You want to take your family to Disneyworld for a vacation. You check the ads in the Deseret News Travel Section and find a $246 round-trip fare to Orlando.

Or you're planning a European honeymoon. (Lucky you!) You see an ad touting a $400 round-trip fare from Salt Lake City to Paris.The advertisements were probably small boxes with pint-size print. They probably listed a toll-free telephone number and the companies were probably located outside Utah.

The question arises: Should you or shouldn't you?

We occasionally get phone calls from readers wondering whether these companies are reliable.

So we made inquiries. We phoned some of the companies in question. Then we talked to experts. Here's what we found.

Price comparisons

In the March 22 issue of the Deseret News, Cheap Fares Express (located in Seattle) advertised a $400 round-trip fare from Salt Lake City to London. Genesis Travel (also Seattle) offered a round-trip fare of $631 for travel between Salt Lake City and Paris.

Airline Reservations Network (Orlando) advertised a $182 round-trip fare between Salt Lake City and Tulsa.

The lowest fares available from local travel agencies (for specific dates) for the same destinations were $172.81 for Tulsa, $900 for Paris and $880 for London.

Council Travel, which has 65 offices nationwide including one in Salt Lake City, caters to students. It sells discounted fares to people under the age of 26. It quotes a $614 round-trip fare from Salt Lake City to London. Restrictions, in addition to your age, apply.

Who are these companies?

The out-of-state agencies we phoned told us they sold consolidator fares. Air fare consolidators are companies that negotiate discounted prices with airlines. They make the discounted fares available to travel agencies, which then sell them to the public. Some consolidators sell directly to the public.

You don't have to deal with an out-of-state travel agency to get a consolidator fare. Many local travel agencies sell them. Just ask your local agent to check consolidator fares when you call for quotes.

Experts advise caution

Experts we interviewed said that in most cases you'd be wise to stick with local travel agencies.

"There are bona fide air consolidators out there, but there are crooks out there, too," said Allan Muten, director of corporate communications for Airlines Reporting Corp. (ARC) in Arlington, Va. "We don't want anybody to buy from a reseller of stolen tickets."

ARC is owned by the airlines. It's the go-between for airlines and travel agents. You pay your travel agent for an airline ticket. The travel agent pays ARC. ARC pays the airline.

For a travel agency to issue airline tickets, it must be a member of the ARC. That means it has been screened and has met ARC's qualifications.

Gary E. Schmidt is the author of "Fly for Less," a book that lists airfare consolidators and offers other advice about getting cheap fares.

"Internationally, work with a (local) travel agent who works with a consolidator," he advised.

"Most of the time, it's gonna work (referring to the bargain fares sold by out-of-state agencies). They'll probably be for a limited time frame and on some off-beat airlines," he continued. "But sometimes, if it sounds too good to be true, it is."

Also, pay with a credit card. If something goes wrong you can cancel the payment.

Francine Giani, director of Utah's Division of Consumer Protection, says out-of-state agencies don't have the credibility of an instate travel agent that has been around for a while.

Her office has received complaints about some out-of-state travel agencies. They typically involve misrepresentation. "The travel arrangements weren't what the customer thought they would be," she said.

If you do business with an out-of-state agency, "Make sure you know who these people are. Find out the location of that business and contact the attorney general's office in that state to see if they've had problems with those folks," she said.

Questions to ask

Experts suggest you ask these questions when you're dealing with a travel agency you don't know.

- Is the company a member of the ARC?

- Is it a member of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) or the Association of Retail Travel Agents (ARTA)?

- What restrictions apply to the ticket?

- Do you get frequent flier miles?

- Is the ticket endorsable? (If your flight is canceled, will the airline endorse the ticket over to another airline so it can issue you a ticket at no extra cost?)

- What airline is the ticket on and what are the flight numbers? (If they hesitate, that's a warning signal, said Schmidt. "That means they're going to shop for a ticket.")

- Does the advertised fare include taxes, airport charges and other fees?

- Is the agency registered as a business in its home state?

- Have the BBB or attorney general's office in the state where the company is located received complaints about the company?

If you do book a ticket, call the airline and verify that you're listed in its computer system, said Schmidt. "If they say they can't find you, call the company back and ask for an explanation."

If you aren't satisfied, cancel your flight and ask your credit card company to cancel the payment, he advised.

Here are thumbnail sketches of some of the out-of-state companies that advertise bargain fares in the Deseret News. We are not endorsing these companies by listing them in this column.

- Airline Reservations Network is a travel agency in Orlando, Fla., that specializes in domestic airfares. It issues electronic tickets (it mails you an invoice and flight itinerary with a confirmation number. You don't receive an actual ticket.)

"We get volume discounts from the airlines," said owner Scott Bender in a telephone interview. "Instead of selling all the airlines, we push certain carriers because they give us the best deals." The company concentrates on routes in the Northeast and the South, and Bender said he does a booming business with Utahns. He advertises in newspapers in 15 to 18 U.S. cities. Bender said the company has had a handful of complaints that have been resolved through the Better Business Bureau or Florida's attorney general's office. It has been in business since 1991 and is a member of Airlines Reporting Corp.

- ILYA's Travel is a travel agency in Chicago that negotiates fares with airlines. It sells the discounted fares to the public. The company has been in business for five years and advertises in six U.S. cities every week including Miami, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. The company's spokeswoman claimed it will discount retail fares to Europe by 20 to 25 percent. "Whatever the published fares, we sell them at a 20 percent discount." She said it does an "outrageous" business with Utahns. Most consolidator fares are nonrefundable, she said, and many of them can't be applied toward frequent flier miles. The company is a member of the Airlines Reporting Corp.

- Cheap Fares Express is a Seattle travel agency that buys tickets from consolidators. It has been in business for "four or five years" and it specializes in domestic fares. Tickets come with restrictions and advance notice is required. It is not a member of Airlines Reporting Corp.

- Genesis Travel, Seattle, has been in business since 1995. It sells discounted tickets on TWA. It advertises in five U.S. cities including Salt Lake City. It is a member of the Airlines Reporting Corp.

- Budget Fares Express is a travel agency in Washington, D.C., that has been in business for two years. It buys tickets from consolidators and then sells them to consumers. It is not a member of the Airlines Reporting Corp.

- TFI Tours international. We phoned three times on three different days but there was no answer.