How to Avoid Travel Scams

Tips for staying safe while planning a vacation

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We're all in search of great travel deals. Unfortunately, this makes us vulnerable to travel scams.

Consider the case of a lady in Tennessee. An incredible deal was delivered at work. It appeared to be the same letterhead the corporate travel office used. She assumed the offer of a deeply discounted trip was some sort of company perk, and she quickly booked it. Unfortunately, the promises of five-star tropical luxury "for a small handling fee" disappeared as swiftly as her money.

That is one of many case studies from the bulging travel scam files at the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Go to its counterpart agencies in other industrialized nations, and you're likely to find similar collections of scam stories.

In an age when everyone is trying to find the best possible travel deal, scores of unscrupulous operators will try to separate you from your money. They'll provide, at best, disappointing arrangements.

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Types of Scams

Some travel scams leave you with nothing. Others promise you great things and deliver garbage. Still, others make good on the promises if you pay additional charges, which can wind up costing double, or even triple what you had initially paid. Others will deliver on their offer of a Bahamas vacation, and nothing else.

Consider the story of a Missouri couple: They were promised a top hotel. What they received was a room with no air conditioning, concrete floors, and no access to the beach. "This whole vacation experience was a nightmare, and absolutely nothing like what was represented by the company," the woman told the Federal Trade Commission.

Some scam artists employ a technique called "split pricing." They'll offer airfare and accommodations at prices well below market levels, but there will be fees in the fine print that more than offset the savings.

Others will mention a luxury hotel but hide the fact that an expensive "add-on" fee is required prior to check-in.

Despite the efforts of government agencies like the FTC, the travel industry is very poorly regulated. Anyone can hang a sign in front of their door and sell travel products. If you have access to a fax machine, telephone or email account, you can send out solicitations.

How to Spot a Scam

The vast majority of these "deals" share similar characteristics, making them fairly easy to spot, and ultimately, avoid.

  • Pressure to book quickly. If you've ever shopped for a car, you've probably heard the irritating question "what can I do to put you in this vehicle today?" The idea is to close the deal before a buyer can come up with objections. It's not always a dishonest ploy, but in the travel arena, it should raise red flags of caution. Interestingly, many of those immediate deals often involve trips that are at least two months in the future. Why? Many credit cards have a 60-day limit on challenges for purchases. They want you to recognize your fate only after that time has expired.
  • Using courier services. Another red flag should fly when the company wants to do business only with courier services. Many times, the aim is to avoid mail fraud statutes associated with postal services.
  • Names aren't the same. Here's another common sign of trouble: when the names of the seller and travel provider differ. In that case, chances are good you're dealing either with a telemarketer or some other go-between who does not have your best interests at heart.
  • Lengthy delivery delays. and multiple dealers should raise your scam suspicions. 

How to Avoid Scams

Before you buy, consider the following checklist, compiled from the FTC, the Department of Transportation, and the Bureau of Consumer Protection. The FTC does offer an online complaint form. But bear in mind that no one can offer guarantees of recovery after you've been bilked.

  • Always use a credit card. This gives you the option of disputing fraudulent charges through your credit card company. You should also never give your card number to someone asking for verification of your identity. Only give the number for actual orders.
  • Learn the vocabulary. How many times have you received the following email? "You have been specially selected to receive our Spectacular Luxury Travel Offer." Read it several times, and ask yourself the following questions: Why are you special? How is the trip spectacular? What elements make it a luxury trip? These are words designed to get your attention, not necessarily to accurately describe the services.
  • Verify the details of your trip. When they say the hotel is five-star quality, ask for the name and address. With the Internet at your disposal, it is easy enough to check on any hotel. End the deal if it isn't supplied. The same is true for airlines, tours, cruise ships, and any other products. Reputable companies do not hesitate to provide this information. Check the company's track record, too. Your local authorities should have lists of firms that attract multiple complaints.
  • Run from "Instant Travel Agent" offers. A common scam is to sell so-called certification as a travel agent. This, you'll be told, allows you to take advantage of professional discounts and free travel. The problem with this one is that professional discounts are not obligatory. Suppliers decide when and to whom they extend price breaks. Some of these so-called deals are multi-level marketing scams. Bad news. Don't be duped.
  • Watch out for the word "complementary". Think about why something is being offered to you free of charge. Many times, the idea is to provide a captive audience for hours of sales presentations. Do you want to spend your precious vacation time listening to these pitches? Given that many are structured to make you feel obligated, and most are very high-pressure presentations, you may not only waste your precious time​ but wind up purchasing something you don't really want. 
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