A few months ago, [%1254773 | | I addressed the question %] of how a reader might try to assess the “reliability” of an unfamiliar website selling travel services. Since then, we continue to receive similar inquiries—to the extent that some additional suggestions might help you avoid problems.
The good signs
Many travel sellers are members of—or affiliated with—industry associations and programs, and some of those memberships and affiliations reflect a degree of reliability:
- U.S. Tour Operators Association (USTOA). To qualify for membership, a tour operator must show a sizable financial guarantee to back up possible customer losses.
- American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). This trade association of travel agencies is one of the few that will investigate and mediate consumer complaints against member agencies.
- Better Business Bureau (BBB). I’m sure you know it; look for the logo of BBB Online for organizations that subscribe to the Bureau’s codes.
- State “seller of travel” registrations. Several states require companies selling travel in their jurisdiction to register, a process that can often weed out some potential scammers. Registered sellers almost always include their registration info on their sites.
But not all trade memberships say much about reliability. Instead, many of them are simply lobbying or promotional operations—perfectly legitimate, but offering nothing in the way of consumer protections.
Several readers have also raised a related aspect of the question: how to find a “reliable” local, retail travel agency in a destination area. Here, the best advice I can give is to find the local American Express affiliate agency. It may not be the best in town, but at least you have some recourse through a U.S. organization if you encounter problems. Carlson Wagonlit affiliates also have offices outside the U.S., but its U.S. website is virtually impenetrable for locating them.
The red flags
You can often spot indications of either a potentially weak position or possible difficulty in resolving a problem that might arise:
- Refusal to accept credit cards. Yes, I know that credit cards can add up to three percent to the cost of a transaction, and agencies trying to sell at rock-bottom prices don’t like to add that cost into the mix. But that’s not the only reason; banks are pretty fussy about which companies they allow to process credit card transactions, and acceptance by a bank offers some protection. Even more important, if you use a credit card, you potentially have the recourse of a chargeback if the supplier fails to deliver as promised. Be very leery of any agency you don’t know—especially online—that asks you to pay by giving it your checking account number.
- Lack of a physical address. Whenever you’re considering buying something from an unfamiliar website, check to see if you can find (1) a physical address, (2) a phone number, and (3) the name or names of responsible person(s) in charge. An agency that seems to be hiding behind the Internet and not offering a direct way for you to contact a real person may well have something to hide.
- Offshore location. Be wary of any site based outside the U.S. or one that seems to front for an offshore agency. Although many offshore agencies are honest and reliable, you’ll find it virtually impossible to get any official assistance or take one of them into court if it tries to cheat or defraud you.
If you aren’t comfortable
If you have any qualms about dealing with an unfamiliar agency, you can run some easy checks:
- Google it. As you know, one quick question to a search engine can provide an incredible amount of information. On several occasions, for example, I’ve found quite a bit of dirt when I Googled the name of an agency a reader complained was giving a problem.
- Check with the BBB. Whether or not an agency subscribes to the BBB Online program, you can often locate a bad actor—or ease your fears—by a quick check on possible consumer complaints through the BBB.
- Check to see if an agency shows a history of complaints on one or two of the online gripe sites that specialize in travel, including Complaints.com, ConsumerAffairs.com, My3cents.com, Rip-off Report.com, and TheSqueakyWheel.com.
One final suggestion: If you see a really good deal, but from an agency or site you don’t know or trust, take it to a local travel agency and ask if that agency can match or come close. In my experience, very few good deals are limited to just one or two outlets; if someone you don’t trust has it, chances are you can get it from someone you do trust.
Don’t expect to find many cases where some third party—a website, magazine, or individual travel writer—can actually vouch for the “reliability” of any other travel supplier or website. The legal exposure would be too great in the event some of you lost money through an agency we’d recommended. Sadly, over the years I’ve been writing, some of the most damaging failures have been of agencies the industry regarded as reliable right up to they day they folded.
I’m happy to note sites through which I’ve found good deals—check my recent [%1281515 | | report on Priceline %], for example—and suppliers I wouldn’t hesitate to use myself. But when it comes to a seller I don’t know, the best I can do is suggest some tests you can easily perform.