Can Americans Benefit from the Airfare "Bucket Shops" of Britain?

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A resounding yes! By flying to London first, Yanks can quite often find airfare for flights to exotic destinations, costing far less than the same tickets purchased at home

The "bucket shop" was born in Britain. And though the name for these once-shady, now-thoroughly-legal airfare discounters has grown respectable over the years (most are known today as airfare "consolidators" or "brokers"), they're still pulling off eerie and unsettling feats of low pricing from London to remote destinations throughout the world. A knowledge of how to find the British "bucket shop" is a mighty weapon in the arsenal of budget travel. (Note: The phone numbers in this article are written for dialing within the U.K. When dialing from North America, use the prefix 011-44 and drop the first zero from all of the numbers listed below.)

Dropping into the buckets 

A similar matchmaking resource, cheapflights.com, is Web-only and has been running since 1996. Its site lists 290 British sellers (again, paid subscribers) and some current sample prices. On a recent visit to London, I found the rates were not always available when I called the listed companies, but they were usually close. From company to company, the prices I found through both services were similar. After all, the vendors know they're being stacked against one another.

To join both, companies must be bonded, which means they're insured should your chosen air carrier go belly-up. In Britain, only unbonded sellers are today called "bucket shops," while insured ones are known by the loftier "consolidator" (call a consolidator a "bucket shop" and you'll receive a flinty glare). Since, generally speaking, there's no price difference between the two (and they jockey for the same customers), go with a bonded one. Also consider paying with a credit card, despite the 2-to-5-percent surcharge. Should trouble arise, you won't find yourself struggling to get a refund from the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean.

You can also find a handful of consolidators through their ads. To-the-minute specials can be found in the major London newspapers, especially the daily travel pages in the Evening Standard (about 50 [cents]), or the weekly magazines Time Out (about $2.50) and TNT (free at most hostels).

Once you have your list of contenders, it's time to shop for prices.

Bargains, pound for pound

First of all, pick your dream destination from London. Because of enduring links to the "mother country," places as far-flung as Sydney, New Delhi, and Johannesburg still do a great deal of culture-sharing with Great Britain, as family members and workers shuttle between them. With London's five bustling airports (Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, City, and Heathrow, the busiest in Europe), lots of seats are flying, so lots of seats need to be sold, and it's easy to hook a bargain you'd never find in the United States.

Of course, to make this method work, you must get to London cheaply, too. Aside from the usual airline sales, try an American discounter (consolidator); three big ones are Travac (800/872-8800, thetravelsite.com), Cheap Tickets, (888/922-8849, cheaptickets.com), and TFI Tours (800/745-8000, lowestairprice.com). All three companies have round-trip winter departures selling at $275-$450 from most parts of America in the low season of November to March, and high-season seats for around $600 in summer. In order to secure the best last-minute flights, be prepared to stay at least five to ten days in London.

Better yet, use an air/hotel package to London, which will fly you there round-trip and give you a bed while you look for those treasured onward ticket steals. With go-today.com, you'll spend as little as $399 per person in winter (November through March), $599 in shoulder months (April/May, September/October), $749 in peak summer, and $150 more from the West Coast, for round-trip airfare plus six nights' hotel. You can usually delay your homeward flight for up to three months-ample time to find a bargain and take a meaty trip-within-a-trip.

While you're speaking to the American consolidators, get prices to your final exotic destination as well. That way, you can compare the fares from your home airport in the U.S. with the London-airport prices through ATAB or Cheapflights. If the two prices (once you add transportation to England) are close, then you don't need to visit the British bucket shops -- unless you really want to break your journey with a stay in London.

Although there are no hard-and-fast rules, some destinations are more cheaply reached from the U.S. -- it depends on your home airport. Thus, because of their proximity, South America and the South Pacific are always cheaper from your own doorstep than from London.

Everywhere else is in a grey area. Because of strong ties to North America, much of East Asia (including Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Seoul) can often be had for $600-$800 round-trip from our West Coast -- although last-minute British bargains occasionally beat that. Australia can be a better buy from the U.S. West Coast, but East Coasters will usually benefit from a London departure.

Despite those general advantages, no matter where you live and no matter what the destination, you can (and should) do a little price research online before flying across the Atlantic Ocean to visit the bucket shops of Britain. For many destinations, the best deals await in London.

Big deals under Big Ben 

The same tickets would have cost me $1,244 and $1,300, respectively, from the East Coast during the same period. So even with the added $400 I spent on my trip to London, I would have saved $125-$327 getting to South Africa or Australia. And I would have broken my journey with a stay in one of the world's most fascinating cities -- London.

Or how about this: an eleventh-hour fare from a British bucket shop to New Delhi, India, was [British Pound] 299 ($430). From New York, flights to New Delhi can cost over $1,200, so I would have saved about $400 using the London method.

There are dozens upon dozens of London consolidators, but for the record, I got those prices at Just the Ticket (28 Margaret St., 020/7291-8111, justtheticket.co.uk), Trailfinders (1 Threadneedle St., 020/7628-7628, trailfinders.com), Lupus Travel (189 Regent St., 0870/830-8158, lupustravel.com), and Benz Travel (83 Mortimer St., 020/7462-0011, benztravel.co.uk).

The London method isn't just for long-haul flights. Five cheapo London-flying airlines sell popular European destinations for under $100 round-trip (such as Ryanair, Go, Buzz, easyJet, and Virgin Express), far less than flights of comparable length in the U.S. The lowest prices appear months earlier, so book those from home, quickly and for free, on the Web. Then hop to London to catch your dirt-cheap flight on these Euro "upstarts."

Booking three months ahead, I was able to buy a round-trip seat from London to Athens for a mere [British Pound] 44 ($63). Even if I spent $350 to get to London, the total would still be a few hundred dollars less than the $550-$650 spent getting to Greece from America in the winter -- and I'd get six nights in London to boot.

Last-minute package tours are also fair game. Using Cheapflights.com, I found unsold seven-night vacations from London to Marbella, Spain, including airfare, hotel, and rental car, for $444 in the middle of December (from Airline Network, 0870/241-0011, netflights.com). I also had my pick of cheap European weekend getaways, such as two nights at an Amsterdam B&B, including airfare, for $228 from Travelscene (020/8424-9648, travelscene.co.uk).

A few vendors also specialize in last-minute charter flights, mostly to Mediterranean destinations favored by pasty British holidaymakers. One of the best-known is Charter Flight Centre (19 Denbigh St., 020/7828-1090, charterflights.co.uk), near Victoria, which profits in seats the big travel packagers can't fill. I found one-way prices like [British Pound] 59 ($85) to Faro, Portugal, and [British Pound] 69 ($99) to Malta.

British truth-in-advertising laws are quite strict, so if you spot a very low fare - I saw Sydney return for [British Pound] 385 ($553) from GM Tours (020/8686-8486) -- rest assured it isn't for sometime in 2006. You can buy it, traipse around Europe for a week or two, and come back to England for your long-haul flight.

Consolidators exist in other European hubs, but English-speaking London is the cheapest to reach and easiest to navigate. But you've gotta be ready to leave at the drop of a bowler hat.

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