Part 2 of a 2-part article (read Part 1)
What's Your Best Chance of Finding the Fares?
According to both Harrell and Rholl, 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 consolidators 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- but they haven't. American Airlines spokesman Ned Raynolds confirmed that the airlines aren't allowed to sell unpublished fares themselves.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.
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.