Airline consolidators are independent travel agencies that negotiate contract, discounted rates on blocks of airline seats and make them available to travelers.

Rather than buying the seats outright and reselling them for a profit, consolidators merely have an agreed rate with various airlines that are below the published list price. As a result, travelers can fly for less and airlines can liquidate stubborn seats that aren’t selling.

In today’s age of independent travel, airline consolidators are an important traveler resource. They’re especially beneficial to flexible travelers who are willing to fly at odd hours or to out-of-the-way airports. Around the world and other multi-stop travelers can make the best use of this service.

The best fares are available in the international market. In the US and the UK, for example, domestic discount airlines offer the most affordable fares and do not deal with consolidators. But they may offer good deals for first-class and business-class passengers.

A common misconception is that dealing directly with the airline is the best approach, as it cuts out the middle man. While this is the case in many industries, it applies much more loosely to airlines. In any event, airlines continue to offer their best rates to consolidators because international agreements through the IATA forbid them from publishing or even acknowledging the sale of discounted tickets.

Airline consolidators have offices in major travel hubs around the world including Bangkok, Frankfurt, London, Hong Kong, Sydney and Tokyo. Consolidators in the US can offer competitive rates on long-haul travel, while offices in Asia are usually able to offer competitive rates on shorter flights.

Some third-world countries do not allow consolidators to operate and insist on official published rates. In these cases, passengers may fly into the country on a discounted fare, but they can not receive a discount on flights originating in that country.

It’s best to deal directly with known consolidators, either on the phone or in person. Try to plan at least a couple of months ahead of travel to give your tickets time to arrive. Paying with a credit card is also wise as it empowers the purchaser to deny payment if they’re fraudulently dealt with.

Tickets purchased through a consolidator are subject to more restrictions than traditional airfare.

Here are a few common restrictions on tickets purchased through a consolidator:

  • Tickets may not be refundable, and are all non-refundable after the traveler has completed the first leg of travel.
  • Frequent flyer miles may not be available, though this restriction has loosened up in recent years.
  • Paper tickets are often required, adding postage time to the ticketing process. Some consolidators can issue paperless e-tickets.

Beware of auction-type websites that bid themselves as airline consolidators. These are most common in the US market, and flights must originate from within North America. Like traditional consolidators, these companies negotiate contracts with airlines, but their primary goal is to get potential travelers to overbid. This generates artificially high profits for the company.