Travel

Published on July 16th, 2014

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How to Avoid a Summer Vacation Nightmare

You need a vacation – no, deserve one.

But before you load up the kids and luggage into the station wagon, Clark Griswold, we’ve got some tips to make sure you don’t get scammed on the road this summer.

The insurance offer

If you choose to fly, you’ll likely have to decide on travel insurance. Discount travel websites such as Travelocity, Expedia, or Orbitz often offer this option when booking a flight. The plans generally cost about 6 percent of the total trip cost.

Travel insurance offers coverage for trip cancellations or delays, emergency medical or dental work, and lost baggage. But not all coverage is the same, and you don’t want to end up paying for a plan you don’t need. For example, if your current health insurance covers you abroad, there’s no reason to pay for the coverage provided with travel insurance, which, by the way, does not usually cover pre-existing medical conditions.

Also, while mishandled baggage is rare – the DOT says only three out of 1,000 passengers on U.S. airlines recently reported an incident of lost, damaged, delayed, or pilfered baggage – airlines are required to compensate passengers for lost luggage up to $3,000 in the U.S. and $1,500 worldwide. However, travel insurance may cover luggage lost elsewhere on your trip, such as the hotel.

The underlying message here is to read the fine print and know what you are getting with travel insurance. It might also pay to shop around on sites such as WorldNomads.com or insuremytrip.com.

The Craigslist ‘deal’

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Cash is not always king. Here’s a cautionary tale explaining why.

A friend of ours (we’ll call her Tina) thought she had found the perfect rental for an all-girls weekend when she stumbled upon a Craigslist ad for a “fantastic” five-bedroom beach house in Rhode Island. Tina was familiar with the house having gone to school in the state and so deemed the ad’s photos and description credible.

Tina emailed Rodney (the alleged name of the person who posted the ad) and much to her excitement, the house was available for the weekend she wanted and, moreover, for a reasonable $600 two-night rate. All the pieces seemed to be falling into place for this great weekend with the girls.

Then, a red flag. After initially asking for a $200 refundable security deposit, Rodney upped it to $500 and said he’d take a PayPal or bank transfer. Perhaps enthralled with the thought of ocean views from a wraparound deck just 300 feet from the sea, Tina paid the deposit via bank transfer.

Rodney confirmed receipt of the money in a follow-up email to Tina, which ended: “I will look forward to read from you soon.” What? The conspicuous grammatical error (another red flag) made Tina nervous. Thinking she may have just been swindled out of $500, Tina researched the house online and found that it was being advertised by a local real estate company – the true agents for the rental who had the house booked for the entire summer.

Rodney’s deal, it turned out, was a sham. Rodney was a sham.

The lesson here is twofold: First, don’t wire money to anyone you don’t know. Ever. If the deal turns out to be a scam, you’re not likely to get your money back (Sorry, Tina). Many credit card companies, however, offer fraud protection services. Second, book your vacations — no matter the duration — through reputable businesses. So, not Craigslist.

The hotel

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The plane ride was hell – why do they always stick you next to that guy – but somehow you’ve finally arrived at the hotel. We’ll do a quick check-in and then grab some dinner, you say to your increasingly irritable spouse. But wait, what’s this? A resort fee? You didn’t see this on the reservation online.

“Drip pricing,” as the FTC calls it, is a type of bait-and-switch advertising where the price of a product or service goes up as a consumer progresses through the buying process. It’s ubiquitous in the travel industry – more on how this relates to plane tickets below – and poses a particular threat to the hotel guest.

In 2012, the FTC sent a letter to 22 hotel operators warning that such deceptive pricing tactics may be violating the law. The letter included consumer claims shared at a conference the FTC hosted earlier that year:

One common complaint consumers raised involved mandatory fees hotels charge for amenities such as newspapers, use of onsite exercise or pool facilities, or internet access, sometimes referred to as “resort fees.” … Several stated that they only learned of the fees after they arrived at the hotel, long after making a reservation at what they believed to be the total room price.

But the hidden fees are still a problem and U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill is urging vacationers to submit information about non-optional fees they got stuck paying to her for further investigation.

So, how can you protect yourself from these hidden fees? Simple: Ask questions. Before booking online or over the phone, find out what the price covers and what it excludes. And get the details in writing.

The FTC has additional tips on how to avoid the hazards of hoteling.

The ‘free’ trip

In short, it’s not free.

Even if you’re “lucky” enough to win a drawing after responding to a telemarketer, email, or flyer, you’ll eventually find that that advertised “free” trip is riddled with hidden fees. Or worse yet, the luxurious hotel you were promised turns out to be a ramshackle hut in a locale where the neighbors are none too friendly.

The ticket

While it may not affect travelers this summer, a cleverly titled bill called the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014 could potentially cloud online airfare prices for many summers to come.

The bill would deceptively drive down the upfront cost of a ticket by hiding federal taxes that would later be revealed to the consumer at checkout, and, consequently, bump up the price by about 20 percent. (Yes, it’s the same bait-and-switch advertising we talked about with hotels.) The bill has the backing of the airline industry and the bipartisan support of Congress, at least as of now.

Graphic included in House release on the Transparent Airfares Act of 2014 bill.

The legislation would void a 2012 rule that required airlines to include all mandatory taxes and fees in the base price of the ticket; i.e., the prices you first see after clicking “search flights.”

Somehow, the lawmakers behind the Transparent Airfares Act say this what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach has actually lessened transparency.

“While the DOT had good intentions, the new rule effectively reduced transparency,” Peter DeFazio, a House Democrat from Oregon who was among those who introduced the bill, said in a statement. “Consumers haven’t been getting the whole picture of what an airline ticket pays for.”

Consumer groups, however, have made it clear that they oppose the legislation. Here’s a portion of a letter signed by such groups as Consumers Union and Travelers United, addressed to the U.S. House of Representatives:

This anti-consumer legislation serves no purpose, in our view, other than to mislead consumers about the real price of airfare – to the benefit of airlines, but at the expense of consumers. …We urge you to stand up against this anti-consumer move by the airlines…

An online petition on change.org has rallied additional resistance, collecting more than 125,000 signatures against the bill. “If the full-fare advertising rule goes ‘buh-bye,’ you lose,” writes the page’s creator, Charles Leocha of Travelers United. “You’ll think airfares are cheaper than they are. You’ll have a harder time comparison-shopping.”

For more information on avoiding travel scams, click here.

This story was updated on 7/28/15. 

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