March 25, 2011 -- "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.
Brokers -- Still Around
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:
Given the consequences, I can't see why anyone would want to risk a lot of money on a coupon – especially because alternative discount sources are available.
Consolidator Tickets for Legitimate Discounts
Probably most of the ads you see these days for heavily discounted business and first class travel are from agencies that sell discounted consolidator tickets. Consolidators are wholesale agencies that arrange contracts with individual airlines to sell tickets at less than published prices.
The benefit to the airlines is that "back door" ticket sales through consolidators allows them to discount discreetly without adversely affecting sales at regular published fares and to fill seats that might otherwise depart empty. Typically, consolidators arrange ticket discounts in all classes, not just business and first, although they can typically offer much bigger discounts on business and first class tickets than in economy.
Most big consolidators I know are strictly wholesalers that do not sell directly to the public. Instead, they sell through retail travel agencies that specialize in discounted tickets, and those are the agencies that promote the big discounts.
Consolidator tickets are perfectly legitimate. The airlines deliberately sell them at discount prices. Even so, however, consolidator tickets pose several drawbacks:
Unlike regular tickets at regular published fares, consolidator tickets typically do not show a price. Consolidators usually sell to retail agencies at a "net" price, so the agency can add as much markup as the market might bear. That's one of the main reasons you shouldn't buy a discounted ticket without getting several competitive bids.
Most online discount agencies post a few sample fares, but they want you to submit a specific trip request, to which they respond in a few hours. Although I have more than a dozen such agencies on my "favorites" list, I prefer not to list any because I don't want to imply any personal recommendation. They're easy enough to find online.
All in all, if you can accept the various limitations, consolidator tickets are generally your best bet for a cheap trip in business or first class, and sometimes good for economy, as well. But be sure you're dealing with a consolidator ticket, not a brokered award.
Ask if you have any doubt about that. And keep in mind that even at 50-75 percent off, a business class ticket is likely to cost at least twice the cheapest economy trip, and usually quite a bit more than that. Still, if you do want to escape the cattle car, discounted tickets are almost always the best deal you can get.
Ed Perkins is a SmarterTravel contributing editor and a respected commentator on all aspects of the travel industry, including passenger comfort and rights, travel insurance, the best credit cards for travelers, and car rental. This article originally appeared on SmarterTravel.