseas affiliates as you
travel, an arrangement few people prefer and which can
usually be avoided by advance planning.)

Airlines wait until they have a good idea how full their
planes will be (based on advance booking levels) before they
decide how deeply they need to discount their tickets to
consolidators to fill their planes. So consolidator
contracts with the airlines are subject to change, usually
several times a year, and generally forbid sales of tickets
for travel commencing more than a few months after the sale.
Verifying prices with vendors around the world, and then
importing tickets, can take a couple of weeks (unless you
want to pay extra for air courier service).

So you can't expect to get the best price, or to get your
tickets, many months ahead (except for times like Christmas,
when prices are set and planes fill up many months in
advance).

On the other hand, it shouldn't take more than a month to
get your tickets from a reputable, efficient agency --
barring unusual complications. (The most justifiable
complication, especially with a complex ticket, is that one
of the rates has changed and a different source or fare
construction has to be found. Customers find this hard to
understand, but it isn't always possible to call or fax an
overseas -- or even a domestic -- supplier to verify every
fare in their tariff, which is always subject to change,
before quoting a price to the customer.)

8. DEALING WITH INTERNATIONAL TICKET DISCOUNTERS

Should you buy from a discounter? I wouldn't think of buying
an international ticket from a neighborhood travel agent,
even if I told them to try to find a consolidator fare.
Depending on your itinerary, try either an agency
specializing in that destination and/or a bucket shop. You'd
be surprised how often local agents, when they have a
customer for a weird destination or routing (especially
around the world) simply buy the tickets from a bucket shop
and mark them up to the customer.

You'll get the best price if you shop around, but remember
that rating an around the world itinerary can take an hour
of work (for which the agent is paid nothing if you end up
getting the ticket elsewhere). So don't be surprised that
the fare isn't in the computer and can't be given off the
top of the agent's head; the agent will give only a very
rough estimate of the fare unless you make clear that you
are really serious about getting the ticket from that agency
if the price is right.

Bucket shops serve a limited and specialized subset of the
air ticket market, and are mostly concentrated in a few
world cities.

The best places to find them are London and San Francisco;
other places with many are Penang and Kuala Lumpur
(Malaysia), Bangkok, and Athens. It's worth looking far
afield to find a good bucket shop -- the overwhelming
majority of travel agents don't even try to compete with
bucket shop fares. For that matter, most agents couldn't
construct the sorts of routings the better bucket shops
specialize in (especially customized around-the-world
itineraries) at *any* price. In the USA, most bucket-shop
advertising is concentrated in the Sunday travel sections of
the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, Miami Herald, New
York Times, and Los Angeles Times.  There are ads for
discounted international tickets in newspapers in many other
regional and local USA cities, but one can often get better
deals from the agencies that advertise in the largest
gateway cities.  This is especially true for travel to less
common destinations (i.e. outside North America or Europe),
and most of all for any trip involving destinations on
multiple continents that can't be ticketed as a round trip.

That doesn't mean you have to, or that you should, actually
travel to one place for the purpose of buying tickets there
to somewhere else.  Travel agents anywhere in the world can
issue tickets originating anywhere in the world.  An
elaborate network of international agreements has been
established to ensure that a customer in any country W can
buy a ticket from a travel agent located in country X for a
flight from country Y to country Z. If a local airline
office or travel agent tries to tell you that you can't
import tickets from an agent abroad, ignore them.

Not all agents are set up to deal with overseas customers,
but some are.  Anywhere you would think of going to buy
cheap onward tickets, a good bucket shop can buy them for
you at wholesale, from reliable wholesalers with whom they
have established relationships, and send them to you so you
have them before you start your trip.  And to the extent you
know where you are going, it is generally cheaper to get one
set of tickets to your complete set of destinations in
advance than to buy tickets in several stages en route or
from different agencies.

But buying your ticket from an agent in another country
doesn't have to mean going to the place where that agent is,
or waiting until you get there, to buy your tickets.  The
Internet has made it far easier than ever before to deal
directly, from home, with an agent in another country.

When, where, and for what types of tickets is it most likely
to be worth dealing with an agent in another country?

There are transaction costs (in money, time, and
convenience) associated with importing tickets from an agent
in another country, rather than dealing with one where you
are.  (This remains true even if most of your dealings with
them are via the Internet.)  For this reason, it is most
likely to be worth the extra effort and extra cost of
shipping tickets, etc. to get tickets from an agent in
another country if some or all of the following apply:

(A) You are in a country where there are few local
discounters, or where local discounters only handle simple
tickets.  From Japan, for example, discounted short-stay
round-trip tickets to many destinations are available
locally, but almost no discounts are available locally on
one-way or multi-stop tickets.  In particular, travelers who
are in, and whose flights will originate from, the United
States, the United Kingdom, or Australia,  are unlikely to
get better prices buying individual tickets at retail from
agencies in other countries (although for around-the-world
and other multi-stop tickets the better agents in the USA,
UK, and Australia often include tickets that they buy and
import at wholesale prices from other countries).

(B) Your desired route is unusual and/or complex (e.g.
involves multiple stops, gaps in your desired flight
itinerary to be covered by surface transportation, and/or
does not end in the same place it begins).

(C) You have specialized and/or unusual interests or needs
that cannot be served by local agencies (e.g. you can't find
a discount agent in your country who knows anything about
travel for surfers or people who use wheelchairs, or whatever).

(D) Your tickets will be expensive.  The more expensive the
tickets and distant the destination(s), obviously, the
greater the potential savings.  It's rarely worth importing
tickets for travel within the same continent, for example.

There is no comprehensive list of discount agencies on the
Internet, and not all agents are set up to deal with
customers in other countries.  Consolidators of one-way and
round-trip international tickets in most countries limit
their sales to customers in their own countries, and are
only beginning to implement the complex software required to
offer tickets online.  (Most reservations software has been
developed by airlines who want you to pay more, and don't
want to make it easier to find consolidator tickets. Online
consolidator pricing and ticketing has proven much more
difficult that anyone who has attempted it has expected.)

There is no single site -- not even a bad one -- for
comparing prices from different consolidators in the USA.
Each online consolidator has a completely separate system
for their own prices only.  (In the UK, Farebase,
<http://www.farebase.co.uk>, is an independent information
aggragator who offers online access to prices from several
dozen major UK consolidators.  But the site doesn't enable
you to check availability -- i.e., the prices you are shown
may be sold out -- and it refers you to local UK agents of
varying competence, not the consolidators themselves.  All
prices are in British Pounds, and most agents listed in
Farebase won't sell to customers outside the UK.)

What can you do if you *aren't* in a country like the USA,
UK, or Australia where there are plenty of local
consolidators? One source of listings for multi-destination
specialists willing to deal with customers in other
countries, neither comprehensive nor a guarantee of price,
service, or reliability (despite its efforts to ensure that
its members meet its standards), is the Association of
Special Fares Agents (ASFA), an international trade
association of discount agencies, <http://www.asfa.net>. But
keep in mind what I said earlier: for round-trip tickets to
a single destination, the lowest prices are usually from
specialists in that particular destination, not from multi-
destination specialists like most of the ASFA members.  And
for any tickets from the USA, UK, or Australia, the best
deals will usually be from discount retail agencies in those
countries.

How do bucket shops offer better prices for complex
international trips?  For one thing, simple specialization.
Almost all air tickets sold in the USA are domestic round
trips (the majority) or the simplest international round
trips (mostly to resorts in the Caribbean, Mexico, or
perhaps Europe). I haven't the faintest idea what the price
of a package to Disney World is, and the agency I work for
does not handle domestic USA tickets or simple international
round trips.  On the other hand, most agents have never
booked a ticket to Moscow in their life, and might get one
around-the-world customer a year. I get round-the-world
enquiries every day. "You need to go to Manila, Moscow, and
Paris? No problem. Of course, no airline flies directly from
Manila to Moscow, so the cheapest route would be as
follows..."

How do they get their fares? That's an extremely complex
question, which I can't answer fully both because (1) it
would take too long and (2) I can't divulge all my trade
secrets. I've tried to give an introduction in the section
above on "international airfares".

Bucket shops subvert the airline cartel conspiracy against
discounting in various ways. Airlines can contract with
wholesalers ("consolidators") to sell tickets at less than
published fares. The rules on routes, stopovers,
seasonality, etc. for these tickets are governed by the
contract, not by the rules for any published fare. Sometimes
bucket shops contract directly with airlines and sometimes
they buy and resell tickets from consolidators. Since the
goal of the airlines is to get each passenger to pay the
most they are willing to pay, airlines try to discount
tickets in such a way as to fill otherwise empty seats
rather than divert full-fare passengers to cheaper tickets.

Frequently, they restrict how consolidator tickets can be
advertised, such as forbidding mention of the name of the
airline or allowing the discount fare to be promoted only to
a particular geographic or ethnic market. It's common for
tickets to be most heavily discounted in a place far (even
on a different continent) from where the ticket either
begins or ends, so as not to depress the primary market. If
a consolidator fare is *too* successful, the airline will
raise the fare or terminate the contract. Many consolidators
won't deal directly with the public, and net fare tariffs
are confidential. One of the most important skills for a
bucket shop agent is having a feel for the wholesale ticket
market. It's one thing to ask your local agent to try to buy
you a consolidator ticket. It's quite another for the agent
to know who, and where, has the best price for what you
want.

Other consolidators, and some retail agencies (especially
those with a large volume on one airline to one destination,
such as those serving specialized ethnic markets) receive
more than the standard commission on some or all of the
published fares of a certain airline to certain
destinations. This is permitted by IATA rules. The
"incentive," "override," or "bonus" commission is officially
forbidden to be rebated to the customer, but of course is.
(In fact, bucket shops often end up with a smaller
commission, as a percentage of the selling price, than
normal agencies.) Figuring the actual price to the passenger
with such commission deals is particularly complex, since
one must satisfy all the conditions of both the published
fare and the commission deal. Net fare contracts usually
have much simpler rules. (For example, the cheapest ticket
may be issued at a higher fare that also has a higher
commission. For this reason, and because net fare tickets
usually carry the "full" fare as their official price, the
"face value" of a ticket need bear no relation to the price
paid. All else being equal, the *higher* the face value of
the ticket the better, since in general high-value tickets
are more readily changed, rerouted, etc.)

Finally, the bucket shop business is global. Your local
travel agent might buy from a domestic consolidator, but
they WON'T import your ticket from overseas (and probably
have no idea that it is even possible), even if that would
be much cheaper. The major bucket shops around the world
regularly buy from and sell to each other. Costs of DHL and
international faxes are less than the wide international
variations in ticket prices.

There's a lot more to it (especially in constructing routes
and connections, which no CRS does well for complex
international routes), but much of the role of a bucket shop
is that of a ticket broker, buying for its retail customers
on the world wholesale ticket market. Most bucket shop
tickets, if you inspect the validation, are not issued by
the bucket shop itself.

If you already knew exactly where to buy them, you could
often get a slightly better price directly. But the odds are
you couldn't find the best deal for yourself -- the whole
system is *deliberately* stacked against just that.

Round-the-world tickets are the epitome of the bucket shop
agent's art. Don't be fooled by published around-the-world
fares. They restrict you to the extremely limited routes of
just one or two airlines. Only rarely are they the best
deal; to put it another way, only the rare itinerary can be
shoehorned into such a fare without mangling it. Most
around-the-world itineraries can be best and most cheaply
ticketed as a series of one way tickets from point to point.
Constructing a round-the-world fare requires both deciding
at what points to break the circle into segments and getting
the best price for each segment (where each ticket may
actually, with stopovers, cover several legs of the
journey). On top of that, most people aren't sure when they
start planning a round-the-world trip exactly what stops
they want, or in what order. Good round-the-world agents are
rare, even in bucket shops -- but your average travel agent
doesn't even know where to begin.

Bucket shop reliability varies. Caveat emptor. They tend to
be wheeler-dealers, and of necessity they cut their margins
thin. Find out how long they've been around. Check them out
with the Better Business Bureau.  Go to their office in
person, if you can.  If it's worth it to your peace of mind,
pay by credit card so you can refuse the charge if you don't
get your tickets. You'll probably be surcharged 2-5% for
using a credit card, but it's simple, cheap, and effective
insurance.

One thing not to believe is favorable references.  Except
for complete frauds, even rip-off agencies have satisfied
customers.

The test is what they do when things go wrong.  For what
it's worth, I have yet to encounter a completely fraudulent
bucket shop, and most are pretty reliable.  But you have to
recognize that you can't expect the best service at the
lowest price. It's especially important to remember that
fares change constantly and that no estimate is certain
until the tickets are actually issued. (Amazingly, airlines
claim the right to increase fares even after tickets are
issued, but I've never seen them do so.)

Be especially cautious about buying tickets from a
"sub-agent" or an agency which is not accredited by the
International Airline Travel Agents' Network (IATAN) and, in
the USA, the Airline Reporting Corporation (ARC). Sub-agents
and non-ARC/IATAN agents cannot issue any of their own
tickets, but must purchase them all from other agencies,
wholesalers, or the airlines. Since the basic qualifications
for ARC and IATAN appointment are proof of financial means
and ticketing experience, non-ARC/IATAN agents are, by
definition, inexperienced, under-financed, or both.

If you have any doubt, you should try to check directly with
the airlines, immediately before paying for your tickets, to
make sure that you are holding confirmed reservations. This
is not always possible, as some of your flights may be on
airlines that have no representation in the country in which
you are buying your tickets.  (Don't try to request seat
assignments or other special services, or enter frequent
flyer numbers, until after you have your tickets in hand.
Just verify that you have reservations on the flights you
want.  Some special prices forbid or restrict things like
advance seat assignments or frequent flyer mileage credit,
and by requesting such things prior to ticketing you could
cause your reservations to be canceled or render your
reservations ineligible for the special fare.)

If a travel agent has placed you on a waiting list, you may
be able to improve your chances of getting confirmed by
calling the airline yourself to ask them to confirm you from
the waiting list. Do not be surprised, and do not argue, if
the airline mentions that the reservation was made by an
agency other than the one you dealt with. It may have been
necessary or required for your agent to make the booking
through a wholesaler either as a condition of the fare or to
use "block" space held by another agent or wholesaler on an
otherwise sold-out flight.

9. MAKING RESERVATIONS

Contrary to some ill-advised recommendations that have been
widely distributed on the Net, you should *not* make
reservations directly with the airline and then try to shop
around for the best price at which to have them ticketed.
Nor should you make reservations with more than one travel
agency.

Doing this reduces your chances of getting the best price,
or of getting confirmed on the flights you want, and may
result in all your reservations being entirely canceled
without prior warning. More and more airlines have
implemented auto-cancellation software for duplicate
bookings.

There are many booking classes, and there is no way you can
tell in which class to make reservations for the cheapest
fare. The cheapest published fare may be booked in one
class, the cheapest discounted fare in another. Different
discounters may have different contracts requiring bookings
in different classes.

Even some airlines that have only one coach booking class
require reservations for special fares to be made only by
agents either directly with the airline, through designated
consolidators, or in special booking classes which are not
listed in the OAG and whose existence the airlines won't
even admit to retail callers.

Travel agents can more easily prioritize you on the waiting
list if they make the reservations for you. Most airlines
have at least two, usually three, levels of waiting lists.
Names on the regular waiting list -- the only one on which
you can place yourself directly -- are considered for
confirmation only after all names on the priority list -- on
which travel agents can place you -- and the highest
priority list, on which you can be placed only by special
request by the airline itself. Waitlist clearance requests
are more likely to be acted on if they come from the travel
agent than the passenger, especially as different airlines
have different procedures and the travel agent knows best
from whom at the airline to request prioritization.

If a travel agent makes reservations for you, they may be
able to use "block" space held by them, by the airline, or
by a consolidator for all or part of your itinerary. This
may be difficult or impossible if you have already made
reservations for all or part of your itinerary, since many
airlines prohibit or restrict the combining of reservation
records ("split PNR's).

Finally, some airlines refuse even to consider for
confirmation passengers holding more than one reservation;
some airlines will automatically cancel all reservations,
whether or not confirmed, of anyone found to be holding
multiple bookings. It is thus imperative that, if you have
already made reservations, you advise your travel agent(s)
of this immediately. If you don't, the agent may make
another booking for you, and both may be canceled. Give the
agent the airline with which you made the reservations, the
record locator, the exact name(s), airline(s), date(s),
flight number(s), and booking class(es). Do *not* assume
that all coach reservations are made (or should be made for
the cheapest price) in "Y" class, even if "Y" is the only
coach class shown in the OAG, Travelocity, or the airline's
own timetable.

Most CRS's do not permit an agent to retrieve, by record
locator, a record booked by you directly with an airline, so
don't expect them to be able to do so. For this reason it
will be more difficult for an agent to assist you with
special meals, seat assignments, boarding passes, or in the
event of schedule changes or changes in your plans, if you
did not make the reservations through that agent. In short,
it only makes work for both you and your agent not to make
your reservations through your agent.

Airfares are an intrinsically complex system, and much of
that system is deliberately obscure.  There are so simple,
easy answers to some of the most frequently-asked questions.
I've tried to strike a balance in this FAQ between
simplicity and completeness.  If you still have questions,
especially questions not answered in my books, please let me
know.  I can't answer requests for referrals to specific
travel agencies for specific destinations (lest I be held
liable for the performance of other agencies over which I
have no control), nor will I provide lists of wholesale
consolidators (they already get harassed by enough retail
customers pretending to be travel agents in order to try to
get wholesale prices, and supplier networks are valuable
trade secrets in any industry). I and the agency I work for
only handle around-the-world and other multi-stop
international ticketing, but I welcome other questions and
suggestions for future versions of this FAQ.

Bon voyage!
Edward Hasbrouck

10. CONTACTING THE FAQ-MAINTAINER

This FAQ is written and maintained by Edward Hasbrouck.

	Edward Hasbrouck
	<edward@hasbrouck.org>
	<http://hasbrouck.org>
	1130 Treat Ave.
	San Francisco, CA 94110, USA
	telephone/fax +1-415-824-0214

I wear several related hats, as follows:

(A) author of:

	"The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace"
	<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1566912504/edwardhasbro>

	"The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World"
	<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1566912148/edwardhasbro>
	
(B) author and maintainer of the FAQ that you are reading:

	"Airline Tickets Consolidators and Bucket Shops FAQ"
	<http://hasbrouck.org/faq>

(C) travel consultant:

	AirTreks.com
	<http://www.airtreks.com>

	(AirTreks.com is a service of High Adventure Travel, Inc.,
	the oldest and largest travel agency in the Americas
	specializing exclusively in around-the-world and other
	multi-destination international tickets.)

(c) copyright 1991-2001 Edward Hasbrouck

The HTML version of this FAQ was converted with AscToHTM,
courtesy of John A. Fotheringham, <http://www.jafsoft.com>.

--------

"Freedom and power bring responsibility"
(Jawaharlal Nehru, midnight, 14 August 1947)

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