Senior Travel: Don't fall for the new year's travel lies

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"Special discount -- 50 percent off the regular price!" You see that sort of claim everywhere these days. And all too often it's a lie. Sure, the discounted price is true, but that part of 50 percent off is pure fantasy. This is one of several sorts of lies you'll encounter this year -- lies that, if you aren't aware, can lead you to a bad choice. Although the perpetrators aren't outright crooks looking to steal your money, they're still scamming you. Here are two of the most prevalent examples.

The Fake "Regular" Price Scam. I routinely check out the deals offered through those "flash sale" and "members only private sale" online sites, and I often find some good deals. But I also often find false claims: The posted deals typically show a "regular" price and percent-off figure that is a huge discount. Before I write about such deals, however, I check the real current prices through one of the giant online travel agencies (OTAs) such as Expedia or Hotels.com. And what I find is that most of those "regular" prices are wildly inflated. Even the better sites frequently overstate the regular prices, but many of their deals are good even when compared with the real prices.

Unfortunately, however, some of the supposed "exclusive, members only discount" prices I find are actually higher than the prices available to anyone through one of the giant OTAs. And that's when a lie can actually hurt you: Luring you into paying more than you should is a scam. Unfortunately, this isn't an isolated scam: I run into it every time I check out a few private sale agencies. And I'm pretty sure the folks who run these operations are aware that they're lying. I find this scam most often with hotel and resort promotions. And it isn't going away any time soon.

The Fake "Optional" Fee Scam. This one is a favorite of some airlines. As you undoubtedly know, airlines have been very creative in carving out services that were once included as part of the ticket and converting them into "optional extras." To be sure, some services are, in fact, optional: You can travel without checking baggage, you can fly without having a meal, and you can buy refundable tickets if your plans are likely to change.

But some airlines add fees for "optional extras" that are really not optional. The worst offenders are airlines that charge you extra to buy tickets through their online sites. Those lines -- Allegiant and Spirit are the main current culprits -- say you can avoid those fees by buying tickets at their airport counters. But they know that schlepping out to an airport, parking, and standing in line at a counter would cost you far more in time and money than the fee they charge, so you pay the fee. To me, that's not really "optional."

The catch here is that those lines' featured airfares appear to be lower than they really are. And that means you might make the wrong airline choice when you arrange a trip. And that, in turn, means those fees are a scam.

Going forward into the new year, look for more and more travel suppliers -- especially airlines, but not exclusively airlines -- to start adding fees for online purchase or fees for paying with a credit or debit card. Again, they'll claim they give you no-fee options, but those supposed options will all be more cumbersome and expensive than buying online with a credit card.

Protecting Yourself. The U.S. Department of Transportation and comparable overseas agencies in Europe require airlines to be honest in their fare advertising, with the exception of the Allegiant/Spirit scam. But no government agency provides similar protections in any other segment of the travel industry.

That means you have to protect yourself, and that means "Trust but verify." Apply that Cold War mantra about WMDs to buying travel. Never accept a claim of "discount" or "special price" without checking through some third-party source. And never make a fare comparison without including any fake optional fees.

Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through www.mybusinesstravel.com or www.amazon.com
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