Travel scams and how to avoid them

Travel ScamsFree 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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The worst cruise line values

worst cruise valuesCruise vacations can represent one of the best vacation values around, that’s for sure. The all-inclusive nature of a cruise makes it one of the easiest ways to go when budgeting too. Some cruises are better values than others though. Here are some of the worst cruise line values.

Cruises from New York
This is the whole supply and demand thing. Few ships sailing from the area with lots of demand equals higher prices in many cases. Summer sailings are a good example where fares for a 7-day cruise can easily be 30 to 50% higher than sailings from Southern ports.

Balconies on old ships
Old ships weren’t built for today’s demand. In the olden days of cruising, ships had mostly inside cabins and Ocean-view cabins with just windows. Just a few cabins had balconies, the popular option today. That makes balconies on old ships prime real estate that gets a premium price.

Sailing solo
While options are slowly improving, sailing by yourself is a horrible value compared to sailing with someone else in the cabin to share the cost with. Cruise lines base everything on double-occupancy and with few exceptions charge solo cruisers twice the cruise fare. Kudos to Norwegian Cruise Lines who introduced single studio accommodations on new Norwegian Epic last Summer, a first for the cruise industry.

Sailing during peak season
Spring Break
, Summer, and sailings which fall on holidays or pretty much any time school is out demand a premium price. On the flip side, times when kids are IN school have some of the best values, especially Fall sailings. Some of the best? First week in November or December.

Brand new ships
They always demand a premium price. On the latest, greatest new ship that’s not surprising. Normally, you’ll pay more to be one of the first on the most innovative ships out there than an older sister-ship of the same class.

A good way to measure and compare the value of a cruise, or any vacation package, is the cost per person, per day. Cruise lines like this number because it compares very well to other vacation options.

Another part of “value” though is more of a personal matter. It may very well be worth it to sail solo if the alternative is to not sail or sail with someone you would never take your clothes off in front of. Sailing during peak season may be the only time you can go, or you are just dying to try that new ship with all the latest bells and whistles. Your travel agent can help by being aware of or watching for special promotions, discounts or offers over the life of your booking that will soften the blow of these otherwise worst cruise values.

Flickr photo by kthypyrn

Cruise Scam Watch: The $99 cruise

cruise scamIs it real or is it a fake? That’s the big question that comes up when we hear of a $99 cruise. Short answer: If it comes directly from a cruise line, yes, it probably is true. You’ll pay port charges, taxes and government fees on top of that but those prices do exist. If it comes from anyone else, beware; this might be a scam.

We’ll get to the real scammers in a minute. First though, let’s look at a real-life example of cruise pricing that may appear to be misleading but really is not. It’s important to know the difference between the two.

Real cheap fares are often last-minute deals and you’ll have to sail in the next 30 to 90 days to get them. Cruise lines do that to fill up ships rather than sail with empty cabins. Other cheap fares like Carnival Cruise Line’s Early Saver Fare, are for sailings far in advance. These have restrictions, much like a discounted airline ticket.

That Early Saver fare is one of the best values around, no scamming involved but can be hard to tie down on our own. For example, right now the line is advertising fares starting at $169 for a 3-day cruise. That’s a great value.

Let’s play along and see what happens when we try to find that $169 price advertised on Carnival’s web site today as that sure catches ones eye.

Going to we look for special pricing and see that $169 price. We click for “details” and find that $169 price is no place to be found and the low price that jumps off the page is now $209. “That’s OK” we say, let’s play along. So we click on View Sailings by that $209 price and get 74 pages of cruises to look through. Our confidence is restored a bit as we see prices less than that $209 and finally find the $169 price.

Cruise lines commonly offer a price that is restricted to one or two sailings out of the hundreds of choices we might find.

There’s really nothing wrong here and Carnival is not trying to take advantage of us, it’s just clever marketing but totally legitimate. They actually did have that $169 fare. Clicking around you’ll run into the same situation on pretty much any major cruise line website.

It’s a rather complicated process that we get used to really fast which opens the door for the crooks to come in.

This would be a good reason to use a travel agent who can help navigate through the maze of choices. Still, Carnival is an honest company, selling an actual product. Not all travel sellers are.

cruise scamYou’re a winner!
The booking scams often come in the form of sweepstakes winners. You’re at a public event that features booths of information and are encouraged to sign up for a chance to win a free cruise. All you have to do is pay a $99 processing fee. You and a friend can go on a fabulous cruise vacation for just that small fee.

There are a lot of different versions of the “Win a Free Cruise” scam and probably always will be as long as cruises are popular. At the very least these are ways companies collect your personal information which you really don’t need everyone having. On the darker side, there is no free cruise for anyone and/or that small processing fee you was the gateway used by crooks to steal your identity. Just say no on this one.

Still, cruise lines do give charitable organizations free cruises to raffle off for fund-raising so if the source of the free cruise is your church, it’s probably safe.

The travel agency went broke
By now you’re probably getting the idea that “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t” which surely applies to some travel sellers. A good case in point is Cruise Value Center, a one-time major player in the online booking world that went broke. In this case, it was believed and entirely possible that passengers who had booked cruises and made final payments might not have actually been confirmed on those sailings and the money they paid not passed along to the cruise lines. Yikes! Unsuspecting and trusting consumers out for that rock-bottom low price at all costs could and did get easily caught up in the whole mess.

The cruise line went broke
Just last September Cruise West, a small line from Seattle best known for Alaska voyages suspended bookings after a long series of financial problems. consumers here were left without much recourse either.

Pyramid Schemes
This scam often involves an “amazing business opportunity” for you that can result in discounted or free travel with very little work on your part. Those targeted here are usually people who have been on a cruise or two already and really liked it.

The idea that fuels this scam is that “everybody knows somebody” who might like to go on a cruise. Who better to buy a cruise from than a trusted friend? Along comes XYZ Travel Company who will teach you all about it for $499. For that fee, they promise to provide good training and set you up with the latest tools for booking cruises. All you really have to do is get your friends to buy from you. In return, you get discounted or free travel.

The problem here, and one that has caused cruise lines to stop accepting bookings from companies like this in the past, is that the “training” is inadequate and your title of “travel agent” is meaningless. Legitimate travel agents go through extensive training and will have verifiable letters after their name like CTC, ACC, MCC, or ECC from real accredited organizations.

How to avoid getting caught up in these cruise scams:

  • Never pay with cash or a check, always pay with a credit or debit card. You are afforded some protection there if things go badly.
  • Buy travel insurance from a third party, not the travel agency or cruise line.
  • Use a trusted travel agent. Don’t have one? Ask a trusted friend, relative or co-worker who does or see our tips on finding one.
  • Always insist that payments be made directly to the cruise line. There is no reason for a travel agency to hold your money. You should see the name of your cruise line, not the travel agency, on your card statement.
  • If you want to be a travel agent selling cruises, start with a professional organization like Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) or the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) who can provide guidance.

Flickr photos by liss_mcbovxla and the Italian voice