The Attorney General provides Consumer Alerts to inform the public of unfair, misleading, or deceptive business practices, and to provide information and guidance on other issues of concerns. Consumer Alerts are not legal advice, legal authority, or a binding legal opinion from the Department of Attorney General.
Traveling near home or abroad can be fun and exciting. Unfortunately, it can also be stressful and expensive. This consumer alert provides consumers with information on common tricks used to separate travelers from their money, and tips on how to avoid paying more than anticipated while traveling.
COMMON TRAVEL "TRICKS"
Although some of the travel "tricks" below are not illegal, they are common methods used by some businesses to obtain extra money from unsuspecting consumers:
1. The classic "bait-and-switch": The "bait-and-switch" technique is certainly nothing new, but businesses small and large, legitimate and not, are endlessly creative in how they present it. Travelers may commonly find the "bait-and-switch" in outrageously low airfare, hotel rates, or car rental rates.
In one recent example that local law enforcement brought to the Attorney General's attention, tourists visiting a Michigan destination may spot an advertisement for personalized souvenirs (such as tee shirts) at a low price. The tourist enters the shop and places an order for their personalized souvenir and agrees to return at a later date or time to pick up their item. When the tourist returns to the shop, the shop provides them with a personalized souvenir that is far more expensive than what was promised at the time of the order - and the tourist is told that, if they don't pay for the more expensive item, even if it was not what was ordered, the shop owner will call the local police department and file charges.
Although not all bait-and-switch scams are as egregious as the example provided above, the common thread is that unsuspecting travelers are lured in to businesses by low prices, but wind up being pressured into spending far more money than anticipated.
2. The "free trip": Another common method to trick unsuspecting consumers into spending more money than anticipated on a vacation is through the "free trip" promotion. Consumers may receive mailings or phone calls promising free vacations anywhere in the United States or around the world. The only thing the consumer has to do is sit through a short sales presentation on a time share or "vacation club."
Not only will these "free trips" likely turn out not to be free - consumers will have to fork over money for fees and extra expenses - but even if the consumer does receive a trip, airfare, or hotel reservation, the accommodations often leave much to be desired. Or the consumer will be expected to sit through seemingly endless sales presentations and will be subject to high-pressure sales tactics - and often, the consumer will think saying "yes" or handing over additional money may be the fastest way to get out of that situation and go home.
3. The "all inclusive" vacation: Although some companies advertise all-inclusive resort stays or cruises and actually carry through on their promise, this is not always the case. Be aware that some companies offering "all inclusive" trips or vacations may charge extra for numerous goods and services, or for room or cabin upgrades if you choose not to stay in inadequate accommodations. Even reputable companies look for ways to tack fees onto trips that were sold to consumers as "all inclusive".
4. The "pizza flyer" or front desk credit card scam: These scams generally occur once a traveler checks into their hotel room. In some circumstances, a pizza or other restaurant flyer is slipped under a hotel guest's door, advertising good food at reasonable prices that may be delivered right to the guest. Because an out-of-town guest is generally not familiar with area restaurants, they may be tempted to call the number on the flyer and place an order. After they call, the guest is told they may only pay by debit or credit card over the phone. All of this is a ruse aimed at obtaining your credit card number. The food will never arrive, but fraudulent charges are placed on the victim's credit card almost immediately.
In another scam targeting hotel guests, the phone may ring during the middle of the night and the caller claims that they are calling from the hotel's front desk. Due to a computer glitch, the caller claims they need the guest to provide their credit card number to ensure their stay is not interrupted. This again is a ruse to obtain the victim's credit card number.
5. The "guaranteed" timeshare reseller: Although not a scam targeting current or potential travelers, there has been a recent explosion of scams targeting owners of timeshares. Generally, these scammers promise to resell your timeshare in a very short time frame - and all you have to do is pay them an upfront fee for advertising or other costs for a sale that never materializes.
TIPS ON HOW TO AVOID PAYING MORE THAN ANTICIPATED
Because the list of common travel tricks, above, is non-exhaustive, and people are endlessly creative when it comes to methods for separating you from your hard-earned money, we provide the following tips to help you spot, and avoid, travel tricks of all shapes and sizes:
When making reservations, get a written confirmation, complete with a confirmation or reservation number, whenever possible, and be sure it includes the rate you've agreed to pay. Bring these written confirmations with you on your trip. You can use these written confirmations if a business tries to increase the cost when you arrive or if your reservation is somehow lost.
Stay calm! If you are traveling and you are faced with any of the tricks outlined above, do your best to act calmly and rationally. Businesses and individuals who use the above-referenced tricks count on tourists to panic when faced with these tricks, especially you are traveling with your family, and expect that you will just give in.
When faced with a "bait-and-switch" scenario, don't allow yourself to be intimidated. Be firm, but calm, and demand the hotel rate that you were promised and reserved (being sure to provide a copy of your written confirmation, described above), or the item that you agreed to order. BUT BE PREPARED TO WALK AWAY if you don't get what you were promised. Chances are, if the business or individual is faced with losing a paying customer, they will agree to give you the deal as promised.
Make sure you know what you are buying before you buy.
If you are shopping for airline tickets, make sure you know how much your ticket will cost, including all taxes, fees, and luggage expenses. Most airline websites will allow you to calculate how much your trip will cost including all extras before providing payment information.
Be just as cautious when booking hotel rooms or reserving rental cars - ask about any additional fees either when making the reservation or before you check in or sign the rental agreement, and make sure you understand all additional costs and fees before providing payment information.
Make sure you know what is included in the cost of your cruise or other "all inclusive" vacations before you book.
And make sure you read all terms and conditions if you are making reservations online - often, these terms and conditions will include cancellation policies, service fees for booking online, and other important information.
Make sure you read and understand all documents before signing! This includes any hotel disclosure documents, airline terms or conditions, and car rental agreements. If you have questions, ask before you sign.
Once you have checked into a hotel, if you receive flyers under your door, or a call from the hotel's front desk, always check with the hotel's front desk first, prior to placing an order or providing your credit card number or other personal identifying information. Whether you are traveling or not, NEVER provide personal information in response to an unsolicited phone call, email, or advertisement.
Consider using a designated travel credit card - that is, a credit card, different from the one you may ordinarily use, just to pay for travel-related purchases, such as airline tickets, hotel reservations, rental cars, and other purchases. Using the same credit card will allow you to easily spot incorrect or fraudulent charges that may have occurred during your travel, and will make it easier for you to dispute those charges when you get home. Even if you have money set aside to pay for your trip, use that money to pay off your credit card when you get home. If you are able to pay off the balance of the card before your next billing cycle, you may be able to avoid paying interest on the credit card, giving you the added protection of buying with a credit card without the added cost.
If you plan on using a credit card or debit card while traveling, especially if you are traveling abroad, make sure you notify your credit card company or bank prior to your departure. If you don't alert your credit card company or bank prior to using your cards while traveling, your cards may be denied at the point of sale for security reasons. Make sure you notify your credit card company or bank where you will be traveling, along with your date of departure and return. And while you are on the phone with your credit card company or bank, be sure to ask about any foreign transaction fees that you may incur if you use your credit card or debit card while abroad.
If you would like to sell your timeshare, be skeptical of any company that offers to sell your timeshare immediately for an upfront fee. For more tips related to timeshares, the FTC has published a comprehensive consumer guide on this topic, available at: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/homes/rea15.shtm
FOR MORE TRAVEL TIPS AND INFORMATION
For more information on traveling in Michigan, please visit Pure Michigan, Michigan's Official Travel and Tourism website, at http://www.michigan.org.
The federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) provides tips to help travelers navigate airport security, available at: http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information.
And the U.S. State Department provides a wealth of information on traveling safely abroad, which can be found here: http://travel.state.gov.
Finally, additional travel tips may be found on various non-governmental websites, including websites for the AARP (at http://www.aarp.org), news organizations, or those belonging to authors or publishers of travel guides, such as Rick Steves or Fodor's, among others.
If you have been the victim of a travel-related scam, or if you would like to file a general consumer complaint, please contact the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division:
Consumer Protection Division
P.O. Box 30213
Lansing, MI 48909
Toll free: 877-765-8388
www.michigan.gov/ag (online complaint form)