Updated June 1, 2004 -- Consolidators, or "bucket shops," buy tickets in bulk from airlines and resell them for cheaper than the airlines' usual discounted rates. They're especially useful if you're flying overseas or are booking at the last minute -- and they're almost always the best way to get tickets to Third World destinations. They advertise in the Sunday travel sections of newspapers, set up storefronts in ethnic neighborhoods, or pop up in searches on Web sites such as google.com.
Unfortunately, the consolidator industry has attracted quite a few fly-by-night operators. Some just take your money; some sell counterfeit tickets. To avoid problems, make sure your consolidator is a member of the American Society of Travel Agents (tel. 703/739-2782) or the International Airlines Travel Agent Network (tel. 516/663-6000). You can search ASTA's Web site (www.astanet.com/travel/agentsearch.asp) and IATAN's as well (www.locateatravelagency.com) to see if the agent's a member in good standing.
If you're booking on your own, be sure to pay with a credit card. If the company goes under or you never receive your ticket, you can get your money back by filing a claim with your credit card company. Ask the consolidator for a record-locator number and then confirm your seat with the airline itself. (Be prepared to book your ticket with a different consolidator if the airline can't confirm your reservation.)
You may also want to specify the airline or airlines on which you'd like to fly. Be aware that some consolidators sell tickets on charter flights or carriers with poor safety records. If you want to fly on a major carrier, say so when you make your reservation.
You should also know that most bucket shop tickets won't earn you frequent-flier miles. Usually, they're also nonrefundable or rigged with stiff cancellation penalties, often $250 or more. Be sure to ask what the penalties are before you pay.
The following bucket shops have been around for a while, handle worldwide destinations, and have a reputation for reliability:
STA Travel (tel. 800/781-4040; www.statravel.com) caters especially to young travelers, but the bargain-basement prices are available to people of all ages.
Air Tickets Direct (tel. 800/778-3447; www.airticketsdirect.com) is based in Canada, leveraging the weak Canadian dollar to provide low fares. They're an especially good choice for destinations with which the U.S. has shaky or nonexistent relations, such as Cuba.
FlyCheap (tel. 800/FLY-CHEAP; www.flycheap.com) is now owned by one of Europe's largest package-tour operators, AirTours. That gives them access to an unusual library of charter flights to sunny destinations, though they sell tickets heading anywhere in the world.
TFI Tours International (tel. 800/745-8000 or 212/736-1140; www.lowestairprice.com) provides convenient charts on their Web site allowing you to see all of an airline's fares throughout the year.
New Frontiers USA (tel. 800/366-6387 or 212/779-0600; www.newfrontiers.com) sells cut-rate tickets to all the major cities of Europe, but specializes in Paris.