These days, travel planning starts on the internet. But as you research destinations online and comb travel sites for savings on lodging and flights, keep a sharp eye out for deceptive offers and outright scams that could cost you a bundle.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received more than 53,891 reports of travel-related scams (including timeshare scams) in 2021, costing consumers $95 million — though the real numbers are likely far higher. Experts believe scams of all sorts are grossly underreported.
Be especially wary when using third-party hotel booking sites. According to a 2019 survey conducted for the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA), nearly a quarter of consumers reported being misled by travel resellers on the phone or online, affecting $5.7 billion in transactions in 2018.
Unscrupulous resellers draw consumers through search engine ads and send them, via links or posted phone numbers, to booking websites or call centers that appear to be affiliated with a hotel. The look-alike site will feature detailed descriptions of rooms and amenities; it might even have the hotel’s name in its URL. But you are not actually dealing with the hotel. This can have consequences ranging from inconvenient (the reseller doesn’t transmit special requests, such as a wheelchair-accessible room) to expensive (higher rates than the hotel actually charges or hidden fees tacked on to your bill) to potentially trip ruining (you arrive and discover the booking was never made).
The AHLA includes a warning about these scams on its website, encouraging consumers “to book directly through the hotel website or mobile app, or through a trusted travel agent.”
There’s plenty more to look out for. For example:
- Criminals operate look-alike websites for airlines, popular travel companies, tourist visa procurement, and federal Trusted Traveler programs like TSA PreCheck to harvest personal data from people who believe they’re booking tickets or signing up for smoother airport screening.
- Scam emails offer promotions such as free flights to get you to give up credit card information or click links that download malware.
- Bogus insurance brokers sell travel policies they falsely claim will cover coronavirus-related cancellations.
- Scammers make up vacation-rental listings, or duplicate real ones, to collect payments for nonexistent bookings.
- A cut-rate hotel or airline offer that seems too good to be true.
- A hotel, airline or travel website has odd spelling or grammatical errors, suggesting it may have been created by a scammer in a foreign country.
- A third-party website offering to expedite your tourist visa for a fee.
How to protect yourself from this scam
- Book on the official website of a hotel, airline or other travel business, or use a reputable third-party booking site.
- Carefully check a travel website’s URL. Scam sites may use “domain spoofing” tricks, such as an extra letter in the address, while mimicking major travel companies’ branding.
- Use the official government website to sign up for TSA PreCheck. Online searches for the program can turn up scam sites.
- Get your tourist visa directly from the website of your destination country, to avoid scam sites that offer expedited visas (that you may never receive) for a fee. You’ll find links at travel.state.gov.
- Look for written policies on canceling or modifying reservations, and confirm them before booking
- Call the hotel or airline and confirm your reservation after booking on a travel website. If they don’t have a record of your booking, that may signal a problem that it’s best to solve well before you travel.
- If you land on an unfamiliar travel site, check it out before booking. Search for the company’s name plus words like “review,” “complaint” or “scam” to see if other consumers have had bad experiences with the site, and look it up in the Better Business Bureau’s database.
- Avoid clicking on links in emails with travel promotions like free airline tickets or warnings that your hotel loyalty points are about to expire. Mouse over the link to check whether it goes to a legitimate travel site.
- Use credit cards, which offer better fraud protection than debit cards, to pay for travel.