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YOUTH BEAT

Spring Break Deals Might Be Too Good to Be True

February 07, 1999|LUCY IZON

Students are often novices at purchasing holiday packages, which makes them ideal victims for unscrupulous operators at spring break travel time. What you expect and what you get can be a world apart.

You know that "ocean view"? It could be across four lanes of traffic and seen only if you stick your head out of the hotel window. Or that great price could mean sharing a room with three other vacationers. That's fine if you expected it, but if unexpected, it can put a damper on your vacation.

That's why ASTA (the American Society of Travel Agents), one of the world's largest travel trade organizations, and College Parents of America, an organization dedicated to helping parents prepare for and put their children through college, have joined together to issue some basic pre-spring-break advice about travel scams.

Richard Flaherty, president of College Parents of America, advises: "Before you make any purchase, it is always a good idea to find out who can vouch for a particular product or service."

ASTA consumer advocate Ed Perkins says students should be aware that some shady operators hire young people to go to campuses and sell their products, having them say that they had a great time last year.

When presented with a surprisingly attractive offer, Perkins suggests you consult your campus travel agency. They should be able to point out the not-so-obvious reasons why the price is so good.

"Promoters may sell packages that do not include confirmed hotel space or flights, or [whose] quality is misrepresented," Perkins says.

Here are some points to consider before signing on the dotted line:

* Ask for names and telephone numbers of others in your area who have previously used the travel operator, and call to confirm that these customers were satisfied with their travel package. If the company balks at your request, that should be a sign to steer clear of the company.

* Students should be wary of offers that make it seem as though they have won something, or that require purchase of a package immediately (i.e., within 48 hours) in order to lock in the announced rate.

* If a charter flight is involved in the package, ask for the charter operator's name and address and check its registration by writing to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Office of Consumer Affairs, I-25 Washington, DC 20590. Make certain that the check is made payable to an escrow account (as required by federal law for charters), and call the bank handling the escrow account to verify its validity.

* Students should never give any credit card information over the phone to a company or person with whom they are unfamiliar.

ASTA posts current news on scams at its Internet site at http://www.astanet.com. You can also obtain the free brochure "Avoid Travel Problems" by sending a self-addressed envelope to ASTA Brochure: Avoiding Travel Problems, 1101 King St., Suite 200, Alexandria, VA 22314.

College Parents of America, which also acts as an advocate in Washington, D.C., at state capitals and on campuses, can be contacted at (888) 256-4627, Internet http://www.collegeparents.org.

Another organization is the recently formed SYTA (Student and Youth Travel Assn. of North America). Member tour operators, which are companies geared to travelers under 26, have to carry a consumer protection plan secured in the name of their organization for at least $450,000 and must comply with the SYTA code of ethics. For more information contact SYTA at 1520 S. Lapeer Road, Suite 204, Lake Orion, MI 48360; Internet http://www.syta.com.

*

When students are exploring foreign countries, the best identification to carry, to be assured of obtaining available student discounts, is an International Student Identity Card (Internet http://www .istc.org), which is sold through most North American campus travel agencies. It's not the only card that brings student travel discounts, though. The Student Advantage Card, which offers students 15,000 deals, from buying pizza to dry-cleaning, also offers discounts for transportation and student-style tours in North America and abroad.

The Student Advantage Card is currently honored for a 15% discount on Greyhound coach fares and at Choice Hotels (you'll have to book in advance, and space is limited).

Other North American travel services honoring the card for reduced rates include American Youth Hostels (toward membership), AAA, Dollar Car Rentals (you must be 21 to rent), AmeriCan Adventures (small group adventure tours), Student Travel Services and Amtrak. Services that offer discounts for foreign travel include Contiki Holidays (you get two free nights' accommodation in London when you book a European vacation 14 days or longer) and Roadrunner (worldwide hostel treks).

Student Advantage Cards are available to students of any age. You can purchase the $20 card or get more details on the discounts by calling Student Advantage, tel. (800) 333-2920. The Student Advantage Internet site is http://www.studentadvantage.com.

Izon is a Toronto-based freelance writer. She can be reached at http://www.izon.com.

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