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That Tempting Travel Deal Could Be a Rip-Off. Tips for Spotting a Real Bargain | Frommer's Shutterstock

That Tempting Travel Deal Could Be a Rip-Off. Tips for Spotting a Real Bargain

Promoted travel deals are often just marketing—and sometimes scams. Here's how to find the actual values.

"There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens," according to the Book of Ecclesiastes. But is there really a good discount shopping season? Especially when it comes to finding travel bargains?

Sure, you'll see a lot of deals promoted around Black Friday and the week after Christmas and during the quiet periods of January, February, and early March.

But how often is a supposed deal an actual deal worth spending your hard-earned money on? And do these "doorbusters" sometimes constitute out-and-out fraud?

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Here's a bargain-hunting field guide of what to watch out for to determine whether you've spotted a genuine discount or a cleverly camouflaged imposter. 

Pointless Percentages 

First and foremost, beware of discounts based on percentages. And that's not just my lifelong math phobia speaking.

Too often, travel deals promise a certain percentage off for products that don't have a set price, rendering the discount all but meaningless.

Take hotel rooms. The rates for those shift by the season—and sometimes by the day and even by the hour. Consequently, "published rates" often have nothing to do with what guests actually pay.

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So when you see a deal trumpeting 30% off hotel rooms, you're looking at a pointless claim because there's no helpful way to assess if you're getting any savings with the alleged discount.

The same applies to sales promoting a percentage off other ever-changing rates for cruises, rental cars, and airline tickets. 

Instead of falling for the percentage, look for deals that list actual prices and then do your homework to compare usual prices for hotels, air travel, cruises, and rental cars on the dates you'll be traveling. 

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Some helpful websites for your comparison shopping are listed below.

For airfare: 

Airfarewatchdog
• Kayak
• Google Flights
Skyscanner

For hotels: 

Trivago
Booking.com
Hotels.com

For cruises:

Cruise Critic
CruisesOnly

The compare-and-contrast method requires a little more work, but at least you'll know whether you're actually saving any money.  

Packages with Pitiful Perks

Romance packages are almost always a turnoff. They're beloved by hotels because they can charge lovebirds extra simply for a bottle of cheap sparkling wine in the room and some rose petals scattered on the bedspread.

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The cost to the hotel? Maybe $20. The amount paid by the romance-seeking couple for this ostensbile mood setter? Upwards of $50 to $100 on top of the room rate—definitely not worth the price. You might as well bring your own champagne. 

Other types of hotel packages also disappoint, whether they're family-friendly packages including snacks and dime-store beach toys or "wellness" packages that dump a yoga mat in your room. Always check what comes with the add-on to make sure it merits an additional charge. 

And it's not just hotels that try to lure buyers with these gimmicks.

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Cruise deals can also fall into this category, offering onboard amenities that don't justify an increase in price.

Sometimes the packages can be just bizarre. I recently got a press release from a major cruise line touting a Black Friday deal for a "$100 Bar Tab Bonus (when purchasing a $300 Bar Tab)." Don't tell my college roommate that she's been one-upped in the peer-pressure-to-binge-drink category.

Of course, some travel packages are real values—specifically, those that bundle together airfares and hotel rooms. This is especially true for customers traveling with one or more person. 

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Which brings us to another important consideration. 

Excluded Solo Travelers 

Usually when tour companies, cruise lines, and travel packagers announce special discounts, they are for duos, not solo travelers. So if you're planning to vacation on your own, read the fine print before biting: Paying the single supplement charged to solo travelers will almost always wipe out any savings.

Short Windows, Blackout Dates, and Other Tricks to Limit Availability

Another common come-on: promotions that have eye-opening prices and very little availability.

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I'm talking about the sorts of deals for, say, spring airfares that will fly you halfway across the country for about the price of a night on the town for two—but then you discover that the ultra-low rate is only available twice during the three-month travel period.

And the two dates are inconvenient for most travelers because you have to fly in the middle of the week or between two holiday periods or on the first odd-numbered day after a full moon as long as Mercury isn't in retrograde and you're not right-handed. 

If you have to bend over backwards to meet the deal's availability requirements, it's not a good deal.

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Flat-Out Scams

Sometimes the dispensers of so-called deals are straight-up fraudsters.

Global cybersecurity firm Trend Micro has helpful advice for spotting fraudulent offers and suspicious shopping websites on Black Friday and beyond.

Among the stuff you should watch out for on the internet, according to Trend Micro: 

• sites with strange web addresses or a lack of real-world contact addresses
• glaring typos and super-awkward langauge on web pages and in emails (legit businesses are usually careful about creating clear ad copy)

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• unreasonable requests for detailed personal information (anything beyond your name, mailing address, phone number, email, and credit card number is probably too much)
• unusual methods of payment such as wire transfers or payment apps

Bottom line: If it seems too good to be true . . . well, you know the rest.

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