Worst Travel Scams

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Elliott

The costliest rip-offs can come from legitimate businesses. Here's what to watch for.

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.

Hard-sell timeshares

One minute you're lounging on the beach in Cancon, 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.

Fake travel-agency credentials

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 clubs

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.

Bait-and-switch prices

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.)

Bogus car-damage claims

Next time you rent a car, pay close attention to any preexisting damage. …