College Students: Avoid Spring Break Busts
It’s that time of the year again, time for fliers touting the spring break experience to appear across college campuses. Each spring, thousands of students travel to warm-weather destinations such as Florida, Mexico, Jamaica, and the Bahamas to soak up the sun and spend a fun-filled week partying. Many legitimate travel companies like Sun Splash Tours, which has been in business for over 15 years, begin their spring break marketing as early as October and November. In fact, many companies offer early booking bonuses to encourage students to book their trips before Thanksgiving. This fall, Sun Splash Tours, for example, will give students a free meal plan if they book by November 5. Unfortunately, not all spring break-targeted travel companies are as reputable. Students who are planning a spring break trip should be careful of getting burned by fly-by-night companies hawking first-class scams.
Good vs. Bad Travel Companies
Unfortunately, many students put up money hoping to get their dream spring break, but end up with no trip and no refund. According to industry insiders, the problem is that many illegitimate companies often mimic marketing tactics used by the legitimate tour companies.
“Many fliers used by illegitimate companies look like ours, they even have the same colors and format,” says Sven Lapiner, Director of Sales for Sun Splash Tours. He points to some illegitimate companies that are fraudulent and don’t follow established travel industry guidelines. Lapiner says, “In terms of scams, students need to know where they send in money.” He adds, “We have been in business for fifteen years, with the same address and phone number. There are illegitimate companies that have been shut down only to start back up with a different name, but using the same address and phone number.”
Students need to understand ‘Travel 101,’ so to speak. They should avoid high-pressure sales pitches for spring break packages. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Lapiner notes, “Students tend to go by price. Price is the ruler even though students have become more savvy about illegitimate companies cropping up. Finding information about a company is crucial to avoid being ripped off. We encourage students to research our company. We give them phone numbers of hotels, tourist bureaus, and airline contacts.”
As another marketing tool besides fliers, spring break tour operators often recruit students to become campus representatives. Although student representatives are not allowed to sell the tours, they can promote them. In exchange, students receive compensation for referred bookings or free trips. The tour companies provide the representatives with flyers, promotional videos, and even CD-ROMs that outline the type of spring break experience students can have by touring with them.
Just as it is important for students to do their homework before paying money to any travel company, the same goes for working for one. While this marketing tactic is used by legitimate companies like Sun Splash Tours, it is also by the fraudulent ones. Many students working for these companies don’t realize that they are illegitimate. Sadly, fellow students often promote scams to their peers. What’s worse, these students could be held liable for participating in the swindle.
Lucy Hirleman, Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) and President of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, New Jersey says, “Students really need to use a lot of common sense when booking and going on spring break trips.” She adds, “Before signing a contract, do some homework and take a good look at the package.” She recommends the following:
- Check out the travel company. Ask the operator to send you information about the business and the names of satisfied customers. Ask friends who have used the operator about their experience. Check with local travel agents to see if they know if the operator is legitimate, or call American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) Consumer Affairs Department (703-739-8739).
- Pay by credit card. It gives you more protection than cash or a check. If you pay by check for a charter package, make sure it is payable to an escrow account (as required by Federal law for charters), and call the bank handling the escrow account to verify its validity. Be wary of travel companies who are reluctant to provide escrow bank information
- Read the fine print. Get a copy of the contract. This document will inform you of the conditions in which the operator can change flight schedules (see charter flight rules below), hotel accommodations (operators may put you up in an alternate hotel listed in the contract that is not as nice as the one advertised in the package materials), and the rules and penalties for cancellation. Ask about cancellation insurance. Rules state that an operator cannot ask for or accept your payment until you have signed and returned the contract.
- Know the facts about charter flights. Charter flights are often used for spring break packages. Understand that they have different rules than commercial flights. For example, charter airlines can cancel flights up to ten days prior to departure. Furthermore, they are allowed to change schedules at the last minute. In addition, charter airlines are allowed to delay flights for up to 48 hours with no mandated compensation. Most charters do not have reciprocal agreements with scheduled airlines, so you will not be put on an alternate airline. The travel company/tour operator is not obligated to provide alternate transportation or compensate for your expenses if such a delay happens. Check the contract to see if the operator will cover any costs (lodging, car rental, etc.) associated with flight delays.
- Understand your rights. According to Department of Transportation (DOT) rules, you have a right to cancel a charter package without penalty if the operator makes a “major change,” such as in departure, return date, or city; a hotel substitution to a property not named in the charter operator/participant contract; or a package price increase of more than 10 percent.
- Learn about All-inclusive plans. All-inclusive plans or packages with meal plans offer the best value for students. The price looks expensive at first, but students save money in the end.
- Purchase travel insurance.
It doesn’t take a Ph.D to book the right trip for your spring break. Make the grade by asking questions and finding answers, and you will be well on your way to ensuring a hassle-free, fun-filled vacation!
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