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Discount Travel Club Scams

Q: I recently joined an organization that promised me I would receive travel agent discounts on my airfare, hotel reservations, car rental and cruise prices. I paid a lot of money for my travel agent card. The company also told me I would get a commission on every trip I booked for my friends and family. So far, not one hotel or airline has accepted my travel agent card, and I haven’t seen a dime of commission. Have I been had?

A: Unfortunately, the answer may be yes. My office, along with several attorneys general from other states, recently filed suit and gained a settlement from one of these discount travel groups. We have heard from many consumers who filed complaints similar to yours. The situation you describe is a common one. Consumers pay a fee, sometimes several thousand dollars, to join a discount travel club and receive “travel agent” credentials. The company promises members that their travel agent card earns them access to travel agent discounts on airfare and hotels that are not available to the public. In addition, members are offered commissions on trips booked for family and friends through this company.

However, when a member tries to book a trip for a friend or family member, he or she soon discovers that the fares offered by the company are higher than those offered directly through the airline or through a travel agent. And when the consumer tries to use the travel agent card to get discounts and upgrades, the airlines and hotels refuse to accept it.

The truth is that each airline, hotel, or rental car company decides which discounts to give and to whom. No travel club can guarantee you travel agent discounts. To be eligible for travel agent discounts, most airlines and major hotels require proof that you actually work as a travel agent for a set number of hours each month.

Another common scam is an offer for a free trip in exchange for listening to a sales pitch – often for a time share company or a travel club. People go with the best of intentions, promising themselves that they will not buy anything or sign any contracts. But the high pressure sales pitches can be too much. Even if consumers don’t succumb to the sales pitch, they can end up with a “free” trip that isn’t what was advertised.

A consumer may get a certificate with instructions for redeeming it. But when the person calls to book a trip, the date may not be available unless an upgrade fee is paid. There may also be fine print about the consumer being responsible for all port taxes and transfer fees, or a clause that may specify that airfare is not included.

My office also receives complaints about travel clubs that claim to provide consumers with exclusive access to special trips. Again, the trips offered may not be what you actually get. We have heard from consumers who arrived at their dream vacation spot only to have the hotel room be a flea-trap. They have to upgrade or change hotels, but can’t get in touch with the travel club to make arrangements. We have also heard complaints about a promised luxury cruise to the Bahamas turning out to be a six-hour ride on a ferry with no private cabins. In any case, the traveler is stuck in a foreign country with no access to someone at the travel club who can fix the arrangements.

When you make travel plans, you should consider working directly with the airline or cruise company or with an established, registered travel agent. Make sure to read the fine print on every contract you sign. Don’t let the high pressure sales tactics get to you. Any offer that is only good for one day is probably a scam. The con artists are pros, and they will say anything to get you to sign on the dotted line.

If you would like to file a complaint against a travel club or company, you can do so through my office. A consumer complaint form is available online through our Web site at www.oag.state.tx.us. You can also request a form by calling (800) 621-0508.