The deals seem too good to be true: round-trip first or business class airfare for far less than you’d expect to pay. They’re hard to ignore: hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars off for a cushy, lie-flat seat in the pointy-end of the airplane.
But these tickets are not being sold by airlines. Instead, they are sold by third parties that you likely have never heard of. Google “business class discounts” and you’ll find names like SkyLux, Business Class Guru, Wholesale Flights, SkyBird, Cheap First Class, and more. Their one-dimensional websites are tricky to navigate and feel a little sketchy. The companies offering these too-good-to-be-true deals are called airline consolidators.
“I’m not a huge fan of airfare consolidators as a way for most people to save on airfare, for a few reasons,” said Scott Keys, the founder of the popular Scott’s Cheap Flights website, in an interview. “First, to the extent airfare consolidators are able to offer savings, it’s almost exclusively on international premium seats, which can easily cost five times or more the price of a seat in economy. Multi-thousand-dollar flights to Europe are out of the question for most folks, alas.
Second, airfare consolidators are not a panacea; standard flight search engines are often cheaper from a smattering of sample searches. Lastly, booking through a third party is always going to be riskier than booking directly with an airline, especially if there’s a delay/cancellation or you wind up changing your travel plans. Unless the savings are truly substantial, it’s typically best to book directly with airlines or your travel agent whenever possible.”
Airline ticket consolidators are a subset of the travel industry that was born before the internet when airlines had more seats to sell than they knew what to do with, said business travel expert Joe Brancatelli, the founder of joesentme.com website, told us.
“They’re the outlet malls of airlines,” Brancatelli said. “Before the web, airlines had a lot of seats they had to sell that they couldn’t sell through retail travel agencies. Airlines offered consolidators massive discounts of 30-40 percent, and sometimes 60-70 percent. Then the internet came along, allowing airlines to reach customers directly. So the need for these kinds of people, the interlocutors, declined.”
He said that many have folded over the years, but some larger ones remain, doing business primarily with travel agencies. Some market directly to consumers via ads popping up on various websites.
On most consolidator websites, you can’t get a fare quote like you can on a standard airline or agency website. Instead, you fill out an online form with your flight parameters, then you have to wait for someone at the agency to call or email you back. And once you’ve provided your contact information, prepare for a hard sell that won’t stop until you buy a ticket or block their calls.
What kind of deals are we talking about? I priced out round trip business class between San Francisco and Amsterdam for June, and the cheapest fare I could find via Google Flights is about $5,000 for a one stop flight, and $9,000 for a nonstop. A promo page on CheapFirstClass.com says it has recently snagged SFO-AMS fares for just $2,845. That’s a significant savings, but there are risks involved.
Those who do purchase fares from consolidators should know what they are getting themselves into.
- You may be flying on an overseas airline you’ve never heard of. Brancatelli said consolidators typically work with lesser known foreign carriers that may not have the global brand recognition as larger, more established carriers do. “The airlines that need the consolidators the most tend to be new to a market, and frankly ones you’ve never heard of,” he said. These days, he says, “There are fewer of those quirky airlines that were the bread and butter of these consolidators.”
- Don’t always expect frequent flier miles from your trips. When you book tickets through the consolidator — and not the airline — some itineraries will not award you frequent flier miles or miles that count towards airline elite status.
- Flights may not be transferable to another airline. “If a flight cancels, you might have to wait a few days for a flight home,” Brancatelli said. That’s especially true for carriers that do not operate daily flights to a given destination. So you may find yourself out of luck and paying out of pocket if weather problems or mechanical issues hamper your flights.
- Some so-called consolidators tread a gray area by ticketing customers through illegitimate tactics. That can include third-country ticketing where, for example, a ticket is bought in Canada for an American passenger’s trip to Europe to take advantage of a cheaper airfare and/or a more favorable foreign currency exchange rate.
Then there’s the buying and selling of miles, which is prohibited by the airlines. “There’s the brokering of frequent flier miles on a soft basis or a hard basis,” Brancatelli said. “People are reselling seats they’re claiming as awards.” As the buyer, you may never know this was done unless or until the airline confronts you about it. These tactics are not against the law, but do violate airline rules. If caught, fliers might have their tickets cancelled, and the airline might shut down frequent flier accounts.
“If the consolidator is selling a ticket where you can earn miles, you’re not flying on [someone else’s] frequent flier ticket,” said Blake Fleetwood, CEO of New York City-based Cook Travel. “Make sure the ticket you’re flying on you can earn miles. That’s generally a good sign.”