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Infant airfares squirmier than a two-year-old

Posted by Andrea Bennett on Monday, January 18, 2010

It sounds like the beginnings of a bad joke, but on a recent trip to Turkey, we asked ourselves this question: “How many Delta agents does it take to set a rate for an infant seat?”  In our case, the answer was nine, starting with one gate agent who set the fare for our 6-month-old at  $47, another who overrode her fare and set the rate at $374, and, after we complained, a team of seven in the fare department who determined that the fee should be $89. 

Now, we’re aware that flying with infants is a contentious issue. Most parents, for whom it’s unavoidable, hope the fares are as low as possible. And naturally there are those like the Flyertalk member who recently responded to a post about Cathay Pacific’s new rate increase (up to 25% of the adult fare from 10%): “If I had my way, infants shld [sic] be slammed with a 2500% ticket fare.”

Regardless of your feelings about tiny travelers, if you’re forced to travel with one, some airlines make it easier – and cheaper – to plan your trip than others. First, some (very general) basics on how infant fares work:  

In general, airlines don’t charge a parent for one infant under the age of two (if the baby doesn’t get a seat of her own) to travel domestically. Most US-based airlines don’t charge an infant fare between the US and Canada, but do charge the same tax as the adult fare (the same is true between the US and Canada on AirCanada). The majority of airline websites claim that international fares for infants are around 10% of the adult fare plus the same taxes and fees the adult pays (with asterisks indicating that you shouldn’t hold them to this because fees vary).

That’s where things get Byzantine.   Since airlines don’t publish infant fares (with one exception: JetBlue), you have to rely on their occasionally crafty math to get a quote on your kid.  Because airline press offices are trained to quote the party line (“10% plus applicable taxes and fees”), we called the real experts – the reservations agents. (Note: We’re not using names, as some were likely more helpful than their job descriptions required them to be.) As you plan your trip, keep the following things in mind:

Airlines have different definitions for “adult fare.” Back to Delta.  In fact, when we reserved our ticket via Delta’s SkyMiles website at $717 roundtrip from JFK to Istanbul, we had to call to inform them we were bringing a baby, but couldn’t find out the exact fare until we got to the airport. Clearly, $347 is far more than 10% of $717. So what gives? $347 was 10% of the walkup fare for an adult – not the fare that we actually paid. When we kicked up a fuss, the fare got adjusted down.  At Continental, the 10% fare is based on what’s available when you book the child, not 10% of the fare you actually paid. Ditto US Airways, so it's best to book your child at the same time you book yourself. But at British Airways, even if the fare skyrocketed before you decided to bring along the baby, you’ll still only pay 10% of your own fare. It’s worth asking.

Get quotes and take names In fact, most airlines will allow you to book your infant in advance. United, US Airways, American and Continental, among others, issue infant tickets electronically in advance.  Our advice: When an airline won’t allow you to pay the fee in advance, get a quote from an agent on the telephone, and take his or her name. That gives you a little negotiating power when you get to the airport.

Traveling with infants is a luxury? According to Continental and Delta agents, parents are sometimes assessed a “luxury tax” on their kids, though this isn’t airline policy; rather, it’s the policy of the country they’re departing, and varies wildly. Two countries that assess the tax on tots: the UK and France.

Some airlines are making money on the exchange Another reason that $347 Delta fare might have been so high? According to the helpful Delta agent we reached, the fare’s “applicable taxes and fees” might have been charged in Euros! According to the agent (and another we called right after to make sure we’d heard right), for the past six months, Delta agents have been collecting fees from the United States to Europe in Euros, making an additional 50% or so on the exchange. Other airlines we checked with, including United, US Airways, American, Continental and several others, denied this practice.

Get a breakdown online Most carriers don’t allow travelers to book infant fares online. Some exceptions: Lufthansa recently added an infant booking function to its site, and British Airways will do it, too, even breaking down the fees and taxes from the fare .  But with rising fees, booking over the phone can be expensive. Here’s a tip (from a helpful agent of US Airways, which charges $35 to book over the phone): Book your own fare online, and then immediately hang up and add your infant, for whom US Airways will gladly issue an electronic ticket without assessing the telephone booking charge. For now.

 

Andrea Bennett has written for Travel + Leisure, the New York Post, and the Wall St. Journal, among other publications.

Categories: Airfare Tips

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All About Consolidator Airfares

Posted by Andrea Bennett on Monday, October 6, 2008

By Andrea Bennett

They're elusive. The airlines don't like to talk about them (we asked). And determining their legitimacy from among the myriad websites that claim to specialize in them is a Herculean task. We're talking about consolidator fares, those secret airfares the airlines release in limited "buckets" to companies that re-sell them for big. Yes, they do still exist and you can get them, but as with any purchase (such as "grey market" electronics), you'll always trade something for the price break. There are reliable ways to get them, just as there are ways to get burned. And just because they're specially negotiated deals doesn't mean you might not be able to find a better published fare on your own.

The Backstory

To understand what consolidator fares mean today, you'll need a little history. Decades ago, it became clear to airlines that only selling highly visible, published airfares to travel agents and consumers made it easy for competing airlines to beat their fares and make off with their customers. To ensure they could fill up less popular flights, airlines began quietly selling discounted seats through consolidators. They reasoned that a little revenue per seat was better than none, and because the discounted prices weren't published, other airlines wouldn't be able to swoop in and drive down overall prices. You'd often find these fire sale fares in ethnic storefront travel agencies or even bodegas, which offered them only sporadically. According to Bob Harrell of New York airline consultancy Harrell Associates, the airlines employed plenty of tactics to get around pre-deregulation rules about tariffs, which required large numbers of seats sold this way to be part of a tourism promotion. "They'd print up five brochures, pass them around, and call it a tour," he says.


Consolidators Today

Consolidators have come a long way since those early, often risky times. Airlines now see consolidators as a reliable distribution channel, negotiating annual contracts with them, establishing revenue targets, and tightly controlling ticket sales through a specific kind of booking class, or "bucket." If you were wondering, consolidators and bucket shops are essentially the same thing, though the name, like the practice, has been refined over time. The fares are also known as "private" and "bulk" fares. But for the record, not every unpublished fare is a consolidator fare; military discounts, corporate discounts, and other specially negotiated fares - such as cruise and package fares - are also considered "unpublished" and are almost never consolidator fares.

We talked to Greg Rholl, Vice President of Pricing and Distribution for Minnesota consolidator Centrav, one of the largest consolidators, with contracts with more than 30 airlines, who ran us through the process: A consolidator will have a contract to sell private fares at a lower price than the published fare. If there's a printed ticket, only "bulk" generally appears on the receipt. They generally can't - or won't - sell the ticket straight to you, but will offer it through a travel agent (including an online travel agent such as Travelocity or Expedia), or agencies such as the ones that advertise in Sunday newspaper travel sections. The agent adds their markup - keeping the margin slim so they're not out-priced by published fares - and passes the remaining savings on to you. True consolidators don't buy in quantity or ahead of time. Rather, they pull availability from their assigned class until the airline decides to close the window. It can be a great way to find a fluke fare, and consolidators now keep each other honest. Centrav, for instance, is a charter member of the United States Air Consolidators Association, which requires that its members sell at least $20 million in consolidator fares and have uninterrupted sales of at least two years. This may not mean much to you, since you can't buy tickets from the USACA, but it should: If your trusted travel agent chooses a dicey consolidator that reneges on the deal or goes under, you'll be relying on your credit card or your agent's integrity to buffer you from the loss.

Like Unicorns (or in these trying times, a bank you can trust) consolidator fares are elusive, precious items that can offer a traveler great savings. Airfarewatchdog.com has taken the time to track down the facts about these airline special offers. In the first installment, we learned they were created to ensure flights sold out, but in an era of airline consolidations and bankruptcies, these deals are getting fewer and far-between. 

What's Your Best Chance of Finding the Fares?

According to both Bob Harrell of New York airline consultancy Harrell Associates and Greg Rholl, Vice President of Pricing and Distribution for Minnesota consolidator Centrav, the best times to find  consolidator fares are when 1) you're traveling coach internationally, 2) you're traveling last-minute, or 3) both.

Because consoldiators don't actually buy the seats, they're usually granted their window of opportunity early in the booking process (to fill up a limited number of seats to hedge the airline's bet on passengers) or late (to make up for the passengers the airline estimated would book, but didn't). Your travel agent can even find consolidator business class seats last minute, for up to a 50% discount.

What Do Consolidator Fares "Act" Like?

You may think that because you're getting a bargain basement price, your consolidator ticket will be nonrefundable, non-changeable, won't allow you to make advance seat assignments, won't let you earn miles - a heavily restricted "use it or lose it" ticket. That's usually not the case (and yes, you'll almost always earn your miles), but you DO need to ask your travel agent for up-front restriction information. Consolidator fares generally act like those discounted economy class tickets of the lower echelons, and carry similar restrictions. That's why some travelers are convinced they've bought consolidator fares on airline websites -  but they haven't. American Airlines spokesman Ned Raynolds confirmed that the airlines aren't allowed to sell unpublished fares themselves.

The problem with bulk fares often doesn't lie with the restrictions themselves, but the capacity that the consolidator has been granted by the airline. For example, say you bought a consolidator ticket as a "T" class (generally one of the lowest of the low airfare classes). If you bought it and the airline then closes out the consolidator's "bucket," you won't be able to change it, even if the airline still has "T" class tickets of its own to sell. IF the consolidator has similarly restricted tickets like "L" or "K" class, you might be able to swap them, through your agent, but only if the consolidator's window is still open.

Similarly, say you bought a discounted "Q" class ticket directly from the airline. If you wanted to change it and that particular class was sold out, you could ask the airline to let you pay the difference and a penalty to upgrade to a full-fare, unrestricted "Y" class ticket. You won't be able to do that with a consolidator fare. The other restriction you'll find across the board: You'll never be able to upgrade your ticket using miles.  The lesson: You'd better be sure that your consolidator ticket is the one you want, because you're most likely stuck with it.

What About Consolidators That Sell on the Web?

Not a good idea. Consolidators simply aren't built for customer service. As we mentioned before, through years of relationship-building, your travel agent has a much better grasp of which consolidators are good, and which ones are shady, than you do. Consolidators themselves can't really offer you any guarantees on your fare. Big consolidators have a lot of sway with the airlines because of the volume they do, so they can often help (but the reputable ones will only deal with your travel agent). If something goes wrong with a consolidator ticket you've bought through a trusted agency, the agency should absorb your loss.

According to Simon Bramley, head of pricing for Travelocity, the Travelocity Guarantee to "make things right" would function this way, buffering you from a loss if something should happen to one of the consolidator fares it offers through its site (you'll usually spot these marked as "exclusives," and all restrictions are listed before you purchase). And as always, you'll want to ensure every purchase by using a credit, not a debit card, so you can take it up with the credit card company if the deal goes south.

Comparison Shopping

The inevitable truth is that you'll want to shop around. Airlines, in an effort to drive customers to their own sites, now offer low fare guarantees. That means that even if you find an "exclusive" consolidator fare online, the airline will more than likely match or beat it. Domestic consolidator fares have been all but completely squeezed out by the Internet, and because airlines are decreasing capacity (mostly domestically), you'll find even fewer for US-only flights. Rholl notes that airlines now release prices to consolidators that are exactly the same as published fares. Of course, you always have the option of searching the consolidators that sell online, and then mitigating your risk by asking your travel agent to find the fare for you. Like all fares worth finding, locating them will take a search.


 

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