Christopher Elliott on the 10 Worst Travel Scams

travel scams
Illustration by Andre da Loba

Ever had the sense that the gold ring you bought from a street vendor may be a few karats short of the real thing, or that the cabdriver who claims his meter is broken has overcharged you?

If so, you wouldn't be alone. Those kinds of scams are common, and I've certainly been ripped off too many times. But it isn't these street scams—the come-ons from ordinary criminals—that are the most pressing problem. After all, they're fairly easy to spot with a little practice and common sense. No, it's the completely legal scams perpetrated by real businesses that are worth paying special attention to.

And travel is full of those. Here are the 10 worst offenders.

Plus, more tips and destinations on Travel Beast.

travel scams Illustration by Andre da Loba

One minute you're lounging on the beach in Cancún, engrossed in a page turner. The next, a timeshare saleswoman is plying you with free frozen margaritas and inviting you to a brief presentation. You'd be surprised by how many tourists fall for this scam, and they fall hard. It isn't unusual to leave Mexico tens of thousands of dollars lighter, owning a timeshare that's basically unusable. And getting a refund is all but impossible, since these condos are technically—but barely—legal. Solution? Just say no to their come-ons, and if you're in the market for a timeshare, do your research first and don't buy under the influence. Remember, in Mexico, you have five business days to cancel the contract, but keep in mind that these shady timeshares are offered everywhere.

travel scams Illustration by Andre da Loba

Ever wanted to be your own travel agent? Just think of all the perks—the discounted travel, the familiarization trips to exotic destinations, and, oh, those freebies! Travel-agency credentials can be purchased for a small fee online. They're called card mills, and like travel clubs, they're basically useless—but, alas, completely legal. Common sense tells you they're a scam. No one can really shortcut the hours of training required to become a bona fide travel agent. More often, these card schemes let you get credit for helping your friends book trips through a special website. It's little more than a legalized pyramid scheme. But the only winners are the card mills offering these questionable products. You lose.

travel scams Illustration by Andre da Loba

A special kind of shady enterprise, travel clubs often prey on retired folks with a line that's similar to the timeshare pitch. They offer "free" gift certificates to a favorite restaurant and then corral you into a high-pressure sales presentation, where they convince you that for a membership fee of several thousand dollars, you can enjoy special discounts on travel. It's nonsense. Their cleverly worded contracts ensure that they get to keep your money whether you find the promised bargains or not (and usually you don't). Truth is, these "clubs" are selling nothing. The Red Lobster gift card isn't worth it. Don't fall for this shady deal.

travel scams Illustration by Andre da Loba

Every sector of the travel industry offers these disingenuous fares, but what's so remarkable is that practically all these little white lies are allowed under the law. Whether it's an airline that can quote a ticket price minus taxes, mandatory fees, and some extras that virtually every passenger wants, such as the ability to check a bag, or a hotel that's allowed to omit a mandatory charge for Internet access or a newspaper, these sneaky practices give travelers the impression that their trips will cost less than they do. Unfortunately, local, state, and federal governments often let them pull these shenanigans in broad daylight. A competent travel agent can make sure you see an "all in" price for your next vacation. (Just make sure the agent didn't get his certification from a card mill.)

travel scams Illustration by Andre da Loba

Next time you rent a car, pay close attention to any preexisting damage. If you don't, you could fall for this swindle. It involves an unsuspecting driver who rents a car with no apparent damage and declines the overpriced insurance. The vehicle is returned in the same condition. But wait! Suddenly a car-rental company employee is on his hands and knees, looking at the underbelly of the car—almost as if he knows there's something there. And there is. It's a well-hidden ding or dent. Coincidentally, the repairs will cost you a few dollars less than your insurance deductible. (Wouldn't want the insurance company to start asking questions now, would we?) Most folks pay for the "damage," which can include an unjustifiable loss-of-use fee for the car, and try to forget about the whole thing. But the car is then returned to service, sometimes allegedly unrepaired, and the process is repeated. Scamtastic!

travel scams Illustration by Andre da Loba

These are a particularly evil strain of the bait-and-switch prices that bedevil the entire travel industry. You're quoted a low rate for a resort hotel—say, $90 a night. But when you arrive, you're told there's a mandatory $19.95 "resort fee" that includes many items that ought to come with your room, like the beach towel, TV, and use of the exercise equipment. Why break it out like this? Because it makes the room look cheaper, mostly. Try wiggling out of one by claiming you don't use the exercise facilities or visit the pool, and you'll be informed the fee applies to everyone. Hotels in Las Vegas and Hawaii are the worst offenders. Always ask about the resort fee before you book, and if there is one, try another place. You don't want to do business with a scammer.

travel scams Illustration by Andre da Loba

Next time you buy an airline ticket or hotel room online, you might see an option to add travel insurance. Now, don't get me wrong: the right travel-insurance policy can really save your trip. But as an afterthought to your travel purchase, it might—or might not—help. I'm particularly wary of online agencies that automatically pre-check the travel-insurance option when you buy a travel package. That's no way to get insurance. Instead, shop around, read the actual policy, and consult an expert travel adviser. Otherwise, your insurance could be completely useless, turning you down for any technicality when you file a claim.

travel scams Illustration by Andre da Loba

When you pay with plastic overseas, your credit card used to dock you anywhere from 1 to 3 percent of the purchase price as an exchange fee, even though the switch costs the company practically nothing. But that wasn't enough. Recently, cards have imposed foreign-transaction fees on any purchase made with a foreign company, even if it's done online in your country and in your native currency. Ridiculous? Totally. Often, when a credit card is challenged on this absurd new fee, it backs down and refunds its ill-gotten gains. If you do a lot of travel, you might want to consider a bank that doesn't charge a transaction fee, like Capital One, or take your business to a credit union.

travel scams Illustration by Andre da Loba

It's not your imagination: a recent survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found it costs an average of $9.48 per megabyte when your phone is set to "roam." The actual cost to the cellphone provider is pennies per megabyte. The survey concluded that new consumer-protection rules were needed to protect travelers from being fleeced. Good call.

travel scams Illustration by Andre da Loba

I've become increasingly skeptical of user-generated reviews in the recent past, even though I actively participate in them (I use Yelp), and even though more travelers than ever trust them. Why the misgivings? Because—and this is particularly true in the travel business—user-generated reviews are susceptible to manipulation by hotels and restaurants. Corporations use sophisticated reputation-management techniques to stack the deck with bogus reviews that make their businesses look better than they are and to take their competition down a notch. My advice? Don't believe everything you read, even if it's on TripAdvisor.

Bear in mind that while these scams may be ethically wrong, they usually aren't illegal. An airline can quote an incomplete fare, an online agency can sell you an unusable insurance policy, and a restaurant can lie to you in an online forum with absolutely no repercussions from authorities. Similarly, timeshares, travel clubs, and travel-agency card mills are, by and large, completely legit. Until they aren't, I'll be here.

Christopher Elliott is curator of the consumer websiteonyoursi.de and author of Scammed: How to Save Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals.

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