Al Benson of West Barnstable found a very low air fare to Antigua on a website called AirGorilla.com, but he was reluctant to book a ticket with the company because he had never heard of it.
''Their fares are wonderful," Benson said in an e-mail. ''But how do you know if they are too good to be true? Is there a Better Business Bureau to check these sites?"
Air Gorilla is a California company that sells published and unpublished fares. Published fares are ones that airlines offer to virtually any vendor, while unpublished fares are discounted prices that carriers offer to a select group of wholesalers, or consolidators, who usually resell them to a network of retail travel agents.
The airlines use consolidators to boost their sales volume in a way that doesn't draw attention to the fact that they are essentially competing against their own published prices. The consolidator fares, usually for specific international routes, typically end up with travel agencies most consumers have never heard of, but which cater to those interested in traveling to a specific part of the world.
''Airlines are masters at price differentiation and often hide the best fares with lesser-known companies to attract the price-sensitive consumer," said Hugo Burge, president of Cheapflights.com, which helps consumers search for inexpensive flights offered by all sorts of vendors, including consolidators. ''There is a nice urban myth that if you want a cheap flight to China, then try a travel agency in Chinatown. Actually, there is more truth in this than you might imagine."
In Britain, Burge said, consolidators are well regarded because each agency is required to post a bond to protect its customers in case it should go out of business. US travel agencies don't have a similar requirement, he said.
''In America, consolidators don't have that good a name because there isn't that level of trust," he said.
According to its website, Air Gorilla has been in business since 2001 and is one of relatively few travel companies specializing in consolidator fares. David Coleman, its president and chief executive, said Air Gorilla sells its own consolidator fares as well as those of other wholesalers to round out its product inventory.
The San Diego Better Business Bureau has given Air Gorilla, a corporate affiliate of the Coronado Travel Group, an unsatisfactory rating for failing to respond to one of 12 consumer complaints in the last 36 months. The 11 other complaints were either resolved or the company made a good faith effort to resolve them, the BBB website says.
Customer service at Air Gorilla is very Internet-focused. The website offers a phone number for customer service, but only after customers have gone through a series of frequently asked questions to see if their queries can be answered without resorting to a call.
Coleman cautioned that consolidator fares often come with restrictions, including no upgrades using frequent-flier miles and hefty fees for ticket changes.
Coleman advises booking three to four months in advance and looking for the best fare on multiple websites for about two weeks before making a reservation. He said most good summer fares for Europe are gone already, but he said low fares are available for the fall to Australia and New Zealand.
Benson said he booked a flight to Antigua on American Airlines and just for fun, checked prices on other websites. He said the price for the same flight was $100 less on Air Gorilla.
Coleman said Air Gorilla does offer consolidator fares to the Caribbean, but he suspects Benson in this instance happened upon a lower price because of some cancellations of lower-priced bookings on American. He said those lower-priced fares possibly popped up on the American website as well.
Burge at Cheapflights said finding the best fare is never simple. ''One company cannot offer all the best fares," he said. ''Consumers should always shop around intelligently."
Contact Bruce Mohl at firstname.lastname@example.org.