Travel scams and how to avoid them

Free trips that are not really free, discount pricing that’s not really available and memberships in travel clubs that don’t really exist? These are some of the ploys used by crooks posing as legitimate travel agents to take our money. Make no doubt about it, these people are criminals and law enforcement is after them.

Sunshine states of Florida and California have strict rules and government oversight to keep travel scams under control. Other states are learning the hard way as crooks move to areas they think are safe for prey on unsuspecting consumers. New Jersey is right in the middle of debunking a travel scheme, freezing the bank accounts and charging a husband and wife team with violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act on several counts.
Travel Deals of Marlton along with owner Daryl Turner and his wife, Robyn Bernstein promoted travel “seminars” through postcards delivered by mail. Unsuspecting guests attending the seminars were given vouchers for a free eight-night cruise plus free airfare. Later, company representatives would meet privately with the “winners” to pitch various levels of a club membership required to redeem the free travel along with assorted prices, ranging from $2,500 to $8,995 and an annual fee of $299.

Playing a shell game of sorts, those who actually purchased memberships then tried to book were either told their dates or requested accommodations were unavailable.

It’s an all too frequent scam that is entirely avoidable. The old saying “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is” goes a long way towards staying clear of these scams. says travel deals and offers through the mail are almost always scams and says to beware of phone calls too.

“If you are offered the travel deal by phone, be very skeptical. If you’re unfamiliar with the company, get its name, address, and local telephone number. Check their track record if you can. (Unless you can find a legitimate local or regional office for the company, it’s probably bogus.)”

The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) has some good advice too:

  • Retain a healthy dose of skepticism. Be extremely skeptical about unsolicited e-mail, postcard and phone solicitations saying you’ve been selected to receive a fabulous vacation or anything free. Be especially wary of firms requiring you to wait at least 60 days to take your trip.
  • Do your homework. Some offers might sound great on the surface, but be sure to read the fine-print. Certain offers impose so many requirements and restrictions, such as black-out dates and companion fees, that you will either never have the chance to take the trip or you will end up paying more than had you made the arrangements on your own or used an ASTA travel agent
  • Run a “background check.” You should vet the companies from which you purchase travel services. You can do this by checking to see if they are members of ASTA or by searching for the company on the Better Business Bureau’s Web site. Other sites to check are and
  • Keep private information private. Never give out your credit card number unless you initiate the transaction and you are confident about the company with which you are doing business.
  • Get the facts. You should receive complete details in writing about any trip prior to payment. These details should include the total price; cancellation and change penalties, if any; and specific information about all components of the package.
  • Protect yourself. Always pay with a credit card if possible. Even legitimate companies can go out of business. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, credit card customers have the right to refuse paying for charges for services not rendered. Details of the Fair Credit Billing Act can be found at the Federal Trade Commission’s Web site.

Flickr photo by B Rosen

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Travel agents: The dinosaur you just might need

A long time ago, in a travel world far away, you needed a printed ticket to get on an airplane and you probably got it from a travel agent. Now you buy online and there is no ticket, just a number. Not all that long ago, you needed special printed travel documents to go on a extended land or cruise vacation and you picked them up at your travel agent’s office. Now you don’t need those either and you probably don’t visit your travel agent’s office very often, if you even have one. Then, traveling meant being prepared with a trip to the library, book store and travel agency office for information . Now we click our way to expert status without leaving home.

We can easily book most travel options without a travel agent. That’s a fact. The big question though is: Should we?

These days about the only place you’ll find an airline ticket is on American Idol when when hopefuls get sent along to Hollywood. Travel agents still issue them but now it is mostly as a courtesy to clients too busy to do it on their own or as part of a package. Today, we can select the airline we want, when we want to fly and even a seat assignment, all online. Other types of travel as well, from land vacations to cruises, have been made available to click-and-book.

Where travel agents have the most visible value is being there for travelers when something goes wrong. But that does not happen all that much so those who are comfortable with the click-and-book method accept the risk.

More commonly, travel agents can offer great value that travelers could not get on their own.

That value may translate to lower prices, complementary upgrades, bonus amenities when traveling and other good things down the line, after booking. That “after booking” part is the unknown, difficult-to-measure factor that eludes many travelers.

Odds are up-front pricing on many elements of a travel purchase will be the similar or the same from one source or agent to another. Even compared to the service provider, be that an airline, car rental agency, tour company or cruise line, pricing is similar.

Or so it seems.

That similarity in price may be misleading and causes those with even a minimal online booking comfort level to think or say “What do I need this middleman for? I can do this myself.”

True, today we can do it ourselves. Do we save money? In the long run, probably not. Anything we can find online, travel agents can find too. They can also monitor pricing, economic, social or weather-related concerns that might affect your travel.

The big advantage of a travel agent today is very much like it was years ago, it just comes in different forms.

Your good travel agent will have all the information you need to make the most of your vacation. That may be as simple as sending along links to critical websites, basic but required literature on destinations or merely making sure all the T’s are crossed and the I’s dotted.

More importantly, your travel agent considers the act of booking the beginning of the transaction, not the end like the result of click-to-book methods. Once you have paid, you are done with the click-to-book way. Now all you have to do is make it to the airport on time for that flight and that is the end of it.

In today’s world, prices, availability and even the nature of travel are changing at a rapid pace. Websites update pricing and availability but offer little or no hope of passing new benefits available after the sale along to travelers. Click-to-book methods are pretty much done with you after payment is made.

Travel agents work on building or maintaining an ongoing business relationship with you and are easily accessible. Try emailing, tweeting or calling your click-to-book website.

Should your plans change, should you have questions or should you want to know more about where you are traveling and how you are getting there, your agent is just a phone call, email or tweet away.

A travel agent is “your friend” in the travel business. They are your friend who knows what is going on in the travel industry. They can put that information together with their knowledge of you for a winning combination that will reap huge rewards in the long run.

Need to book a quick business flight and be done with it? Click-to-book. Doing any actual traveling where memories, experiences, sights and sounds might be important? See a travel agent.

Flickr photo by Ivan Walsh