ou may have heard of wholesalers who buy blocks of tickets on scheduled airlines, then resell the tickets at discounted prices. These are consolidators, or volume ticket sellers, who sell airfare on most of the worldís major airlines.

Before you begin a wholesale ticket search, youíll want to be a wary consumer and educate yourself.

The good news is that consolidators can help you save money, on both domestic and international routes, because they offer "under-the-counter" or wholesale prices. But donít expect consolidators to automatically have the best prices around. Portia Chandler is reservations agent with Travac Tours & Charters, Inc. (800-872-8800), a long-established and respected New York consolidator agency. She says, "If an airline is having a sale, the consolidator is not necessarily having a sale at the same time." Consequently, airfare sale prices generally are lower than what consolidators offer.

Why not see what you can find out before you pay hundreds of dollars for your next ticket? Youíll kick yourself if you compare airfare with a fellow passenger, in the same section of your flight, and find out he paid far less for his ticket than you did. Why? He went through an airline consolidator. But slow down--thereís more to this than picking up the phone and making a reservation. The key is knowing how to buy discounted airfare.

First, youíll save the most money if you have flexible departure and return dates. Then, compare prices by shopping around. Call more than one consolidator--some may be listed under "Airline Ticket Agencies" in the yellow pages of your telephone book or in the travel section of your newspaper. Then call the airlines to compare their best prices on a specific itinerary against the consolidatorsí prices.

You also might compare fares youíve found with a travel agentís best fares. The reason: Travel agents use consolidators, too. Keep in mind that if a travel agent sells you a ticket through a consolidator, the agent probably will add a service charge. But thatís a small trade-off for finding a good fare.

When you go to a consolidator it pays to have done your homework. And besides, bargain airfare shopping can be fun. Think of it like shopping factory outlet stores. Then donít jump at the first bargain.

Anything wrong with this picture? Nothing, so far. The problem lies with the fact that there are plenty of consolidators anxious to sell you reduced airfares. But unless you know the ropes, you may fall prey to semiclandestine operations, also known in the trade as "bucket shops." These businesses are looking for a fast buck and, generally, operate with little regard for fair practice and ethics.

Ticketing practices to watch out for
Unscrupulous consolidators sell tickets that arenít confirmed with the airline. If the consolidator offers a good fare, go ahead and make a reservation, but donít pay for it until you confirm your seat with the airline.

Discounted tickets usually are highly restricted. Donít expect refunds or exchange policies to be the same as from the airlines. Before you buy ask about penalties for changing dates. On outbound flights this can be costly if a schedule change is considered a cancellation.

Consolidators are not travel consultants. Unlike travel agents, who offer trip planning information about specific destinations, consolidators offer little in the way of travel services. Youíll have to call the airline to get information such as visa requirements and connecting times between flights.

Make sure the consolidator has not "bought" frequent flier miles which itís using for your ticket. Airlines can confiscate this type of ticket, and you, the purchaser, are out the money you paid. To find out if the consolidator buys frequent flier miles, call the consolidator and ask if it will buy your frequent flier miles for resale. If the answer is yes, donít do business with this agency.

Ask for the full price of your fare before you buy. Fare quotes given via fax or phone may not include taxes, surcharges, and fees to send tickets by express mail. Get the total cost of the ticket before you make your decision.

Do not pay with cash or a check. If a consolidator doesnít take credit cards, go on to the next agency. Credit cards can offer financial recourse if problems arise--your credit card company also may negotiate for you.

Avoid paying credit card surcharges. Surcharges for using a credit card are illegal in many states, including New York, home base of operations for many consolidators. In states that do allow surcharges, you may pay 3% to 5% of the ticket price, or fees ranging from $35 to $50.

Make sure you arenít booked on a charter airline. Charter airlines donít always have backup planes if mechanical problems arise. To avoid delays, book flights on scheduled airlines, preferably only on airlines you recognize.

Some consolidators deal only with travel agents. Ask if theyíll sell directly to you for a small mark-up price. If not, ask to have your ticket submitted to your own travel agent. Your travel agent undoubtedly will add a service fee, but itís worth it if you find a good fare.

Consolidators usually offer the best deals on international routes. Some destinations, such as Asia-Pacific countries, Latin America, and some places in Europe are not "on sale" very often. This is where consolidators often shine by offering prices far lower than the airlines.

Another good time to use consolidators is during peak travel times, such as to Europe from June through August. Airlines typically donít have sales to Europe then, so consolidators take advantage of the season.

Finding reputable consolidators
So how do you find a reputable consolidator? Contact the Better Business Bureau in the area where the agency does business, check with your travel agent, or The Airline Consolidators Quick Reference Chart. This guide covers 100 consolidators.

Another way to find a reputable consolidator is through the United States Air Consolidators Association, an organization founded by consolidators. Members are required to "transact at least $10 million annually in air consolidation in conjunction with scheduled airlines, be incorporated in the U.S. for at least two years, and have never filed for bankruptcy or ceased operation." For a membersí list contact them at (916) 441-4166 or by e-mail.

Besides Travac, which sells an average 70,000 to 80,000 tickets a year, mainly to Europe, here are two other consolidators with reliable reputations: Council Travel (800-226-8624) in New York, is the oldest and largest student-oriented travel service provider in the U.S. It started in 1947 selling tickets to exchange students going to Europe. You have to be 26 or younger to get in on most fares, but itís worth a call to see if the company has good deals for you.

Travel Bargains, (800-247-3273) in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., has been in business since the mid-1980s. It issues about 125,000 tickets annually. In addition to individual airfare, the company offers cruises, car rentals, and tours. Domestic travel is one of its specialties.

When youíre shopping for wholesale airfare, timing is everything. True, you may not find bargains every day of the week, but when you do, youíll be glad you heard about consolidators. Just make sure youíve done that all-important homework first.

©1998 Credit Union National Association, Inc.