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The Five Worst Travel Scams (and What to Do About Them)

Caution Laptop (Photo: iStockphoto/DNY59)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on May 9, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: Ed Perkins, tour operator, travel agent, vacation package.

The term "travel scam" covers a wide spectrum of potential trickery, from mild deceptions to outright fraud. The worst, of course, is the fraud, where the operator has no intention of delivering anything whatsoever. More common are semi-frauds, where the operator makes exaggerated claims, but delivers to enough persistent consumers to deter law enforcement. Finally, there are the operators that might actually want to provide a service but are unable to deliver on their promises.

Regardless of category, the most damaging are those that involve significant amounts of money. Five potentially big-money scams stand out in today's marketplace.

Phony Airline Tickets

The worst recent fraud scams have involved websites and agencies that sold phony tickets and airline vouchers. Even when these fraud operators are caught and convicted, they typically don't have enough money left to make restitution.

The remedy: Caution. Unfortunately, an operation doesn't have to be honest to mount a good website. Any time you consider committing payments to a website you don't know, you should check it out with Better Business Bureau and online complaint sites, and use a credit card. Run, don't walk, away from any seller that says it can't accept credit cards and instead demands direct transfer of funds.

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Phony Insurance

In a case still dragging through courts, several travel agents in Florida sold "travel protection" to consumers in place of genuine insurance. The company that provided this "protection" was not a licensed insurance underwriter or agency, and when it went out of business, travelers were left without the promised protection. It isn't clear whether the travel agents were in on the promotion or also victims of it, but the net result is the same for consumers.

The remedy: Always buy insurance underwritten by a licensed company from one of the big travel insurance agencies.

Pay Now, Argue Later

According to the American Society of Travel Agents, the most worrisome current scam is a perennial one: The business model that demands payment up front for travel promised later—and doesn't deliver. The idea is to lure you into a "club" or an advance payment that is supposed to guarantee future travel at huge discounts.

Although some vacation clubs are legitimate, others scam consumers by taking the money, then erecting barriers against the claiming of the promised travel. Among them: repeated "sorry, that week is already sold out, but keep trying" refusals; "we're sold out of the low-priced options, but if you pay to upgrade, we can accommodate you right away;" and letting travelers actually start their vacations, then nickel-and-diming them with a laundry list of extras.

Some vacation certificates are a variation on this theme. Often, travelers get sucked in by responding to unsolicited notices that "you have been selected" or have "won a sweepstakes" for some wonderful surprise deal.

The remedy: Never—repeat, never—respond to any offer that you haven't initiated. Remember the old standby: If it looks too good to be true, it is too good to be true.

Travel Like a Travel Agent

"Card mills" sell travel agent IDs that they claim will let you travel "like a travel agent" at huge discounts. They may also claim that you can make easy money by actually selling travel from your home, you can make even more by enrolling others in the program, or both. Fees to join usually range from just under $500 to several thousand dollars. The inherent scams are obvious: Airlines, cruise lines, hotels, and such are on to phony agent IDs and generally don't honor them; actually selling travel is a tough and demanding job; and an operation based on enrolling others is nothing but a pyramid scheme.

The remedy: Just ignore such promotions.

No-Ticket Event Packages

No matter how hard the promoters of blockbuster events—big-time sports and celebrity appearances, and such—try to control the problem, a few tour operators may promise "complete" tour packages without having the tickets in hand when they sell the tours. Maybe they actually intend to buy tickets sometime, maybe not, but the net result is you get to the venue but you don't get in the event.

The remedy: Always make sure the operator actually has the tickets before you buy. And pay with a credit card, just in case.

Minor Scams

Beyond these big-money scams, you may encounter minor scams, such as taxi drivers that take you for a roundabout ride to run up the meter; airlines, hotels, and rental car companies that add mandatory extras without telling you in advance; petty thefts from hotel rooms; and money changers that dole out counterfeit bills. You can avoid most through diligent searches and careful reading of fine print. If you occasionally get caught, chalk it up to "kismet" and get on with your life.

Your Turn

Have you ever been scammed by a travel provider? Or have you noticed any new scams we haven't mentioned? Share your worst travel scam experiences by leaving a comment below!

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