Something about this deal just doesn’t smell fresh

When Barbara Smidt bought a Cyber Monday travel deal on FreshTrips for a five-star all-inclusive resort in Cancun, she thought she was getting a bargain.

She got more than she bargained for. And worse, she didn’t know she was in trouble until it was too late. Smidt contacted us on Feb. 7, two days before her trip was supposed to begin.
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But first, let’s rewind the tape to see what happened in November. Smidt saw the FreshTrips promotion posted as a Cyber Monday deal through Travelzoo, one of America’s largest travel websites. She booked the trip, which included a 10-day all-inclusive stay at The Royal Sands resort in Cancun, plus airport transfers, and received a confirmation email from the company.

But it wasn’t a traditional confirmation email. Instead, it displayed the amount paid, the dates, and the number of guests. What it did not display was a confirmation number from the resort. And curiously, the email said that she wouldn’t receive a confirmation until 30 days prior to her departure date.

Hmmm.

You probably won’t be surprised to know Smidt’s credit card was charged immediately for the full amount of the package. She booked and paid for airline tickets separately, directly with the airline, so she had committed to specific travel dates.

And she didn’t know anything was amiss — until Jan. 9, 30 days before her departure date, when the promised resort confirmation number never arrived.

What she did next is the natural response to any travel booking problem: she contacted the seller, FreshTrips. Tirelessly, in fact. And because Fresh Trips says it is a “travel technology” company, and not a travel agency, they aren’t staffed with phone representatives, and only take phone calls for a fee.

You know, in addition to the thousands of dollars customers have already paid.

The FreshTrips website smacks of a scam on a few levels. First, it says right in bold print: “OUR COMPANY IS VERY REAL and there’s no scam here!” Something about the all-caps vow of honesty written in purple font set on a backdrop of 1995 web design makes me feel like I’m visiting the blog of a 13-year-old girl — but rest assured, this business says it’s legit. Additionally, it name-drops Travelzoo all over the place, calling the travel giant its “partner” supporting their “mutual clients.”

Well, Smidt’s incessant emails to FreshTrips were met with vague reassurances of “just wait longer,” which understandably made her more nervous. She of course contacted the Royal Sands itself, which had no record of her planned stay. A TripAdvisor thread warning of the ongoing scam claim that customers who received confirmations were provided a physical resort address corresponding to a McDonald’s in Cancun’s Hotel Zone.

When Smidt contacted Travelzoo, surprisingly, she received emails written by its CEO Michael Stitt, who seemed to be in damage control mode. The emails addressed the debacle in vague terms, attempting to assure customers it would do everything it could to see that they were accommodated through another travel partner, Apple Vacations. Travelzoo was nevertheless trying to distance itself from the mess of a situation, which remains shrouded in mystery.

FreshTrips has issued an explanation — and a formal apology — not to its customers, but to Royal Resorts:

Our team at FreshTrips wants to issue a formal apology to Royal Resorts and their wonderful staff. A mistake was made between FreshTrips and a wholesaler we worked with on the Travelzoo promotion we offered on Cyber Monday.

We oversold the allotment of inventory we had surrounding the holidays, which was our fault and we take responsibility. We recognize that Royal Resorts is not at fault because we did not properly communicate this promotion, and we’re sincerely sorry.

We contacted Travelzoo, and in direct response to my inquiry, its CEO Michael Stitt explained:

We are upset about how FreshTrips has handled its promotion. We were in constant contact with the owners of FreshTrips in an attempt to help them fulfill their obligations in offering this deal.

Despite our best efforts, we determined that FreshTrips cannot, or will not, honor all of the bookings they have taken, so we switched our focus to securing a reliable, high-quality alternative.

On February 10, we notified all customers with upcoming travel of an alternative option that Travelzoo secured with Apple Vacations specifically for those impacted by the FreshTrips situation. The alternative offer is at the same price as the offer customers booked with FreshTrips.

Well, that’s nice.

As a courtesy, Travelzoo will sell you a package at the same price as the one you’ve already paid for. And seeing as how Smidt’s trip was supposed to start on Feb. 9, an offer of help on Feb. 10 is what we’d call “too little, too late.”

Smidt reports that Travelzoo’s customer service supervisor contacted her at our urging, but Smidt had already arrived in Cancun and paid out of pocket for accommodations at the Royal Sands. Travelzoo told us it could not help Smidt, because she already booked other accommodations.

I contacted the Royal Resorts, the company that owns several luxury timeshare properties in Cancun, including the Royal Sands. I know they’re a legitimate company — in fact, my family has been vacationing with them since 1988.

About a week after sending an email to Royal Resorts’ member services office, I received a phone call from the company. Royal Resorts told me that the responsibility for the booking problem rests entirely with FreshTrips, who is “taking care” of its customers. When pushed to define what exactly that treatment entails, Royal Resorts says customers will either receive the accommodations, or obtain refunds, exclusively through FreshTrips.

Royal Resorts denied any knowledge of a scam.

What nobody has explained is how none of the three companies was able to help Smidt prior to her departure for Mexico? Surely, they weren’t waiting for us to get involved?

Today, Smidt is on vacation, but paying more than she bargained for. And because I’m an optimist, I imagine she is currently sipping a margarita poolside or enjoying a massage at the Royal Sands’ world-class spa. Or maybe doing both at the same time.

Smidt told me she’d reach back out to Fresh Trips upon her return to the States, in an effort to pursue a full refund. As a last resort, she will file a dispute with her credit card company for the transaction gone bad.

All of the trouble, anxiety and time wasted on Smidt’s case should be a lesson to us all. When the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. But it is hard to know the difference between a credible seller and a scam artist, especially when the company is promoted by a known brand like Travelzoo.

We hope in the end that Travelzoo and FreshTrips come through for Smidt. Sometimes it’s better to leave those crazy deals to the next guy, and instead, go with a seller you know.

About the Author
A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.
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