5 summer travel scams no one warned you about — but should have

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By Christopher Elliott

Watch your wallet while you’re on vacation. You’ve heard that advice before, haven’t you? With the summer travel season in full swing, you’re likely to hear it again, from friends, family and the occasional consumer journalist.

But the real danger isn’t from an overt scam like the “fake” front desk call at the hotel in the middle of the night or the spoofed Wi-Fi hotspot. It isn’t even the predatory timeshare salesmen that take money from you in increments of thousands of dollars.

I mean, let’s be honest: with a little common sense, you can avoid most of these swindles. Also, it’s unfair and a little misleading to say they’re “summer” scams because the bad guys prey on you 365 days a year. The real hazards are where you least expect them, and they affect you in less obvious ways.

Here are my top 5:

Practicing unsafe plastic

Truly effective scams depend on siphoning money away in tiny amounts — $2 or $3 at a time — from a compromised credit card number. When you’re on the road, villains can scan, swipe, and clone your unsecured, non-chip-and-pin American credit card. Don’t expect to see thousand-dollar charges from Zambia (although that does happen from time to time). Instead, the scammers count on you not checking your card balance, and missing that dollar charge for a merchant you’ve never heard of.

The fix: Ask your bank for a safer chip-and-pin card and review your credit card statement at least once a month.

Death by a thousand fees

The travel industry, and particularly airlines, haven’t met a fee they didn’t love. Like the credit card scam, these “gotchas” don’t take you for hundreds of bucks at a time, although that does happen. Instead, it’s a few dollars here, a few dollars there. A $2 delivery fee at your hotel for a newspaper you never requested, a $5 candy bar from a minibar, a $20 fee to check your luggage; alone, these fees are chicken scratch, but put them all together and you’re spending more, maybe a lot more, for your vacation. (Related: Is this a scam? Travel To Go leaves one couple disappointed.)

The fix: Always, always, always ask if the price you’re paying includes everything. A travel company won’t always volunteer that information. If you know, you can make a more informed purchasing decision.

“Conveniences” that aren’t there for you

It’s come to this: When you see the phrase “for your convenience” anywhere when you travel, it’s probably a scam. Consider dynamic currency exchanges on credit cards, which credit as a convenience and often fraudulently implement on your bill when you travel overseas. I covered this currency fiasco, which can happen on a Visa or Master Card bill, in a previous post.

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The solution: Approach anything advertised as a “convenience” with caution. It’s probably anything but that. And don’t forget to check your credit card statement to make sure a business didn’t sneak the charge on your card, anyway. (Here’s how to win a credit card dispute.)

Bad advice you shouldn’t take

Whether it’s that rack of brochures at the welcome center (ask yourself: who pays for those?) or the recommendations of a hotel concierge (follow the money, people) or the enthusiastic writings of a blogger hawking a destination or a travel company (again, mind those affiliate links), there’s no shortage of advice online. Is it any good? I dedicate the entire first chapter of my new book, How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle) to answering that question. Bottom line: In small and seemingly benign ways, the advice you get from user-generated travel reviews and so-called “experts” can be tainted. But add it all up, and it could make you spend more on vacation and get less. (Related: Is “opt-out” always wrong? The Wall Street Journal doesn’t think so.)

The fix: When it comes to travel advice, trust your friends and double-check the others. They may have ulterior motives for pitching something.

A fake invitation to return

It’s easy to get sentimental on your summer vacation, isn’t it? You had such a great time, why not come back next year? That’s when they’ll getcha. You might get hit up to buy another cruise at the end of your vacation at sea, or a timeshare while you’re having a theme park vacation in Orlando, or to sign up for a scammy travel “club” that’ll let you return to the islands. They’re often couched in emotional language, suggesting that if you really never want the good times to end, it can happen — for the right price. (Related: Is this a scam? A vacation package never received.)

The fix: Never buy another vacation or travel-related product while you’re on vacation. It is almost always a scam, or close to it.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the real rip-offs aren’t in the places where everyone shines a light, but in places where no one looks, and no one expects them. The travel scams that will probably affect you are small, maybe not noticeable at all, but they can add up quickly and ruin your vacation. Learn how to say “no” and you’ll avoid the most common missteps.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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