Don’t Get Screwed

Your travel agent just bolted with your money. Your cruise line sold your cabin to someone else. Your tour operator went belly up, and there’s no chance for a refund.

Over the past six months there have been dozens of news stories highlighting the “shady” travel industry.

No one can dispute the fact that some travel agents did abscond with some money, Carnival did oversell several sailings, and several tour operators simply ceased operations with little more than a padlocked front door.

But how can you protect yourself?

To steal a concept from Terry Riley, no one is going to protect you – you need to do it yourself. But you can hedge the odds in your favor.

Today’s consumers are becoming more and more gullible and taking less and less responsibility for their actions.

People actually wire money to the idiots that run the Nigerian e-mail scam. People actually buy stocks from the knucklehead that calls the office with a hot tip.

Hello. Why would anyone give access to their life saving to their travel agent? Why would someone give cash to a travel agent to give to a tour operator?

AA has its 12-step plan to sobriety; here is my 7-step plan to making a sound decision for travel purchases:

1. Deal with an established company. Online or off, it should have a track record of selling travel. Check the business out with the Better Business Bureau, the local Chamber of Commerce, ASTA, ARTA, CLIA, OSSN, or an existing client. While not a guarantee, this shows that it is interested in being in business and not just scamming you.

2. Never pay in cash. When you pay by credit card, it is usually processed by the travel supplier and you will have some protection if it fails to deliver. This also assures that your deposit was applied to your booking. Alternately, pay by check – and always get a receipt.

3. Guard your personal information. Your travel agent has a need (not a right) to know certain personal things about you – family members, passport numbers, credit card numbers, personal preferences. There is never a need to provide a social security number or an authorization for a direct draft from your bank account. If you feel uncomfortable, go with your gut and go elsewhere.

4. Deal with someone with experience. While not usually possible on the Web, you should deal with someone who has been there and done that. The Web will not let you know about the horrible drive from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios, Jamaica. A true professional will. Seek out those who have obtained their cruise certifications from CLIA, or their CTA or CTC designations from the Travel Institute (formerly ICTA) or destination specialists with credentials.

5. Use the Web to investigate and corroborate – with caution.
This column is my opinion. We all have opinions and opinions are like … well anyhow, we all know about opinions. has a wealth of information – but beware, there is nothing to stop a hotel from loading the site with favorable reviews, or a dissatisfied guest from trashing a property gratuitously. Read three pages of reviews to get a better insight.

6. Be sure that the travel provider is solvent or protected.
Are they a member of the USTOA (they need to post a bond to carry the designation)? Alternately, does an escrow company manage their receipts? Do they have a history? These are questions you need to ask before handing over the credit card. You should know who is ultimately providing the service because travel agents and Web sites are simply intermediaries. Is the travel supplier well-known?

7. Trust your instincts. As my father always told me, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” But please don’t let him know that I am listening to his advice after all these years. The best tip I can give is to go with your gut.

Use your head and don’t be led blindly off the cliff like a lemming. You are ultimately responsible for your decisions and when you are shelling out some big bucks for travel – vacation or business – you want to be sure the investment is as safe as it can be.

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