The Brancatelli File



February 1, 1997 -- About 600 New Yorkers recently learned a hard financial lesson about buying travel packages. After doling out more than $1.2 million for overseas travel arrangements, the travelers learned they had been fleeced by two brothers masquerading as legitimate tour operators.

The con men, who represented themselves as travel agents specializing in overseas travel, were busted by New York police a few days before Christmas. Yet their capture brought little holiday solace: Few of the victimized travelers got to take their long-planned international vacations and several suffered the humiliation of having their counterfeit travel documents confiscated when they arrived at the airport for their overseas flights.

Unfortunately, those New Yorkers are part of a growing number of travelers who lose their money by doing business with flim-flam artists or even once-legitimate travel packagers who quietly close their doors and disappear into the night. And don't be smug: It can happen to you. Even the most experienced travelers sometimes make fundamental travel-buying mistakes.

Before you purchase any travel packages in 1997, make sure you guard your financial flanks. Here's how to do it.

DON'T GO TO STRANGERS Those scammed New Yorkers violated a travel basic: They booked costly international travel arrangements with total strangers. Your best source for overseas travel information is the travel agent you already consult for your other travel needs. Your agent deals with travel packagers every day and knows which operators are reliable and which ones have treated other clients well. Another good source of trustworthy information: friends and family who have purchased tour packages. Ask them the name of the travel operator they used and what their experiences were.

DON'T BE FOOLED BY BIG NAMES Travel packagers generally fall into two groups: companies unfamiliar to the average traveler and operators who have recognizable names and national reputations. Neither ensures reliability. Just because you've heard of a tour operator does not mean the company is trustworthy. Conversely, a company called Certified Tours is unknown to most travelers, yet it packages many of the tours sold by American Express, Delta Air Lines, and the American Automobile Association. Moreover, name recognition is no guarantee of financial stability. Hemphill Harris was one of the world's most respected tour operators when it collapsed in 1989 and stranded tens of thousands of travelers.

READ THE FINE PRINT Don't be seduced by the gorgeous color photography and purple prose of a travel brochure. The most important information is contained in the small type, under a headline like Terms and Conditions or Important Information. As explained below, much of what is implied in a brochure is contractually contradicted in the fine print. If you don't understand what a tour operator's terms mean, consult your travel agent. Better yet, ask your lawyer.

SAFEGUARD YOUR INVESTMENT A travel package may be the largest travel purchase you will ever make, so demand a degree of financial security. Although there are competing protection schemes used by tour operators to promote their financial rectitude, two stand head and shoulders above all others: the USTOA's $1 Million Consumer Protection Plan and the First of America Bank's Travel Funds Protection Plan. The $1 Million Plan, sponsored by the U.S. Tour Operators Association, reimburses travelers if a participating tour operator ever fails. The First of America Bank plan is an ironclad escrow account: Travelers make funds simultaneously payable to both the tour operator and First of America Bank. The bank does not release the funds until after the tour is completed. Travel packagers who participate in these plans mention them by name in their brochures.

USE YOUR CREDIT CARD Never pay for a travel package in cash or by check. Always use a credit card. Should a tour operator fold before your trip departs--and at least four large travel packagers collapsed last year--the credit-card company is required by law to remove the charge from your bill. If a tour operator will not accept your credit card, buy a similar package offered by one that does.

GET MORE INFORMATION Do some homework before you buy a travel package. Write to the USTOA (211 E. 51 St., Suite 12B, New York, NY 10022) for a free copy of The Smart Traveler's Planning Kit, an excellent compendium of basic information. And send $2 to the Council of Better Business Bureaus (Dept. 023, Washington, DC 20042) for Tips on Travel Packages, a solid primer.




"Every effort will be made to operate in accordance with the itineraries as shown, including all features as advertised...[but the tour operator] reserves the right to alter or curtail the itinerary and substitute hotels."

No matter what the brochure promised, the tour operator can change or cancel almost anything included in the package you buy without advance notice--and there is nothing you can do about it.

The tour operator "act[s] only as an agent in all matters connected with hotel and dining services, sightseeing tours...and transportation. As agent, tour operator holds itself free of responsibility for any damage, injury or loss resulting from any cause."

No matter what the brochure implied, the tour operator has no control over the hotels, transportation and sightseeing tours it sells to you. If something goes wrong, it's not the tour operator's fault--and there is nothing you can do about it.

The tour operator "reserves the right to adjust U.S. Dollar prices without notice to reflect fluctuation(s) in the Foreign Currency Markets."

Forget the price printed in the brochure because the tour operator can increase the price whenever the value of the dollar changes--and there's nothing you can do about it.

The tour operator is not "responsible for loss, damage, or delay while baggage is in the custody of airlines. If the tour liable for loss of, or damage to your baggage, the amount of...liability will not exceed $100."

If the airline loses or delays your bags, don't expect any help or compensation from the tour operator. If the tour operator loses your bags somewhere between the airport and the hotel, the tour operator won't pay more than $100.

"This brochure represents the entire agreement between the passenger and" the tour operator.

No matter what your travel agent promised, don't expect to get it if it's not specifically mentioned in the brochure.

This column originally appeared in Frommer's Travel Update.

Copyright © 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.