An airline consolidator is a reseller of airline tickets. Seats on certain flights are purchased from the airline in bulk and resold---either to travel agents or directly to consumers---for a discounted price. Airline consolidators should not be confused with travel agents; online booking agents, such as Expedia or Travelocity; or discount airlines. Airline consolidators do not operate as employees of any of these business, and, rather, work to negotiate and retain profit independently.
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Consolidators are agencies that have discount agreements with the airlines; every airline has consolidators. It is best to think of the airline consolidator business as a wholesaler, especially those who purchase the bulk tickets from large American airlines and other large international airlines. In most cases, the consolidator sells the tickets to the retailer (the travel agency), which then sells them to the consumer. (It's rare that any airline consolidator will sell directly to consumers.) Many US travel agents are accustomed to doing business with consolidators, especially those that deal heavily in international ticketing, since international air travel is the speciality of the largest consolidators.
These are the largest consolidators who deal directly with the airlines and, thereafter, the retail ticket agents. Their business is strictly B2B, and they do not deal directly with the public, nor is the public even aware of their companies, as they only market themselves to retailers. Only retail agents (travel agents) have access to the consolidator's contact information and ticket offerings.
Destination specialists do business with both retail agencies and other wholesalers. This type of consolidator receives special discounts from the airlines for a particular region or popular vacation destination. The consolidator builds the business based on that geographic market segment, often dealing with the official/national carrier of the region. These wholesalers are willing to deal with other wholesalers because of sales volume. To maintain business with the airline and receive continued discounts, tickets must be sold, so if retailers are not biting, consolidators will resell to wholesalers, even if the markup is low.
The term "bucket shops" often is used interchangeably with airline consolidator; however, this is a mistake, as the two are not the same. Bucket shops are retailers who deal with other retailers and sometimes directly with the public. Sometimes they refer to themselves as "consolidators;" however, they often are small operations that do not achieve significant bulk discounts with major airlines and negotiate smaller deals. They often negotiate to sell tickets to other bucket shops abroad. Bucket shops can offer substantial discounts on particular tickets, either because the route or destination is in low demand, because it is one-way or because of a combination of such factors.
Asking a travel agent to search for a consolidator deal has its advantages, depending on the destination and lead time. If you are heading to an unusual location and the travel agent has to make a special request through a wholesaler or bucket shop, the final airfare will likely be a markup (by the travel agent) of a deal that the passenger could have achieved on his own. For international travel, searching for a bucket shop that specialises in the destination area can result in significant airfare savings. Edward Hasbrouck, author of "The Practical Nomad," offers this advice to international airfare seekers: "There are ads for discounted international tickets in newspapers in many other regional and local USA cities, but one can often get better deals from the agencies that advertise in the largest gateway cities. This is especially true for travel to less common destinations (i.e. outside North America or Europe), and most of all for any trip involving destinations on multiple continents that can't be ticketed as a round trip."
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