Travel: A bucket of good deals: Simon Calder finds a flight discount specialist who believes in personal service

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The Independent Travel
I WANTED to go to Sri Lanka, Thailand and Hong Kong. So I sent pounds 675 to a bungalow called Watermeadows on the Isle of Wight. A few days later a ticket arrived, together with a beautiful hand-made card bearing a pressed flower.

The bungalow is owned by Ken Pearson, a discount flight specialist who attracts business by word-of- mouth. I was tipped off to contact him by someone with an eye on pounds 5; Mr Pearson pays a fiver to anyone who recommends a customer.

He has saved a lot of travellers a lot more than pounds 5. He prides himself on finding the cheapest fare on any route. The airline industry is a murky business. Most carriers pretend publicly that they do not discount flights, while busily selling surplus tickets under the counter through 'consolidators'. These wholesalers distribute the seats to bucket shops (discount agents) such as Mr Pearson, who can undercut official fares quite spectacularly.

A flexible economy return fare to Rome today would cost you pounds 524 return; call a discount specialist and you might get the same seat for about pounds 160. Even without the recession there is a huge surplus of capacity. Airlines sell what they can at official prices, then cut fares to fill the remaining seats.

On a single route an airline may sell seats at different fares through different consolidators. Add the further complexities of a dozen competing carriers flying the Atlantic from Britain, two dozen offering flights to Australia, plus distortions caused by Hoover sucking up surplus seats to honour its free flights offer, and you have a market that even the most dedicated cost-cutter finds hard to comprehend.

The Isle of Wight's one-man bucket shopkeeper entered this labyrinth at the age of 73, having been a tea planter in India and Argentina. After retiring to Watermeadows, he began visiting a stepson in South Africa. He was initially appalled, then fascinated, by the fluctuations of fares. 'Once I realised how the business operated, I saw I could master the principles with a little application. Then I just made a lot of contacts.'

Unlike many in the travel industry, Mr Pearson is honest enough to say when he is beaten. On one route I tried recently, the lowest fare happened to be the airline's published price (a rare event in these discount days). He told me to go direct to the airline, since there was no advantage in buying through him.

The trickier the itinerary, the better it suits the Solent's answer to Trailfinders. Mike Stace, a sound engineer from Tonbridge, Kent, wanted to take his family on a round-the-world trip combining Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Tahiti. A multi-airline itinerary such as this is a PhD-level ticketing problem. 'I had quotes of between pounds 1,500 and pounds 1,600 each from the big agents,' says Mr Stace, 'but Ken Pearson came up with a fare of pounds 1,100.'

The route involved an odd tour of the world's airports and a double transit of Singapore, but saved the Stace family a small fortune.

Emily Hatchwell, an editor from Oxford, needed a cheap ticket to Brazzaville in the Congo - not one of the busiest routes. Thomas Cook quoted pounds 734 on Air Portugal, but Mr Pearson found a return for less than pounds 500 on Aeroflot. 'If people want the absolute cheapest fare, I tell them not to expect champagne and not to complain if they have a 10-hour stopover in Moscow,' he warns.

He works on tiny margins, paring his commission on flights to undercut other agents. Most of his earnings stem from travel insurance, which pays commission of up to 40 per cent - some of which he passes on to travellers. His net profit is 2 per cent: 'Only enough to pay for the wife's dresses.'

But Patricia Pearson also makes a valuable contribution: she sends each passenger a 'bon voyage' card bearing a pressed flower, and makes sure a floral welcome-home card is waiting on return. 'I felt cheap just sending an ordinary postcard from Sri Lanka,' admits Mr Stace.

Prospective travellers should be aware that Mr Pearson is not a member of ABTA (the Association of British Travel Agents) and has no bond - except his word. 'I'm not another Robert Maxwell,' he says, and promises to recompense any customer whose airline fails.

Does he worry about undercutting other agents? 'Not in the slightest. I'm an out-and-out capitalist, and I give value for money.'

I believe him. If you do, call 0983 760017 or write to: Watermeadows, Thorley Road, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight PO41 0SH. (I am not earning pounds 5.) As his 79th birthday approaches, he says he will carry on until he dies. 'I've got 10 years, I'm told.'