The travel season is in full swing, and that means online travel deals are in abundance — but so are the scams, says money expert Clark Howard.
“Suddenly everybody decided COVID was over, and everybody’s booking to everywhere around the country and the world,” Clark says. “And these scamsters are able to con you more easily because people say, ‘Hey, look at this price versus what I saw somewhere else,’ and before you know it, you’ve gotten ripped off. It could be anywhere on that continuum from rip-off to scam.”
Searching for Travel Deals Online? Read This
A person commenting on the Better Business Bureau's Scam Tracker recently posted about a travel site that supposedly processed payment for a trip and ended up taking the money.
“This travel website will book a ticket and send a confirmation email,” the poster wrote. “Once they get your money from your credit card, they will cancel your ticket with the airlines,” the commenter wrote. ” …. You never get a refund.”
Although criminals are always adding new wrinkles, these types of scams have been happening for a while.
In 2019, a Michigan couple was trying to Google Delta Air Lines to book a flight to Japan, according to USA Today. Instead, they happened upon a site that looked like it was associated with Delta — but it wasn't. The couple almost lost $300, the paper reports.
Because of the prevalence of travel scams, Clark says:
“I need for you to be really, really cautious and careful when you do any kind of search for travel deals using any search engine.”
Although you may find cheap prices on some third-party websites — Clark even uses a few of them — he says it's up to you to make sure you're dealing with a reputable site. Sad to say, but many third-party travel sites won't offer you the consumer protections that booking directly with the hotel chain or airline would. And some of those third-party sites could be downright scams.
In this article, I'll show you where you should book your travel online, then we'll get into where you shouldn't book.
Where To Book Flights Online
As you may know, to find cheap fares, Clark typically uses a combination of travel alerts and Google Flights.
To book, Google Flights will take you to the specific airline's website or in some cases allow you to book through your Google account.
Where To Book Hotels Online
To get good deals on hotels, Clark's go-to third-party sites are Hotwire and Priceline.
"If you are willing to book non-refundable and not find out until after you book where you're staying, I get at least 80 or 90% of my bookings through Priceline and Hotwire," Clark says. "They save me a fortune. Just be sure to only bid for hotels that are four stars or higher. You're asking for it if you bid below three stars!"
There are many legitimate third-party sites out there with travel deals. The problem is that there are also a great number of scammers who are trying to take your money by means of fake travel sites or bogus deals.
Where Not To Book Your Online Travel
Obviously, Clark is not opposed to using third-party sites to book travel. The problem usually comes when you don’t know much about the site.
The travel industry is rife with scammers so it behooves you to protect yourself, Clark says.
“Be very very careful with how you get to booking for something in the world of travel,” Clark says.
1. Third-Party Sites and Apps You’ve Never Heard of
Clark says many travel deals you may run across online could take you to sites that are not necessarily scams but sketchy nonetheless.
"Let's say you go on something like TripAdvisor and you're looking for a hotel," Clark says. "And you look through the reviews. You pick out the hotel you want and then TripAdvisor will show you a whole bunch of booking sources to book that hotel, and a lot of the ones they list there are really shady.
“They’re not scammers, necessarily but man, you should read what people post,” he adds: ‘We booked at this, that or the other and when we got there, blah, blah blah, no room, nothing.’ Their money’s gone.”
2. Third-Party Sites and Apps With Bad Reputations
So you’ve found an online travel deal that sounds almost too good to be true. The only problem is that you’ve also caught wind of some bad experiences with this particular travel provider. What should you do?
Your first inclination may be to reason that, "It won't happen to me," but the reality is that it may be even worse for you than the previous customer.
That's why, if you have doubts, it's important to do some research on any third-party travel site you're considering using to book a trip.
How To Vet an Online Travel Provider
- Check the website's contact page: Look to see who you can get in contact with just in case there are issues. Look for phone numbers and a customer service email address.
- See if you can find a cancellation/refund policy: Before you buy anything, make sure you find, read and can understand what happens to your money in the event you need to cancel your travel and get a refund.
- Check the website's social media channels: To get a good feel for the company, take a look at its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts to see what they're all about (and read the comments to see what people say about them).
- Read the reviews: All you have to do is search the name of the website followed by the word "reviews." Take the time to page down to all sources.
If all those things check out but you're still wary, take a final step and look the site up on the Better Business Bureau website to see if there are complaints about how it does business.
Here's how to spot a fake website.
Clark is not against booking vacations via third-party sites and apps, but he wants you to be careful. Typically these sites and apps are fine for searching for deals, but booking direct provides more protections for consumers if something goes wrong.
Want more travel tips from Clark? Here's how to plan a trip.
More Travel Resources From Clark.com:
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