Q: I'm doing some last minute spring break travel arrangements. Does the BBB have any tips I should consider before finalizing my plans?
A: Whether you're jetting to Costa Rica, headed on a cruise, hitting the ski slopes, or driving to the beaches of Miami, Florida, don't just book a trip because it looks like a good deal. And although it's a break from school, you still need to do your homework when planning your vacation.
March and April are spring break months for most college students. If you haven't already made your spring break vacation plans, the Better Business Bureau warns you to be cautious. Each year, hundreds of college students get ripped-off by fraudulent spring break offers that promise - but fail to deliver - that much needed "fun in the sun." Travel fraud is a growing problem and college students seem to be attractive targets for dishonest travel operators.
Not all fraudulent offers involve losing money; some are simply misleading. The accommodations may not be what you expected, or what you thought you paid for. Promoters may sell packages that do not include confirmed hotel space or flights. And, even if accommodations and flights are confirmed, the actual cost of the package is sometimes misrepresented when companies fail to inform customers about additional fees.
The Better Business Bureau urges college students to take special precautions when booking spring break trips. Here are a few suggestions:
Use a travel company you trust. Ask family and friends to recommend a company they've used and go to bbb.org to see the company's BBB Business Review. Be sure the travel agencies and companies you use are reputable ones. You can also check the BBB Business Reviews of your destination's hotel, car Rental Company, etc. by visiting bbb.org and putting your destination city and state in the BBB search bar.
Gather Information. Don't be fooled by professional-looking travel mailers, websites, e-mails or seminars. Few legitimate businesses can afford to give away products and services of real value or substantially undercut other companies' prices. Always check out the business with your BBB at bbb.org.
Get all vacation details in writing. Before paying anything, ask many questions and request all details of the trip in writing, including total cost (with any additional fees), travel itineraries, restrictions where applicable, cancellation penalties, refund policies, and exact names of the airlines and hotels included in the packet. Also, get copies of everything.
Be sure to ask about a hotel's "resort fees" or any additional fees that may be hidden from the listed price for things such as fitness facilities, a copy of the local newspaper, use of the room safe box, or even to access the internet. Many times these fees are required to be paid whether you use them or not, so it's best to know which are required to get a better idea of the true cost of your trip.
Verify reservations. Get the contact information for the airline, car rental company, and hotel you'll be using. Call to confirm all arrangements. When booking a package, it may be a good idea to also call the individual providers to ensure they all truly participate in the deal.
Verify charter flights. If a charter flight is involved, ask for the charter operator's name and address, and then check its registration with the U.S. Department of Transportation Special Authorities Office (http://www.dot.gov/policy/aviation-policy/licensing/public-charters).
Consider travel insurance. Travel insurance is designed to cover such things as trip cancellations or medical emergencies. Before purchasing any type of travelers insurance check your homeowner's or medical insurance policies to see what may already be covered.
Pay with a credit card. Paying with a credit card gives you additional protections should something go wrong with the travel reservation; you will be able to at least dispute the charges. Don't give the account number to an unsolicited travel promoter. Don't pay for your trip via a wire service as those funds cannot be tracked or refunded.
Be on the alert for travel scams. Unsolicited mail, email and faxes offering deeply discounted travel packages could leave you out a vacation and money if you're not careful. Never give credit card information over the phone to a company or person you're not familiar with. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Vacation packages presented for one low price generally involve hidden taxes or fees. Be wary of offers that promise "the moon" for a very low price, or ones that require immediate purchase to lock in the announced rate. Be especially wary of travel "prizes"-- oftentimes a technique used to gain information about your finances. Be suspicious of vacation certificates that claim you have "won" a hotel stay or resort visit. If you discover you have to pay something to get the promised "free" vacation, look elsewhere.
Contact the BBB if you are a victim of fraud. Victims of travel-related scams should file a complaint with the BBB at bbb.org or call 423-266-0396.
Jim Winsett is president of the Better Business Bureau of Chattanooga.