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The 15 Biggest Travel Scams, and How to Avoid Them

You know that old saying “there’s a sucker born every minute”? Don’t be one of them. Stay ahead of these surprisingly effective travel scams to keep your vacation plans from falling apart. The schemes below may be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to travel cons, but preparing yourself for these common swindles is a good place to start.

Vacation Clubs

Wholesale travel clubs claim that you’ll have access to incredibly cheap vacations if you join. However, once you pay the joining fees, you find that the deals offered aren’t any better than what you can find for yourself online—for free. Consumer advocate Christopher Elliott, whose book Scammed lays out a helpful roadmap for being a responsible and effective shopper in a world of corporate swindles, has told SmarterTravel: “I’ve never come across a legitimate travel club. My advice is to run, don’t walk.”

Elliott advises that anyone considering joining a travel club do research with a very critical eye beforehand. Simply doing an internet search for the name of the travel company plus “travel scam” will usually reveal a host of problems experienced by other members. Also check the Better Business Bureau for complaints about the specific service before you buy.

Timeshare Sales

Ed Perkins, a longtime contributing editor at SmarterTravel, calls the up-front fees for selling your timeshare the biggest travel scam out there.

“Scammers promise to get you out from under, saying they have buyers, but all they really do is take a fee, upward of $400, and do nothing,” says Perkins.

Never pay up front to have someone help you sell your timeshare. If you want out, go to a licensed company and check them out with the Better Business Bureau before listing with them. If you’re having trouble getting out of your timeshare, work with a rental company and rent it out to recoup some of the money until you can sell.

Vacation Certificates

Ed Perkins also warns against prepaid vacation certificates: “Travel scams promise really great prices but deliver nothing. The idea here is to get the up-front money, then keep stalling: ‘Sorry, these dates are sold out; try again soon.’ They delay until people just quit trying.” Or the company charges huge additional fees to redeem the certificates, and the trip is considerably less luxurious than promised. Before prepaying for a vacation package, be sure to research fees and blackout dates, as well as the company’s reputation.

“Travel-Agent” Card Mills

Ah, the life of travel agents. Cheap hotels and airfares are thrown at their feet once they pull out their travel-agent ID cards, right? Wrong. Don’t believe the hype from outfits that promise to issue you a travel-agent ID that provides access to discounts. Scammers charge hundreds of dollars for these cards, but victims who shell out will quickly find that no place will accept the fakes, and they never see any discounts. The only way to avoid this travel scam is to not buy a travel-agent card if you’re not a travel agent—there’s really no legal way to get around it.

Car-Rental Collision Damage Waivers

Rick Steves calls the car-rental collision damage waivers (CDW) a “collision damage waiver racket” for a reason. When you rent a car, the company often pressures you to buy a CDW supplement, which will prevent you from having to pay a high insurance deductible if the car is damaged. (The deductible can be thousands of dollars before insurance kicks in.)

But most major credit cards already include deductible collision coverage for free, so check your credit-card terms and pay for the rental car with your credit card. Then you’ll be covered without having to shell out extra cash for phony insurance. Most credit-card collision coverage is secondary, meaning you have to claim from your regular insurance first. If you don’t want a claim on your insurance, you can buy third-party primary collision coverage from the booking agency for about $10-$11 a day. Or, if it’s pricey, you can instead buy coverage from an independent outlet; sites like offer rental coverage from $7.99 per day. That’s about one-third of what the rental companies charge.

“You Won a Free Trip!”

If you’ve ever dropped your business card in a “win a free trip” drawing at a restaurant or signed up to win at a fair, you may have gotten a phone call, letter, or email claiming you’ve won a free vacation. These days, the hustle is often via robocall. Be wary—many of these “prizes” are actually booby traps in which you’ll have to pay hefty fees to claim the vacation or give your credit card number to “verify your eligibility,” resulting in identity theft. After a recent lull in monitoring these robocalls, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is again cracking down on them. If you’re scammed, get the names of resorts and airlines included in the prize and call them independently to verify the trip. Never give credit card information to someone who cold-calls you, and be sure to get details of the prize in writing before accepting.

Fake International Driving Permits

The FTC also warns against fake International Driving Permits (IDPs). Some countries require tourists to have an IDP in addition to a U.S. driver’s license. However, there are only two American associations that are legally authorized to issue IDPs—the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA). Fraudulent companies sell fake IDPs over the Internet, but you’ll pay hundreds of dollars for a permit only to face legal problems for using the imposter IDs in another country.

The Bait and Switch

The hotel you’re thinking of booking is suspiciously cheap, but the property’s website makes it look beautiful and centrally located. When you arrive, the hotel is run-down, missing amenities, and in a deserted part of town—and it won’t refund your money. Avoid this travel scam by using websites like Oyster (one of SmarterTravel’s sister sites) and TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent site) to read real customer reviews and see honest photos of the property.

“Grandparent” Travel Scams

Even if you’re not currently traveling, you can still be the victim of a travel scam: The State Department warns that scammers will call an older relative or friend of someone who’s away on vacation and pretend to be the traveler in desperate need of help. The scammer usually poses as the traveler or a foreign government official and directs the victim to wire a large sum of money, citing an array of things: They have been robbed and need money to return to the United States, or they have run into legal trouble and need bail money. Sometimes the scammer will even pretend to be someone from the U.S. embassy calling on behalf of the relative for money. Never wire money in response to a suspicious phone call; instead contact the State Department to ask if the situation is legitimate, or call your relative directly. If you encounter this scam, the FBI advises you report it to local authorities or a state consumer protection agency. You can also file a complaint with the FCC.

The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) offers the following advice to prevent “grandparent” travel scams:

  • Never give out personal information such as account numbers, Social Security numbers, mothers’ maiden names, passwords, or other identifying information in response to suspicious calls or to callers demanding immediate action.
  • Scammers can spoof the caller ID of their number to make it appear to be from a trusted source.
    • If a caller claiming to represent a company or a government agency asks for personal information, hang up and verify the authenticity of the request by contacting the company or agency yourself, using information found on its official website or through other means such as the phone book.
    • If a caller claims to represent a company with which you have an account—such as a utility or a bank—hang up and check the contact information on a recent bill or statement, then call the company back yourself.

Rental Property Scam

Rule of thumb: Never go to Craigslist (or anything similar) for a rental home. Scammers will place an ad and ask the victim to wire money to secure the vacation rental—and then disappear. Or they’ll have you send money to them rather than to the actual property owner. Avoid the rental scam risk by going through a reputable vacation rental site with protections and insurance guarantees such as Airbnb, HomeAway, or SmarterTravel’s sister site FlipKey, all of which will protect your money from fraudsters.

Bogus Travel Agents

Don’t trust a tour operator or packager you don’t know of or can’t find reviews of easily online—especially with a big payment. An even more worrisome version of these travel scams in the U.S. is fake versions of websites: You search for a hotel or tour and get through to what looks like a legitimate website from a known company. But it isn’t: It’s a copy-cat version run by a scamster who paid a lot of money for a good search engine position. At best, after you make a payment, the hotel will honor your reservation—but probably at a higher price than you should have paid. At worst, you get nothing.

Take a close look at the website’s URL. Unsure if it’s right? Do a new search to find the company’s homepage and compare it to the first half of the link—any rogue characters, numbers, or symbols might mean it’s a fake. You should also never pay for a service via wire transfer, or any other irreversible money-transfer system.

Currency Short-Changing

A longstanding travel scam relies on tourists’ unfamiliarity with a foreign currency. This can take various forms: counterfeit bills, miscounting change, mixing smaller bills into what should be a pile of larger notes, etc. Get to know the bills of any country you visit, and limit the amount of foreign currency you exchange and have with you at any time. Get your foreign currency from an ATM, and put all your big-ticket purchases on a credit card.

Counterfeit Event Tickets

These days, high-tech forging can make almost any piece of paper or cardboard look authentic. Don’t buy a high-priced ticket (or even a low-priced one) to a sold-out event from someone on the street or via an unfamiliar website. You might be turned away at the gate. Buy from an authorized source—the box office or an online dealer that’s a verified reseller.

Fake Tour Guides

Have you ever been walking in a tourist-frequented area and had someone approach you offering to be your guide? Of course, you would have no idea in this situation whether this person has any useful knowledge of the city, but you may be coaxed into a nearby store that they claim offers the “best” prices on local specialties.

Pre-arrange a guide through an official tourism office or a local travel agency so you can compare prices and know what you’re getting. I once arranged the best local guide I ever had through an American Express agency. A university history professor showed us the fantastic National Museum of Damascus in Syria.

Credit Card Fraud

One of many potential credit card fraud risks is the familiar “verification call” gambit. In this travel scam, within a few hours of checking into a hotel, you get a call from someone claiming to be at the front desk to “verify” the details of the card you used. Of course, that caller is a scammer with no connection to the hotel who just wants to get your card data. In this and any other situations, be highly suspicious of anyone who calls you asking for credit or debit card information, no matter how plausible the excuse may seem. Tell the caller you’ll be right down to settle the problem, and instead call a known number, like the hotel’s direct line, to settle whatever account is involved.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2012. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Caroline Morse Teel and Ed Perkins contributed to this story.

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