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Checking It Out: Knowing If A Travel Operator is Legit

It happens all the time: you see a great deal, a terrific deal, an impossible deal. But it's from Joe Schmo Travel, which you've never heard of. How can you figure out whether Joe is a pro, or whether he's just a schmo -- and you're getting ripped off?


It happens all the time: you see a great fare, a terrific fare, an impossible fare. But that fare is from Joe Schmo Travel, which you've never heard of. How can you figure out whether Joe has a great deal, or whether he's just a schmo -- and you're getting ripped off?

There's plenty you can do to check out a travel operator. It'll take some work on your end, but will be worth it for your peace of mind.

1. Get all the info. An online travel agent should be unafraid to give you his or her full name, business address and business telephone number. You'll need a physical address to check out the legitimacy of an agency.

2. Use a credit card. We can't emphasize this enough. From the FTC to the BBB, every expert we've spoken to said that you must use a credit card to make travel purchases, so you can cancel the charge if things go wrong. If you have several credit cards, check out the fraud and chargeback policies on each one and pick the strongest. (American Express is usually terrific.) If a travel operator doesn't accept credit cards, he's not always a scamster -- but put him through the wringer before writing a check. See if he'll put your check in escrow (a protected bank account) until your travel is completed. Never pay for travel in cash or with a money order.

3. Don't be pressured. Yes, great airfare deals do disappear quickly, and reputable companies like Hotwire have time-limited deals. But don't be pressured into buying something before you fully understand the terms. Don't give out your credit card number to telemarketers saying they have a terrific deal if you buy right now.

4. Get everything in writing. Receipts, confirmation slips, contracts, cancellation and refund policies: surround yourself with a wall of paper to protect yourself from fraud. You should be able to get the total price, cancellation and change penalties before you pay. Scrutinize the fine print for extra fees. Understand that vague promises like putting you in a "major hotel" are meaningless. If possible, get exact names of cruise ships, hotels and airlines. Reputable opaque fare services such as Priceline and Hotwire will let you see the list of airlines they use. Make sure you're comfortable with the possibility of being on any airline on their list.

5. Use your private eyes. If a travel agent is making plane reservations, call the airline to make sure you actually have reservations. If a package tour includes a hotel, get the hotel's address and phone number and call them to make sure they have an arrangement with the tour operator. If it includes an airline, call the airline. If a charter airline is involved, call the Department of Transportation's Office of Consumer Affairs at or to make sure the airline's charter license is in order.

6. Be a busy BBB bee. Go to the Better Business Bureau's Web site at and check out the company's complaint status. How a business resolves complaints is just as important as the number of complaints they've gotten.

7. See if they belong. Trade associations monitor the behavior of their members and can provide someone to turn to if things go sour. For travel agents, see if they're a member of ASTA, the American Society of Travel Agents or IATAN, the International Airlines Travel Agent Network. Check ASTA's membership list online at; IATAN can be found at

Tour operators who are members of USTOA (The US Tour Operators Association) each have a million-dollar letter of credit to help pay back travelers if they go out of business. Check their membership list online at The National Tour Association ( is ending their similar consumer-protection program this year, but their members are also generally legit.

For cruisers, see if the seller belongs to Cruise Lines International Assocation (CLIA;

Don't believe a travel agent if he says he's a member of one of these organizations -- check with the organization instead.

8. Ask around. In the case of Airhitch versus Air-Hitch -- two companies with confusingly similar names -- a question on our message boards led to a long string of responses and to a column in our newsletter. Asking the Frommer's community may get you your answer (just click the "Travel Talk" tab at the top of this page to go there). You can also check out consumer opinion sites like

9. Be skeptical. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Timeshare opportunities, "sweepstakes," "free" trips and such all usually have hidden fees. For more details, see the Better Business Bureau's list of tips at

What makes you trust a company? How do you check them out before you buy? Go to our Message Boards to tell us about it.