The Brancatelli File



July 1, 1989 -- With the high season for international travel about to kick into high gear, here's an update on a few items that Americans always find tricky.

Quirky as it may seem, airlines are rarely the source of the lowest fares on overseas flights. Discounters known as “consolidators” often sell seats at prices 30 percent below the airlines’ lowest fares.

Consolidators can undercut the airlines on their own flights because they buy huge blocks of seats at wholesale prices. Then they resell the tickets at a modest premium to individual travelers. The savings can be substantial. At press time Access International, one of the largest consolidators, was selling round-trip tickets to London from the East Coast for as little as $420 and to Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt for as little as $440.

The practice is technically illegal: airlines break the Federal Aviation Act by selling international tickets at unpublished discounts. All airlines do it, however, and the Department of Transportation decided last winter not to enforce the law because consumers benefit from the lower prices offered by the consolidators.

Some airlines, notably Pan Am, have tried to eliminate the middle man by offering low-priced seats directly to consumers. But even Pan Am admits it sold 25-30 percent of its overseas seats to consolidators last year.

Consolidators usually run their small discount-offering advertisements in the travel sections of Sunday newspapers, although you won’t see the word “consolidator” anywhere in the copy. (The prices are the giveaway.) You can deal with a consolidator directly, although an increasing number of people are buying consolidator tickets from their travel agents, the best way to get these fares. That’s because the large consolidators have become so sophisticated that they pay commissions to travel agents who sell their tickets.

Before you buy a consolidator ticket, however, make sure you can accept the trade-offs involved. Most consolidator tickets cannot be purchased until 30 days before your departure and most cannot be changed or refunded for any reason. Some consolidators won’t reveal the name of the airline you’ll fly until several days before departure, and you may end up on a carrier you have reservations about. (To mitigate this risk, ask the consolidator which airlines he deals with most.) Consolidators sometimes impose a surcharge if you want to pay with a credit or charge card. Most important, consolidator tickets are valid only on the airline for which they are written. That means if your scheduled flight is canceled or delayed, no other airline will accept the ticket. You’ll have to wait until your airline’s next departure. That can be two or three days in some parts of the world.

Many travelers now rely on credit and charge-card collision coverage programs rather than costly collision damage waivers (CDWs) sold by car-rental firms. But renters should double-check the rules before declining the CDW in foreign countries, because not all overseas car-rental locations honor credit and charge-card coverage.

The major American and foreign car-rental companies all say that corporate policy is to accept credit-card coverage at overseas offices. But no company could guarantee that all its international locations—many of which are franchises owned by local entrepreneurs—adhere to the corporate policy. Some foreign rental stations persistently demand a substantial deposit or put a hold of several thousand dollars on the credit limit of any renter who declines the CDW.

To avoid unpleasant surprises at a car-rental station abroad, follow two simple rules:
1. Determine which type of collision coverage your card offers outside the United States by calling the customer service number. “Primary” collision coverage means the card company will pay for all damages covered by its policy. “Secondary” or “supplemental” collision coverage means the card company will reimburse you only for costs above and beyond those your personal car insurance pays.

2. Insist that your travel agent or the car-rental reservation clerk contact the overseas location where you’re planning to pick up the car and confirm that it accepts your credit card’s coverage. If the company or agent won’t do this for you, consider taking your business elsewhere.

Americans who flock to London this summer expecting to buy cheap theater tickets are in for a shock. The weak dollar and British inflation have pushed ticket prices closer to those charged in New York. The days when West end shows were half the price of Broadway productions are gone.

Stall (orchestra) seats at top London musicals now command £22.50 (about $36), compared to $50 in New York. When Jerome Robbins’ Broadway opened on Broadway, the most expensive tickets cost $55; this fall the long-running London hit, Les Misérables, jumps to £25 (about $40), following the lead of Phantom of the Opera, which opened at £25 in October 1986. The gap for “straight plays” is only slightly larger: about £15 ($24) in the London stalls compared to about $40 on Broadway.

Another reason London shows are pricier now is that British producers realize theatergoers will pay more. “Producers were too cautious on prices, as if they lacked faith in their own product,” says Peter Plouviez, general secretary of British Equity, the actor’s union. He also warns that London prices will continue to skyrocket because Equity contracts expire next year and “everything is up for grabs.”

The last bastion of bargain British theater is the Leicester Square Ticket Booth. It sells seats to selected shows on the day of the performance at half price plus a £1.25 ($2) service charge.

Think twice before parking in short-term lots at the airport. Short-term parking rates rose 11 percent last year, versus only 4 percent for long-term rates. According to Norman Crampton, author of How to Get From the Airport to the City, airports are pushing up rates at short-term lots, which are usually very congested, to induce travelers to use long-term lots, which are generally less crowded but much farther away from terminals. Below are the daily parking rates at major U.S. airports, listed from most to least expensive. Some airports have more than one long-term lot, in which case the price given is for the cheapest, which tends to be farthest from the terminal.

This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.

Copyright © 1989-2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.