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TRAVEL INSIDER

Put Tour Firms to the Test to Avoid Getting Bilked

Fraud * Recent crackdowns remind consumers to check companies' credentials, ask about trip details and be wary of mailed offers.

August 15, 1999|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

The faux fax, offering a bargain trip and designed to look as if it came from your company's travel office. The certificate for a not-quite-free promotional vacation. The spring break package. The special offer, available only if you act now.

These pitches, often by lesser-known companies in the travel industry, don't just make a consumer wonder. Sometimes they intrigue state and federal officials too. Last week, in a coordinated action (Operation Trip Trap), the Federal Trade Commission and 21 state attorneys general filed 47 lawsuits aimed at unmasking a sort of travel industry rogues' gallery. Twenty-five companies were named in the suits.

The lesson for consumers? Check a company's background before handing over any money, industry veterans and law enforcement officials agree. The less you're able to discover, the more you should worry.

But though many of the companies accused of wrongdoing in this campaign were selling package tours, a package tour in itself is not necessarily a product to be dismissed. A package tour typically combines air fare, hotel accommodations and sometimes other features. Package products make up a hefty portion of the overall travel industry, with numbers growing inside and outside the U.S. Frequently these trips offer savings unavailable to travelers trying to piece together separate components.

Hundreds of tour operators hold membership in the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), and 61 of the largest such companies have joined to form the U.S. Tour Operators Assn. (USTOA), whose members each set aside $1 million to cover possible passenger losses--perhaps the industry's strongest self-policed consumer protection program. A quick way to gauge a company's reliability is to check with ASTA in Alexandria, Va., (800) 275-2782, or USTOA in New York City, (212) 599-6599, to learn if it's a member.

Checking professional affiliations, however, should only be the beginning for a wary consumer. (Two of the five companies targeted in the federal action are actually ASTA members in good standing. None are in USTOA.)

For hints about what other questions to ask, one need only sort through the allegations in this new crop of state and federal lawsuits. Several elements recur: sales pitches that conceal important facts (like restrictions on your dates of travel); pressure on consumers to decide quickly; and vacation lodgings and amenities far less fetching than those promised up front.

Authorities say consumers should be especially careful of vacation certificates that arrive by mail, claiming special discounts or hinting that you've won something. In most cases, not only are you not a winner, you're going to find that the cost of the trip gets higher the more closely you look.

California's part in the big travel scam crackdown includes a lawsuit filed Aug. 2 by the state attorney general against Island Tours Inc. of Fountain Valley and Surf & Sun Tours of Phoenix, Ariz. The suit charges that spring break tours arranged by the companies were marred by tardy departures and last-minute changes in hotels and airports. An Island Tours spokesman said his company was an innocent intermediary; efforts to reach Surf & Sun Tours officials were unsuccessful.

Among the companies facing government lawsuits: American International Travel Services, Inc., a Deerfield, Fla., corporation accused of misrepresenting its vacation packages and failing to disclose restrictions, including mandatory attendance at time-share sales pitch seminars. Efforts to reach American International were unsuccessful at press time.

It's always wise, consumer advocates and travel industry veterans agree, to look for companies with track records of at least several years. Consumers should ask detailed questions about what is included in the advertised price: Air fare? Some meals? All meals? Taxes? Day excursions? Gratuities? Before you commit to buying anything, get detailed information about the product in writing.

If you do feel comfortable with a company and decide to buy, use a credit card. If something goes wrong (including financial failure on the company's part), you can dispute the charges through the card-issuing bank. Because there's less overhead involved, many tour operators offer 3% discounts to travelers who don't use credit cards. Most consumer advocates agree that the expense is worth it for the protection it may afford.

Pay attention to the company operating your flight too. Linda High, ASTA's consumer affairs director, notes that on charter flights, commonly used on budget package tours, delays are frequent but consumers are generally not entitled to compensation. If the same delays happened on a scheduled carrier (American, Delta or United, for instance), federal law would require compensation.

If you use a travel agent, a good one will probably help you screen out unfamiliar companies, but first you have to find a good agent. The best way is through personal referrals, the same way you'd seek out a mechanic or dentist.

Many of those who don't use travel agents have taken to vacation-hunting by computer. But don't let down your guard. Paul Ruden, ASTA's senior vice president for legal and industry affairs, noted that the Internet "brings the cost of scamming down--that is, the cost to the scammer . . . and somehow, people mystically believe that if something's on the Internet, it has credibility."

Another question to ask is if a company has a California Seller of Travel registration number, required for companies selling travel to Californians. To qualify, the company must supply information suggesting stability and sound financial practices. Many fly-by-night companies don't bother.

*

Christopher Reynolds welcomes comments and suggestions, but cannot respond individually to letters and calls. Write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or send e-mail to chris.reynolds@latimes.com.

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