Need a vacation? Before you start relaxing to the sound of the waves or skiing the slopes, do some smart travel shopping first — not only to end up with a great trip and a good deal, but also to avoid a scam. Deal with businesses you trust, get a copy of the company’s cancellation and refund policies, and ask “What if...?” And if someone says you’ve won a “free” vacation but need to pay? Just walk away.
How to Shop for Travel
The key to planning a good trip is making sure you’re buying from travel businesses you know and trust:
Ask family and friends about the companies they use and like, and look online to see what people are saying about their service and prices.
Call to verify your reservations and arrangements
Get the details about any “five-star” resorts or “luxury” cruise ships they promise — including what other travelers have had to say about them. Some companies market below-average vacation accommodations as “luxury” or “five-star.” When you have the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the airlines, car rental companies, and hotels you’ll be using, confirm all arrangements yourself. If you can’t get a person from the travel company on the phone to answer your questions, consider taking your travel business elsewhere.
Get a copy of the company’s cancellation and refund policies before you pay for the trip, and ask “What if...?”
Consider whether some form of travel cancellation insurance is appropriate. Make sure the product you’re being sold is a licensed insurance policy. The U.S. Travel Insurance Association maintains a list of licensed travel insurance companies.
Pay by credit card
It gives you more protection than paying by cash or check. If you don’t get what you paid for, you may be able to dispute the charges with your credit card company. However, don’t give your account number to any business until you’ve verified its reputation.
Consider using a travel app
Travel apps can help you search for airfares and hotel rates, get fare alerts and real-time deals, and manage your itinerary.
Ask about mandatory hotel “resort fees”
When you book a hotel room online, you expect that the rate you see is the rate you’ll pay. But extra costs often called “resort fees” — for services like fitness facilities or internet access — can add to the per night cost of your stay. More important, the fees are mandatory: you must pay them regardless of whether you use the services. Many people don’t find out about the fees until they arrive at the hotel — or worse, when they check out. You can’t compare rates for different hotels unless you know all the fees. If you’re not sure whether a website is showing you the total price, call the hotel and ask about a “resort fee” or any other mandatory charge. Listing the “resort fee” near the quoted price or in the fine print — or referring to other fees that “may apply” — isn’t good enough. If you find out a hotel hasn’t told you the whole story about mandatory fees, in addition to complaining to the company, file a complaint with the FTC.
Ask questions before joining a travel club
Sometimes, a “free trial” membership can result in monthly charges on your credit card. Find out what you’ll get for your money and how you can cancel.
Signs of a Scam
Scammers may call or use mail, texts, faxes or ads promising free or low-cost vacations. In reality, those vacation offers may end up charging poorly disclosed fees or may be fake, plain and simple. Here are some tell-tell signs that a travel offer or prize might be a scam:
You “won a free vacation” — but you have to pay some fees first
A legitimate company won’t ask you to pay for a prize. Any company trying to sell you on a “free” vacation will probably want something from you — taxes and fees, attendance at mandatory timeshare presentations, even pressure to buy “extras” or “add-ons” for the vacation, etc. Find out what your costs are before you agree to anything.
The prize company wants your credit card number
Especially if they say it’s to “verify” your identity or your prize, don’t give it to them.
They cold-call, cold-text, or email you out of the blue
Before you do business with any company you don’t know, call the Attorney General and local consumer protection agencies in the company’s home state to check on complaints; then, search online by entering the company name and the word “complaints” or “scam” and read what other people are saying.
They don’t — or can’t — give you specifics
They promise a stay at a “five-star” resort or a cruise on a “luxury” ship. The more vague the promises, the less likely they’ll be true. Ask for specifics, and get them in writing. Check out the resort’s address; look for photos of the ship.
You’re pressured to sign up for a travel club for great deals on future vacations
The pressure to sign up or miss out is a signal to walk away. Travel clubs often have high membership fees and limited choice of destinations or travel dates.
You get a robocall about it
Robocalls from companies trying to sell you something are almost always illegal if you haven’t given the company written permission to call you. That’s true even if you haven’t signed up for the national Do Not Call Registry.
Special Considerations for Charter Travel
Some people who have signed up for charter packages have learned that the package they paid for really was a scam. Here’s how to make sure a charter package is the real deal:
Look up the government’s list of all public chartered flights
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Special Authorities Office maintains a list of approved public chartered flights. The charter filing must be approved by DOT before the package can be sold.
Make sure your check is payable to an escrow account
If you pay by check for a charter package, federal law requires that it’s payable to an escrow account. Call the bank handling the escrow account to verify that the account is valid. Charter operators who don’t want to give you escrow bank information may be selling another firm’s space. Avoid operators who tell you they’ll send a courier to pick up your money. That’s a sure sign of a rip-off.
Check out the operator
Ask them to send you information about the business and the names of satisfied customers, and ask family and friends about their experience. Check with local travel agents to see if they know if the operator is legitimate, or contact the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) for more information. Don’t give in to pressure to pay before you’ve had a chance to check a company out.
Get a copy of the contract
The operator/participant contract tells you when the operator can change flight schedules and hotel accommodations, and the rules and penalties for cancellation. Usually, charters can be canceled for any reason up to 10 days before the trip, and operators may put you up in an another hotel listed in the contract, even if it’s not as nice as the advertised hotel. Ask about cancellation insurance. Rules state that an operator can’t ask for — or accept — your payment until you’ve signed and returned the contract.
Understand your rights
According to DOT rules, you have a right to cancel a charter package without penalty if the operator makes a “major change.” That includes a change of departure or return date or city, a hotel substitution to a property not named in the contract, or a package price increase of more than 10 percent.
Expect flight delays
They’re common on charter flights. DOT rules allow a charter flight to be delayed up to 48 hours for mechanical difficulties. The operator doesn't have to provide alternate transportation or compensate you for your expenses. Check the contract to see if the operator will cover any costs — like lodging and car rentals — if the delay isn’t because of mechanical difficulties.