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Consolidator tickets: The good, the bad, the ugly

Consolidator tickets fall into a gray area, so be sure to know the risks before booking your travel.

By Catharine Hamm

11:00 AM EDT, September 1, 2013

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On the Spot has been exploring what happens if you have a problem with a ticket booked through an entity other than the airline, including online travel agencies or if booked as part of a package, often called bulk tickets, or with a consolidator, both unpublished fares. The big gray area is consolidator tickets, which offer much lower prices and, sometimes, commensurate risks. Are they worth it? What if you have a problem with yours?

Joe Brancatelli, whose JoeSentMe.com newsletter helps travelers (especially business) navigate the crazy quilt of airfare, hotels and more, compares consolidator tickets to shopping at an outlet mall. The airlines don't especially want the public to know whether they're going to discount airfares heavily, so they might sell them to a consolidator, who then can sell them to you (or your travel agent) for considerably less.

Perhaps because of that lack of transparency — we've all been warned about "if it's too good to be true, it's probably not true" — consolidators seem to fall in a gray area. Most are legitimate, but some are not. Some offer great, real discounts and deliver. Others offer you discounts and then disappear with your money.

So given the risks, what's the motivation for using a consolidator?

"Saving $2,000 — that's the motivation," said Blake Fleetwood, president of CookTravel.net, which specializes in first- and business-class consolidator tickets for international flights.

Right. In worrying about whether a company is legit, I almost took my eye off the prize.

But you have to keep your eye on the other prize, and that is making sure that your travel dollars go toward getting you the best deal. How do you know who the good guys are?

Suzanne Rowan Kelleher, managing editor at MiniTime.com, a family vacation-planning website, has used consolidator tickets for European travel and says your first move has to be the Better Business Bureau to check out the company you're thinking about. Next, "I look at the terms and conditions," she said. "This is an area that separates, a lot of times, the wheat from chaff."

Look at the fine print. Find out what the refund policy is if something goes amiss. As boring as that reading matter is, it's imperative so you know what you're getting into.

Consider, she says, whether the money you're saving is worth whatever risk you're taking on. You may be able to take a trip using frequent-flier miles that work just as well. You may be able to find a published fare that has fewer connections and costs only slightly more. In the end, only you and your budget — and, perhaps, your penchant for taking a bit of a gamble — can determine what's right for your travel style.

If you do decide to book with a consolidator, she is (and so am I) adamant about never paying cash. (That's pretty much true of any travel purchase, by the way.) Consolidators sometimes offer a discount if you don't use a credit card. Don't do it, even if you have to pay more to use a credit card. Consider that your insurance policy.

And, adds Albert Thomas, owner and manager of International Travel Systems, whose business is based on consolidator tickets for first- and business-class fliers, "make sure they accept credit cards and are a full merchant and not running those cards through someone else."

If you don't want to deal with a consolidator directly, go through a travel agent. Many have long-standing relationships with consolidators, Fleetwood said, and know who is on the up and up. You won't save as much, but you won't lose any sleep either.

But if you do go with a consolidator, Thomas, who deals with travel agents and with consumers, will help you if something happens. "If you've overslept, the easiest thing is to call us," he said. "We're here certainly 18 hours a day, six days a week. If it's a Sunday and you cannot get ahold of us, definitely call the airline and cancel the flight" before you're labeled as a no-show and lose the value of your ticket.

What happens next depends on the terms and conditions of your ticket.

So I ask again — is it worth it? There are a lot of "ifs" involved, but if you take the plunge, knowledge is the great life preserver.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.