"Business Class -- up to 75 percent off!"
Certainly, that offer is tempting to anyone looking to escape from the cramped seating and non-service you get on most long-haul overseas flights. But are those claims just a come-on or are they for real?
A reader who recently came across a claim like that asked:
"I saw a website offering big discounts on business class, but it looks like some kind of coupon travel broker that buys unused frequent flyer miles then somehow sells business class award tickets to customers. I never heard of this agency, and it sounds fishy to me. Is it OK or not?"
The short answer to this reader is, "It's fishy."
The site in question displays the tell-tale sign for a coupon broker: a "we buy miles" notice. But not all agencies that claim big business class discounts are fishy. Instead, probably most of them are outlets for consolidator tickets. If you're interested in cheap business and first class travel -- or even in economy -- you need to know the difference.
What, exactly, is a "coupon broker?" Basically, it's an agency that buys and sells frequent flyer travel awards. And, because of market prices and mileage award schedules, almost all of the coupon action is in first or business class on intercontinental trips.
Contrary to some reports I've seen, coupon brokers do not buy and sell frequent flyer credit as miles. Nobody can do that without paying transfer fees that often cost more than the credit is worth. Instead, a coupon broker buys and sells frequent flyer awards in a three-step process:
Just about every legitimate travel writer I know warns that traveling on brokered awards is "risky." All major airlines expressly prohibit "sale, barter, or trade" of their frequent flyer awards.
Over the years, airlines have been able to shut down a lot of coupon brokers, apparently using fraud laws. Others have hindered the process by limiting award transfer to family members and possibly requiring that both the mileage holder and the person flying show up at an airport ticket counter together. Despite concerted airline opposition, a few hardy brokers seem to remain in business.
Usually Not a Good Idea
Overall, I recommend against buying a brokered award, for three compelling reasons: