When a travel agent gives you value

Guides and Tips, Trip Planning · September 9, 2008

Nowdays if you need to book a  domestic flight or one across Europe flight without doing via your corporate travel agent, do-yourself-online is your choice. We share our best tips here. But there are kind of travels when the middle-man, old travel agent, will do much better than yourself: exactly the same flight/s at lower price, or higher ticket class.

When you should contact a travel agent and which kind of agent:

  • around the world tickets - bucket shops
  • complicated trips involving multiple stops or unusual destinations - bucket shops
  • round trips to single destination - destination specialists
  • intercontinental business and first class - business and first class specialists

flightmemory When a travel agent gives you value

Let’s see why: it involves to learn and understand a little bit about some industry mechanics….

Majority of airlines are members of IATA that fixes international flights prices. Airlines agree 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).

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.

All official fares are “published” either in hardcopy in the Official Airline Guides (OAG) or the Air Tariff, or electronically in GDS (GDS = an international computer reservation system that accesses many databases of suppliers, airlines, etc in different countries, such as Amadeus, Sabre, Galileo). 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 GDS that it’s the system that mostly of online travel agencies use.

Consolidators are agencies that have discount agreements with the airlines. In most cases consolidators are wholesalers who sell only through retail agencies, not directly to the public. Any retail travel agent can buy tickets from consolidators. 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:

Wholesale-only consolidators These generally have no retail sales or advertising, and don’t want to be known to the general public. 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. They advertise only in the travel agency trade press, not in consumer publications.

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. You can often find agencies like this through publications targeted at immigrants from the country you want to go to. You do not need to go very far to benefit from a destination specialist: some years ago I had to look for a domestic flight to a tiny island on Mediterranean served only by one airline. I booked ticket directly from the airline and later discovered that the travel agency based on the island was selling the same flight 30% cheaper!

There are also agents that are specialized in discounted business and first tickets. Do a search online using “discounted business (or first) class” in your local language. Some of them: CheapOair.com, Travel Tek, Trailfinders.

“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.  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.

Bucket shops 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. 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. 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.

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:

  • You are in a country where there are few local discounters, or where local discounters only handle simple tickets.
  • 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).
  • 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).
  • 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.

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. 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.

A list of consolidators, specialists can be found in the Open Directory.

Sources of this article: The Practical Nomad - Airline Consolidator


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