Travel Scams FAQ

How to avoid being taken for a ride when on a trip or planning one.

Are tour companies that cater to students reliable?

Many fly-by-night travel operations pitch specifically to students through telemarketing and other hard-sell tactics, hoping to take advantage of inexperienced travelers on a tight budget who are looking to save money.

Students should find out whether the tour company meets the standards set by the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET). To qualify, tour operators must submit a review signed by an independent certified public accountant as well as extensive documentation concerning government regulations for student exchanges, promotions and student insurance. The Advisory List of International Educational Travel and Exchange Programs, an annually updated booklet listing companies that meet the standards, is available from CSIET. Contact CSIET by calling 703-739-9050, emailing mailbox@csiet.org,  or visiting its website at www.csiet.org.

I received a vacation certificate in the mail. How can I figure out if it's legitimate?

If you find any of the following on a travel certificate, send it straight to the recycling bin:

  • words such as "Certificate of Guarantee" and images like a spread-winged eagle or other prominent symbol designed to convey a sense of legitimacy
  • a variety of possible vacation destinations, with no designated dates or price
  • exciting descriptions of what you will do, such as "gala cruise," "glittering casino action," "moonlight dancing," or "resort accommodations" with no designated company names
  • a phrase in the fine print indicating you were chosen "using credit and purchasing criteria to select individuals interested in the many benefits of travel," and
  • fine print stating that the receipt of one portion of the offer (for example, the airline ticket) is dependent on purchase of something else (such as hotel accommodations).

How can I find out if a cheap airfare offered by a charter airline is legitimate?

Although many charter companies provide legitimate low-cost travel options, their reliability is far from uniform. Over the past few years, many charter operations have collapsed, leaving consumers in the lurch -- and some that are still in business pose financial risks for current customers.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) regulates the manner in which charter operators must handle consumer funds. Among other things, the regulations require charter operators to post a bond or deposit consumer funds in an escrow account. Nonetheless, charter operators have found ways to shirk the rules; they may fail to deposit passenger funds into escrow accounts or divert funds that have already been deposited.

How can I tell whether a deeply discounted airfare is legitimate?

Deceptive airline advertising is so frequent that you may have already learned to read between the lines and scan the fine print to get the real picture. If you are not so savvy, watch out for the following:

  • Deceptive two-for-one offers. The airline promises two tickets for the price of one, but then requires you to buy a ticket in a class that costs the same, if not more, than two tickets at some other published fare.
  • Misleading discounts. Some airfare promotions advertise drastic price reductions on airfares without specifying the base fare from which the discounts are calculated. Furthermore, airlines usually advertise ticket prices at half their true cost. The fine print explains that the fare is "each way, based on round-trip purchase," despite the fact that you cannot buy a one-way ticket at the price shown.
  • Phantom sale seats. The classic airline bait-and-switch tactic is to promote low airfares for a given route and then fail to disclose the strict limitations on the availability of seats. The airline may try to sell you a higher-priced seat or may offer a reasonable number of low-fare seats for the first few days of the promotion, and then retract the seats for the duration of the ad campaign.
  • Frequent flyer deceptions. Airlines continue to severely limit the number of seats that they allocate to frequent flyers, especially for business and first class seats. As a result, frequent flyer customers may have a difficult time getting the seats they've earned.

Are there any general rules to follow to avoid being the victim of a travel scam?

As with most things in life, if the offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That being said, here are some signs to watch out for:

  • The solicitation says that you were "specially selected" or "awarded" a trip or prize, but you haven't entered any contest.
  • You must make a payment to collect your prize.
  • The salesperson uses high pressure sales tactics or insists on an immediate decision.
  • You must disclose your income, Social Security number, bank account number, or other private information.
  • The company offers great bargains, but refuses to put the details in writing unless you pay first.
  • The salesperson makes vague references to "all major airlines" or "all major hotels," without saying which ones you will use.
  • You must wait more than 60 days before taking the trip or receiving the prize. (Most scam victims pay for their "prize" on their credit card; scam artists know that you must dispute any credit card charge within 60 days. If they force you to wait more than 60 days, you can't challenge the charge.)
  • The caller asks for your credit card number over the phone.
  • The company requests a direct bank deposit or certified check or offers to send a courier to your home to pick up your check.
  • The deal cannot be booked through a travel agent.
  • You must call a 900 number.
  • The company cannot provide the names of references, or the references you call repeat nearly verbatim the claims of the travel provider.
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