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AIR FARES

Four Ways to Fly for Less

Couriers, rebaters, consolidators, and charters are cheap--but tricky

In 1959, when How to Travel without Being Rich was a hot seller, a 10-day trip from New York to Paris including air fare, lodging, and sightseeing cost $553. Today, that price would elude even the most serious of cost-cutters. But bargains still abound for creative travelers willing to do a modicum of research.


Air Couriers

The absolute cheapest way to fly is as a courier. Although most large courier companies such as Federal Express and UPS use their own couriers, smaller companies use "freelance couriers". A typical courier fare can be as low as one-fourth of the regular airline economy class fare. Last-minute tickets are especially cheap--one courier company recently listed a fare from Los Angeles to Tokyo of $100. A full-fare ticket would cost around $1,800.

In exchange for a drastically reduced fare, couriers have minimal duties. It works like this: After booking a flight with a company, the courier meets a representative of the company at the airport two to four hours before departure. The agent hands baggage checks for the cargo and other paperwork over to the courier. The courier then boards the plane and, on arrival at his international destination, accompanies the cargo through customs. Once through customs, the courier hands over the paperwork to the company agent. After that he is free to go.

Drawbacks: Because air courier companies use a courier's allotted baggage space for cargo, couriers generally are limited to carry-on baggage only. More important, courier travel can be unreliable. On rare occasions, for instance, courier companies will cancel or postpone their shipments because of last-minute cargo changes. In this instance, if a courier does not have flexible travel plans and cannot wait for the next courier flight, he or she may have to buy a full-fare economy ticket from a regular airline.

Where to go: Most courier flights leave from New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Miami. The best way to find them is to join the International Association of Air Travel Couriers, 407-582-8320. A one-year membership is $45. With membership, you get a bi-monthly bulletin and access to twice-daily updates of available courier flights online or via fax.


Consolidators

Consolidators are the Price Club of airline travel--large brokerage houses which buy blocks of tickets from airlines at wholesale prices and then pass the savings on to individual flyers. Airlines sell to consolidators at reduced prices because they fear that the tickets would otherwise go unsold. Consolidators buy seats mostly on established carriers for flights that are headed to overseas destinations. Travelers booking flights with consolidators can save anywhere from 20 to 50 percent off the price of a regular ticket.

Drawbacks: Most consolidators are reliable, but to protect against illegitimate businesses, travelers should use a credit card whenever possible. Consolidator tickets are non-refundable, so a traveler who cannot use his or her ticket will most likely end up eating the fare. Consolidator tickets typically are not honored by other airlines, so ticket holders who miss their flights or whose flights are canceled will have to wait for another flight on the issuing airline. Also, flights generally are not direct and sometimes have as many as three stops.

Where to go: Travel agents rarely volunteer information about consolidator tickets. Should a travel agent plead ignorance, it may help to suggest that he look up the fare in Jax Fax, 800-952-9329, a monthly newsletter that lists consolidator fares and is widely distributed to travel agents. Consolidator fares are also listed in small print ads in the travel sections of major newspapers like the New York Times and USA Today. For flights originating in Europe, the Air Travel Advisory Bureau in London, 44-1-636-5000, has a complete listing of consolidators (or, as they are called in Britain, "bucket shops").


Charter Flights

Charter flights offer savings that are competitive with consolidator tickets, but generally they are only for non-stop routes. Charter companies are able to profit by running less often than regularly scheduled airline flights and by booking to complete capacity. On transatlantic flights especially, travelers can expect to save between $200 and $400.

Charters also are a good alternative for those who like to fly first class but don't want to pay for it. Consumer Reports Travel Letter editor Ed Perkins says, "One of the best values around is the premium class service on some of the transatlantic charters. First class on charter planes is a third of the price of regular airlines with many of the same amenities."

Drawbacks: Infrequency of flights and overcrowding of planes are common complaints. If a charter flight is canceled close to departure, there usually are no other planes available, nor will a charter ticket be honored on another airline. Travelers can often have a lengthy wait for another flight, or worse, will have to pay full fare on a regular airline. Also, despite the aforementioned first-class options, charter flights are not known for luxury service. The meals often come in a brown bag, and you're packed in like the proverbial sardine.

Where to go: Travel agencies are an excellent source for charter listings. Charter companies also advertise heavily in the travel sections of major newspapers. Martinair Holland, 800-366-4655, Tower, 800-221-2500, and Balair Ltd., 800-322-5247, get high marks from Perkins for first-class service.


Rebaters

Rebaters are "no-frills" travel agents who pay the ticket buyer all or part of the commission they are paid by airlines for selling the ticket. Rebaters profit by charging a flat fee for making a reservation and issuing a ticket to the buyer. A traveler headed from New York to Stockholm might be quoted a round-trip fare of $800. By using a rebater, the fare would drop to $750. The reason: Rebaters refund their commission, in this case, $80 or 10 percent of the fare. They then tack on a $20 fee to issue the ticket and sometimes an extra $10 to make the reservation. Still, the total price of the ticket is $50 less than it would have been with a regular travel agent.

Drawbacks: For the money saved by using a rebater, a traveler gives up a lot in service. The only function a rebater will perform is making a reservation and issuing a ticket. All other travel details, such as seat assignments, hotel reservations, and ground transportation, will need to be made by the traveler. "The amenities a consumer loses using a rebater instead of a full-service travel agent are not worth the savings unless you are buying expensive tickets," Perkins says.

Where to go: One of the most prominent rebaters is Travel Avenue in Chicago, 800-333-3335. In addition, Consumer Reports Travel Letter, 800-234-1970, lists major rebaters throughout the country once a year.


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