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Consolidator Cons

Q: I read about consolidators all the time. Which ones are reliable? What are the negatives in using one?

A: Consolidators (also known as ticket wholesalers) do indeed sometimes have lower fares than you'll find with a retail travel agency such as Travelocity or your local travel agent (although sometimes these agents can sell you consolidated tickets).

But there are drawbacks. Consolidators have a history of going out of business without a trace. Indeed, a very large and well known consolidator based in Washington DC went out of business several years back, leaving passengers stranded. This agency had been in business for many years and then just went poof.

So if it can happen to a big agency, it can also happen to the hundreds of smaller mom and pop agencies out there.

Consolidator fares tend not to be so much lower during peak travel periods or seasons, and the best fares are in the shoulder or off seasons when travel slackens.

Also, consolidator fares don't come with the same "rights" or protections that full retail fares have. You may not be able to collect frequent flyer miles or get advance seat selection. And should you miss your flight or need to cancel or change it for any reason, the ticket may have no value whatsoever--you can just rip it up. This happened to a reader of ours who arrived at the airport for an international flight with just 60 minutes to spare due to a traffic jam. He and his wife were told that although there were seats available on the next flight out (he had missed check in for his original flight), they'd have to buy full fare last minute economy fares.

And, if the airline cancels or delays your flight, they probably won't "protect" you on another airline flying the route, as they might with a "real" ticket. You'll have to wait for your original airline's next flight with space available.

It's kind of like buying electronics or a camera on the "gray market." You just don't get a full USA warranty!

Besides which, if you track our lists of unadvertised "retail" fares and our airfare blog entries, you'll find deals that even consolidators can't match, without the risk. See our best deals from your city.

Combining frequent flyer miles from two airlines to get a free ticket

Q: How can I combine miles from different airlines who are all partners.  Since the award travel can be on any of the partners, it seems having all the miles accrue in one place would be best.

A: I don't know of a way to spend 25000 miles, say, on American and another 25,000 from BA, for instance, to get a 50000 mile award; however, many airlines let you earn and burn miles on their partners. If you fly airline A, you can often put any accrued miles in partner airline B's program; and you can use miles earned on airline B for a free ticket on airline A. You just can't take miles earned on airline A and put them in your airline B account to earn a flight on B.

Many people like the flexibility of the American Express Membership Rewards program, which allows you to transfer mileage points to nearly 20 airline frequent flyer programs, including AirTran, Continental, Delta, JetBlue, Singapore and Southwest. Right now they're offering 25,000 bonus points for your first purchase using the Amex Gold Rewards Card for small business. Your points stay in a pool until you're ready to transfer and spend them on the airline of your choice.

Allegiant Airlines' Hidden Charges

Q: Don't you think it's false advertising to promote Allegiant Airlines' low fares considering that they charge $11 for seat assignments and for all checked luggage? Also, if the cancel a flight they only have one flight a day (and on some routes they don't fly every day) so you'll be stuck.

A: No, not at all. They're fares, all of which are for nonstop flights, are still bargains. Southwest doesn't even have the option of assigned seats, and I don't hear people giving them a hard time. It is what it is. And Allegiant is pretty up front about the seat assignment charge. They also charge for all drinks and snacks, which they detail as well on their site. However, they don't state how much they charge for bags checked underneath the plane. They should be more upfront about this (Spirit also charge for bags and all beverages, as did the now defunct Skybus). Still, if you don't mind where you sit and you don't check bags, Allegiant's fares are incredibly low.

As for the lack of flight frequency, the major airlines are so full that you'll have trouble finding a seat on their next flight out if they cancel your flight.

New airfare website

Q: Have you heard of this new airfare booking site I thought you might want to check it out.

A: In truth, we hadn't. But it looks like they show both published and "wholesale" fares, including business and first class, and specialize in international flights. They also offer a flexible search (4 days earlier or later) for international flights, which is great. The downside? At $30 a pop, their booking fees are a little pricey. And, for the routes we checked, the fares aren't exactly the lowest.

We'll be interested in comments from other visitors. Are they worth the clicks?

Ridiculous Advice? Who, us?

Q: As an airline reservations agent for Delta I must say that I disagree with the advice you have given after reading a few of your columns.
Several weeks ago I read an article regarding a question about a schedule change that the airline had advised the passenger of several months in advance. You suggested that she contact the station manager at the airport to have her problem resolved hoping that he/she would offer more alternatives than an ''anonymous reservation agent''. I don't know if you realize this but the station manager has little or no knowledge of tariffs and rules that govern future date travel and options based on the type of ticket you purchased. The average person would have as much of a chance of talking to a station manager regarding an upcoming problem as you or I might have asking to talk to Donald Trump about an upcoming Apprentice Show. Their responsibility is to resolve real time problems that may arise daily at the airport .
Today I read another ridiculous piece of advice you published. The question was regarding shipping a pet dog by air. You suggested that the family and pet take the Queen Mary 2 rather than fly. The animals that are too large to fly under a passenger seat fly in the cargo section of the plane where the luggage is. The temperature and air pressure is maintained much the same as the main cabin.

A: Actually, this is a little known fact, but our very own Tracy Stewart  is a former Delta baggage handler who worked at the airline’s Atlanta hub.

You should talk to him about what he’s seen happen to pets that are shipped in the hold. You'd probably never ship a pet by air, especially after reading this statement from the Animal Legal Defense Fund. You'd probably never check a piece of luggage, either. The fact is that shipping a pet by air carries risks, and I would never take the chance. For example, if there’s a cabin depressurization, no one is going to be able to go down in the hold and put an oxygen mask over Fido’s mouth. Heating and air conditioning can malfunction down there, and the pets aren't going to be able to ring the flight attendant's call button, are they? In addition, pets are too frequently lost, just as bags are.  I love my dog too much to take any chances. Maybe you’re just not a dog person. Is that Browser I hear growling? Down boy.

As for the station manager tip, that ridiculous piece of advice came from a United Airlines station manager who emailed me in response to a previous, similar problem experienced by a United Airlines passenger in Chicago. This manager said that he would have gladly fixed the problem had he known about it.

Hidden Excess Charges on Airlines

Q: I flew recently and was surprised at how many surcharges I had to pay. My fare was $98 round-trip, but came out to $153 with taxes and fees. Then I was hit with a $25 fee because my bag was overweight, and I had to pay $5 for a snack, and $5 to watch the in-flight TV system. Now I hear that one airline will be charging for each and every bag checked.

A: Airlines are still losing money, and these extra charges are bringing in badly needed cash, but consumers can hardly believe their eyes when they get the final bill.  And yes, the latest insult is charging for checked bags (Spirit Airlines has begun doing this and is also charging for soft drinks and other beverages that used to be free). Consider yourself lucky that you didn't pay even more. In addition to the fees you mentioned, you might have been charged extra for booking by telephone ($5 to $10 is typical) or buying your ticket at the airport ($15 on most domestic carriers), or for curbside baggage check in ($2-3 and that's in addition to any tip you might proffer). Northwest Airlines offers exit row seats, which have extra legroom, and coveted aisle seats for a $15 upcharge (although I think this is well worth paying for).

Air Canada charges for advance seat assignments on its lowest fares, and a recent report in USA Today suggests that Southwest is weighing this option as well. And those free frequent flyer tickets aren't free anymore, either: you could pay up to $100 to have one issued, depending on how soon in advance you book the flight. Need to change that award ticket after issue? Not until you fork over $50 on many airlines. Want to redeposit those miles in case you can't use your ticket? Up to $100 on some carriers. Charges have gone up for bringing a pet onboard: pets carried in the cabin are charged $50 each way on JetBlue, $75 on Air Canada, and $80 on American, Northwest, and United (Your furry friend's round-trip ride can easily cost more than your own ticket). As you discovered, excess baggage fees have been increased as well: most airlines now charge $25 extra if your suitcase weighs over 50 pounds (JetBlue charges $50) and $50-$80 for each bag over the generally allowed two pieces. Sending an unaccompanied minor on a flight? Expect to pay between $50 and $90 each way, depending on whether the flight is nonstop or connecting, domestic or international. Frontier charges $5 to watch their DirectTV service (JetBlue's is free, except for premium channels). And even infants riding in your lap are no longer free in some cases: JetBlue charges $12 each way for flights to the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic. 

Add it all up and the extra costs can be enormous. An unaccompanied minor traveling on a "free" frequent flyer ticket booked at the last minute, bringing the family pet along for the ride, checking a bag weighing over 50 pounds at curbside, and buying a snack and a headset to watch the movie would be charged nearly round-trip $300 in extras.

Make Your Connection Without all the Running

Q: In a recent column, you mentioned that it's a good idea to allow at least four hours between connecting flights if you want to be absolutely sure you make the connection. However, when I book tickets on Travelocity they frequently only offer 45-60 minute connections, sometimes even less, even at busy airports such as Atlanta. How do I get around this?

A: You might try contacting Travelocity (or whatever online service you use) by phone to see if they can build in a longer layover, or you can call the airline directly or the airline directly. The only downside to calling a travel agent or airline is that you'll have to pay a service fee, but perhaps it's worth it considering the alternative, which might be missing your connecting flight. It is indeed difficult if not impossible to build in longer layovers using online airfare searches, so it's best to involve a real person to help you.

Virgin Atlantic to Launch Stateside?

Q: Is it true that Virgin Atlantic is planning to fly domestically, here within the U.S.? If so, where will they fly?

A: Richard Branson, the creator of Virgin Atlantic, and his business partners in the US are trying to launch Virgin America, a new airline that I imagine will be designed along the lines of JetBlue, with low fares but stylish service. However, the US Department of Transportation rejected the airline's application late last year. If you'd like to support their attempt to take wing, which can only lead to lower fares and more competition, then visit for ways you can help. No word on their flight plan, but there's a link on the Web site where you can tell them what cities you'd like them to service.

Why have flights to Europe been so pricey, even in spring?

Q: Why are airfares so high to Europe, even for spring travel? I've read that the airlines have shifted a lot of their planes over to foreign routes, which are more profitable than domestic, so wouldn't the increased capacity lead to lower fares? When will we see some deals?

A: With the weak US dollar, many Europeans are discovering that our country is a shopping paradise and an all around bargain, so they're coming here in large numbers, and of course, they have to go back home too, so I imagine that is keeping fares high. Plus, there are so many fees, taxes, and surcharges associated with international fares that the final price can be a shocker. Having said that, last April the team found (are you sitting down?) $378 round-trip, all-tax-included, fares from Boston to London on Virgin Atlantic for June, July, and August travel, so there's no telling when deals will pop up (it can really be worth while to check fares every day. These fares were available only on, and only during a sale period of about four days until you find something). They were not advertised. We've also seen some great fares for spring travel from New York's JFK, such as nonstops on Air France to Paris for $450 round-trip including all taxes, for May travel. So you might consider searching from New York as well (even adding $78-$100 round-trip flights on JetBlue from Boston to JFK, you may still save money compared to flights from Boston.

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