Let’s hear it for the travel fakers

Let’s talk about travelers who feign injury, illness and even death in order to get preferential treatment.

Let’s talk about the fakers.

When travel companies, and particularly airlines, announce restrictive new policies almost daily, it’s no wonder the frequent liars are everywhere. As the busy spring break travel season begins to heat up, maybe it’s time to start asking hard questions about these charlatans.

They’re passengers such as the one Lori Moore, a college professor from Louisville, saw on a recent South American cruise. The woman ambled effortlessly through the buffet line and all over the ship while they were at sea.

“But whenever we had shore excursions or ports that required a tender, she was suddenly in a wheelchair to get priority boarding and sit in the handicapped seats in the front of the tour bus,” she remembers.

Travel is home to at least two types of fakers. First, there are the passengers who misrepresent their personal circumstances  to persuade someone to waive a fee or grant an upgrade. Lilliana Torrey, a legal secretary from Chicago, admits she once told an airline her uncle had died, so it would waive a change fee. He had passed away — 12 years before.

“Forgive me,” she says.

Travelers who feign a physical hardship or handicap comprise the second group. They include passengers who dress their dogs up as service animals to carry them on the plane. At this time of year, you see fakers in action on flights to warm-weather destinations such as Miami. They’re priority-boarded in wheelchairs. Then, miraculously, they walk off the plane unassisted. These are called “hallelujah flights.”

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Faking it is wrong, no two ways about it. But it’s wildly popular. A recent survey by Jetsetter.com found that 39% of hotel guests told lies to get a room upgrade.

Why do travelers do it? Is it simply because they want something they’re not entitled to — or because they feel it’s justified?

The travel industry would prefer that you not ask such questions. As far as it’s concerned, faking is lying, and lying is always wrong. But consider some of the more onerous change policies that have recently emerged:

• Airlines used to change tickets at no charge. Today, it costs $200 to change a domestic ticket, and that doesn’t include any fare differential. Some tickets can’t be changed at all.

• Not so long ago, hotels would cancel your reservation as a courtesy. Now, many prepaid rates are completely non-refundable. If you’re lucky, you’ll be charged one night’s lodging when you have to cancel at the last minute.

• Cruise lines have taken a hard line on changes, too. If you have to cancel your vacation and you’re not insured, you’re out of luck, unless you can show a death certificate.

Don’t even get me started on comfort and convenience. Many fliers squeezed into middle seats spend the whole flight pondering what they can do to avoid it next time. Some of those hallelujah passengers being wheeled onto the plane are probably scheming for space for their luggage in the overhead bin.

Michael Brein, a Seattle-based psychologist who specializes in travel industry issues, says travel is a breeding ground for fakers because faking it is easy. You’re away from home in a new environment, and people are inclined to believe you.

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“It is sometimes exhilarating to get away with things,” he says.

But someone pays for the fakery. When you request a hotel room or cruise ship cabin for people with disabilities because it has more space, or you take up a wheelchair just so you can board early, you aren’t just gaming the system — you’re also taking a service from someone who might really need it.

“The idea that someone would fake an illness or disability, presumably to gain an advantage, would be laughable if it were not so objectionable,” says Brett Heising, a writer who publishes a review website for travelers with disabilities.

It would be easy to channel all of our collective rage at the fakers, which is exactly what the travel industry wants us to do. But think about it. Who created these super-restrictive policies, the uncomfortable seats, the bag fees that led everyone to compete for the overhead bins?

If you believe passengers are to blame — indeed, that they asked for it by booking a low price — then by all means, condemn these fibbers. If you believe the travel companies created these policies to squeeze more profit out of us, you may find the blame is not so clear-cut.

Faking is wrong, do this instead

• Don’t book with a bad company. Read the cancellation policies before you make a reservation. If they’re too restrictive, then don’t book a ticket or room. Avoid prepaid car rental or hotel rates, if you think you’ll need to be flexible.

• Be loyal. If someone recognizes you as a frequent customer — either because of your card, or even better, because they know your face — then you’re far more likely to get a restrictive policy waived without feigning the sniffles.

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• Be honest. A polite request to waive a rule is often as effective as inventing an ailment or an extenuating personal circumstance. Remember, it’s the hospitality industry — generally, employees want to please you.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • Altosk

    Don’t forget the “emotional support snake” I had to sit next to…

  • Rebecca

    I worked at a grocery store for years. And there was this one customer that martyred herself for her son, who was actually disabled and in a wheelchair. When I say martyred herself, I mean she would cut in front of people EVERY time she was in the store (and I’m sure every other store too). She knew no one would say anything, because her son was in a wheelchair. She would go on and on and on about how terrible everything ever was for her. I’m not even able to exaggerate it was so bad. I’m not saying I didn’t feel bad for her son, I did. But I’m also sure he was embarassed by the martyring.

    So one time, she was complaining about the lack of handicap spaces in the parking lot. It had become a personal crusade for this woman. For a period of about 2 years, she just would not stop complaining about the number of handicapped spaces. There were always enough to comply with federal law. They went ahead and added 2 more spaces. Still wasn’t enough.

    So one day, she was on her rant about how there weren’t enough handicapped spaces at the front of the store. And a man just happened to run to his car, which was in a handicapped space and visible from the front of the store. He was also a regular customer, along with his wife. And she laid into him for, God forbid, walking to a handicapped space when her son was in a wheelchair and she had to park in a farther space. So none of us said anything, because we knew what would eventually happen. And when she was stopping for breath while berating this poor man, his wife (who had no legs), wheels around a corner and up to her husband to see why it took him so long to grab whatever it was from the car. And he looked right at her and said, I parked there because my wife doesn’t have legs. And walked/wheeled away. Very seldom do you get to see someone get their comeuppance like that. I would pay to see it again.

  • pmcw

    Nicely stated Christopher. When there are a lot of liars it is a signal that a company or industry is being abusive, and the company or industry should reconsider the policies that lead so many to lie. Companies that take a lead in releasing what is “resentful bondage” are usually rewarded (aka Southwest). However, that does not excuse lying. Your advice is perfect and it is how I conduct my affairs. I can say from experience, it is also very effective.

  • Melissa Ballard Jones

    Years ago I told a client that one of these days Delta was going to call him on the carpet…So Mr Davis, I see this is the 12th time this year your grandfather has died.

  • Kate Carey

    I hate this. I hate articles like this because it encourages people to discriminate against people with invisible disabilities. I hate the people who actually do fake the need for accommodation because it makes it harder for people who need it to get because people assume they are faking and because they take the space away from people who do need it. For example, I use a mobility scooter. Yep i can walk. I have about 400 feet of walking ability before my lung disease robs me of enough air to do anything more than gasp and pray I don’t pass out. Am I faking the need for my scooter? Well its true I can walk from the parking lot to the store entrance, where I will become dizzy, possible fall down and maybe become unconscious. Bet you will be inconvenienced by the store personnel having to do emergency triage and the ambulance blocking the entrance. My friend has rheumatoid arthritis, every step he takes his joints grind together and he is in pain…..he also looks perfect, tall, sexy with a lanky runners build. Is his need any less important becasue he looks normal? Fakers suck but assuming someone is faking also sucks.

  • technomage1

    I hate people who fake/lie about illnesses, etc. However, I will say not all illnesses are visibly apparent. Perhaps the lady on the cruise was fine for short distance walking (buffet line) but not for longer distances. Who knows? That’s on her, not us if she was faking.

  • The last time I encountered one of those on a flight, he wouldn’t stop talking about his Harvard Law degree.

    Anyway, the increasingly adversarial relationship between travel companies and their clientele cause increasing numbers of ordinary people to rationalize tricky behavior.

  • flutiefan

    nobody “created” the fakers except the fakers themselves. to ascribe fault to anyone but the liars is disingenuous.

  • flutiefan

    just desserts are delicious!

  • Altosk

    Cute. But this was a real snake. And should’ve never been allowed on the flight…

  • flutiefan

    not sure anything in this article is about assuming people are fakers.
    there are certain, identifiable, notated liars.
    i too have a hidden disability (you can see it after i walk/stand for about 5 mins so I get the “able to walk into a store but need a scooters to shop” thing). i also work in the travel industry where i see obviously faked “emotional support animal” letters (not service animal, as there is no national registry nor certification in existence), i see people who claim they can’t walk down a gangway or jet bridge then go running. and i personally know people who have admitted to lying and faking.

    that’s who this article is about.

  • stephen_nyc

    Just like how many times Klinger’s mom died or his sister was pregnant. Or his sister died and his mom was pregnant.

  • Tom McShane

    what kind of snake was it?

  • Mel LeCompte Jr.

    I am a teacher who used to be in charge of ‘504’ (disabled) students — vetting the cases, being sure proper accommodations were being administered, etc. Everything was confidential. The only ones that needed to know were the teachers, principal, and others that interacted with the student regularly.

    Why is it not the same in the adult world? Let the disabled party be vetted by their healthcare worker, and carry a card. The card would list the reasonable accommodations necessary for that person to travel, etc. This card would need to be produced to a worker or manager — those that need to be sure the disabled person would receive the proper service — while keeping everything on a ‘need to know’ basis.

    Proper vetting while respecting privacy has to become law.

  • Ben

    Also, theme park queue jumpers!

  • Altosk

    Python. At least that’s what the nutjob carrying it said. I don’t know snakes and I don’t wanna know snakes.

  • Altosk

    Yup. There’s a famous article online about a woman who tested the limits of ESAs. It’s worth a read.

  • Tom McShane

    Well, it could have been worse, I suppose. At least pythons aren’t venomous. If a traveler decided that the only thing that would soothe his nerves is a comfort cobra, that wouldn’t have been too good a deal.

  • Altosk

    Fortunately Di$ney closed the loophole people were exploiting. Now, they can get their disability pass, but it isn’t a free for all automatic fastpass.

  • flutiefan

    please note: Emotional Support Animals are NOT classified as nor called Service Animals.

  • Kate Carey

    I understood that…That is why I said I was both frustrated by the fakers AND the article. Oh and then I tried (apparently unsuccessfully) to explain that the two together make the situation worse.

  • 42NYC

    I feel like these ‘fakers’ are a good part of the reason why companies have such restrictive policies. I’m not trying to claim there are more fakers than legitimate issues but I think anyone who has ever worked in customer service is tired of customers who lie, cheat and bend the rules to their advantage. My guess is lying/faking/cheating customers view their actions as a small drop in the bucket of a much larger company but a huge benefit to them as an individual.

    In high school I delivered pizza/Italian food for a local chain. I had the authority to give gift cards of $5, $10 or $20 in the event of a messed up order or a late delivery and it only took a few months to figure out who was gaming the system. Amazing how the same few houses ALWAYS had a problem with their order (missing toppings on a pizza, dressing wasnt on the side of a salad, etc….). We learned who they were and would go the extra mile to re-confirm their order on the phone, but amazingly enough we always ‘made a mistake.’ They’d even have the nerve to complain about a $10 gift card and say “last time they gave us $20.” When I finally changed my tone and stopped offering the gift cards (twice in a row, i apologized, took the food back and promised them a full refund and a brand new order to be delivered in 45-60 minutes) they stopped ordering from us.

    Eventually more and more people abused this and we stopped offering gift cards. It was unfortunate because I thought this was a great customer service gesture and sometimes we legitimately would make a mistake. But when it got to the point that half of all deliveries had something wrong we knew enough people were taking advantage.

  • jmiller45

    those people using wheelchairs to get on certain flights & have miraculously walked off the plane at their destination are also known to have been cured by “Jetway Jesus.” I saw that on another site

  • James L. Morrison

    This is a great idea!

  • Carchar

    I must admit that I was a travel faker just a couple of weeks ago, but opposite of what is spoken about here….not necessarily less bad. I faked I was well. While waiting to board my trans-continental flight, I suddenly had the strangest feeling in my legs and I felt the need to sit down. However, boarding started and, because I had purchased business class and was sitting in a bulkhead seat, I got on the plane fairly quickly. Then my head started to cloud and I wondered whether this is what being about to pass out felt like. I made a beeline for the bathroom mulling about heart attack symptoms without chest pain. The bathroom trip did give a little immediate relief (and, yes, I brought sanitary wipes in with me. The FAs did not have to clean up after me.) The constant lower intestinal pain set in after that and was glad I had the bulkhead, albeit window. There was enough room to get by the person seated in the aisle without causing him to get up each time I used the facilities. He probably thought I had a weak bladder. I’m hoping it was something that I had eaten and not something contagious. Curiously, I was not actually nauseous. I limited myself to only ingesting water the whole flight.

    In any case, I faked being well, because not flying that day would have cost a pretty penny. And I know it was not an ethical thing to do.

  • Cat

    When I was in the military a serviceman’s death required a Death Certificate and or a note from the Red Cross to get a break for families to get to those that are dying or have already passed. If we can come up with those documents in our circumstances surely anyone should be able to. The airlines should require them before issuing reduced fares. Physical limitation? Get a CERTIFIED note from your Doctor stating your needs. Maybe the ADA could issue cards for folks are permanently disabled.

    Hey Chris- the cheaters will cheat regardless of circumstances, providing them with even the thinnest of excuses is too much.

  • Éamon deValera

    Service animals perform a task, seizure alert dogs, seeing eye dogs, hearing ear dogs, helper monkeys all perform functions. They are covered by the ADA.

    Therapy animals perform no tasks. They may indeed make the owner feel less anxious or provide some other comfort, but they are not included in the ADA definition of service animal.

    That said people who lie are simply liars. I eschew them.


    I was recently at the airport waiting in the gate area for a domestic flight. A woman was brought to the gate in a wheelchair and was told the gate agents would see that she got on the plane. She sat for five minutes and then got up and went off shopping. She came back with 4 large shopping bags and sat back down in the wheelchair. A gate agent observed all of this and simply refused to let her board the plane early AND made her check her carry on as she now had too many things to bring on the plane. Once on the flight she complained to all of us about how poorly she was treated. And admitted she did not need the wheelchair, she just used it to get through security faster and get on the plane first. She said it also got her bulkhead seats without paying any extra because of her ‘handicap’. I was simply speechless.

  • Charles Owen

    I second your comments about this article. Yes, there are fakers out there and, like anyone, I really don’t like that they game the system this way. But, this article seems to assume you can tell someone is faking and practically encourages people to pick them out. Look, that guy used a wheelchair to get on, but not to get off the plane. What a jerk! Ever think that person may very well have been willing to endure pain getting off the plane rather than potentially inconvenience other passengers by using the wheelchair to disembark? Or they needed to make a connection and knew they could only do so if they got off right away, not matter how much it hurt? Or they are just plain embarrassed. Lots of people do all they can to hide their disabilities, so they shun the wheelchair or scooter when they should be using it. I practically had to force my wife into scooters when she hurt her knee, even though she would pay dearly both then and later for walking through that store. I’m sure some judgmental person sneered at her for getting up from the scooter and walking to the car in the handicapped spot I also had to beg her to use. Look, there’s nothing wrong with her! Faker! I’ll bet she’s even faking the limp!

  • LostInMidwest

    I don’t know … I’ll possibly sound callous, but here it is. If you need a snake (or a rabbit, or a cat, or a dog or a pig … you name it) in order to board a plane, you shouldn’t be flying nor should you be allowed to board.

    There are high-speed trains that will get you to your destination at 100 mph average speed, there are beautiful Interstates with long stretches of unrestricted speed that will let you go to your destination at 100 mph average. Why do you think you need to fly?

    See Chris, this game can be played in many ways – I, for example, point a finger at our Government that is criminally unwilling to do its actual Constitution-sanctioned job and provide traveling infrastructure that a First World country not only deserve, but actually NEED.

    That said, fakers should be punished the same way shoplifting and stealing is punished. Just because you are a customer, you are far from being right all the time and companies should stop being allergic to confront them.

    My personal scale-topping barbaric and uncivilized behavior you can see every single day in every single supermarket : people with carts so full that they hold stuff with one hand promptly lining for express checkout because line is shorter. I actually try to stop patronizing those businesses that say nothing to that behavior, letting the management know it’s either me or them. Seemingly, they prefer barbaric and uncivilized shoppers more than myself since none has done anything yet to stop it.

  • Susan A. Slicker-Nemeth

    I need a wheelchair to get from check-in to the airplane and when we land to get to luggage claim and transport. I can walk for short periods of time and often do, to use a restroom near our gate or to just get up and walk a bit. Both my knees have advanced arthritis, I have had a spine surgery and I don’t “look” disabled. Not all wheelchair users who do some walking are fakers. My doctor tells me to walk some, but not a lot and not carrying heavy luggage.

    While it may “appear” that I am quite able to walk very slowly to the restroom or to buy a beverage near the gate, I am only walking the smallest distance without anything, even a purse, and right back to the chair My body gets very stiff from not moving while in the chair. I also cannot stand for longer than 10-15 minutes at best in one place. That makes for a whole lot of pain, w rose than walking a short distance.

    Furthermore, some days are better than others. Some days I feel pretty good, not much pain, other days it hurts to even get out of the chair and often then I will just stay in the chair and wheel myself to the restroom or have hubby go get me a beverage.

    It is almost impossible to tell who is or is not disabled. I have seen the “Hallelujah passengers” and it angers me. I have also seen those who are worse off than I am. There is a whole spectrum of disability.

    Unless one knows for sure, one should never assume a person is a faker if they do get up and walk some. I walk very slowly and carefully as to not try and make more pain in my knees and back, but if you saw me sitting in a wheelchair, then get up and walk very gingerly to a restroom, you might think I was a faker, which I am most definitely not.

    There are times when my feet swell up so badly, I cannot even get out if the chair and that REALLY sucks. The pain is nearly unbearable even with my meds, and I am very frustrated not being able to do things for myself. I am very independent, and my disability is teaching me about patience and sometimes having to rely on others for assistance.

    I would gladly change places with anyone who is ablebodied and who thinks I am a faker. They could see for themselves how difficult traveling CAN be and how you have to adjust to a whole new set of rules to living, not to mention that while in a wheelchair, if you are in a line waiting, you are at a level where you are staring at everyone’s butt and dealing with any emissions that invariably happen! It sucks being disabled!

  • judyserienagy

    I have to admit that so many parts of travel today are so stressful that I understand why people “fake it”. I don’t like it, but I understand it. This faker syndrome can probably only be fought with public shaming. But someone who would waltz all over a cruiseship, then request a wheelchair for the shore excursions probably wouldn’t be shamed. I doubt that she cares what anybody thinks of her, since she’s completely self-absorbed.

  • pauletteb

    Thank you for using “venomous” and NOT “poisonous” in this context!

  • Tom McShane

    You are welcome. When I go out into the woods, I always try to avoid venomous ivy.

  • LonnieC

    Cruel. Very cruel….?

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