Have You Really Won A Free Vacation? Free and Discount Travel Fraud

It is not uncommon for people to be contacted by a company promising that that they have won a free vacation. Whether such an offer reaches you by phone, by email, by regular mail, or by any other means, it is extremely rare for such a vacation to in fact be free.

In some cases the total cost of the "free" travel may exceed what you would pay if you booked the trip on your own. In other cases, the offer may not even be real, and the contact may be from a criminal enterprise that intends to cheat you out of money or to steal your credit and bank account information for purposes of identity theft.

Common Forms of Deception

Common deceptions made by companies that offer free and discounted travel include:

  • The Time Share Promotion - You are offered a steeply discounted vacation, but as part of the deal you must listen to a sales pitch for time shares. Many people report that they end up spending a lot more time at sales pitches than was promised when they signed up for the vacation. In many situations, they also report very heavy-handed, unscrupulous, and even dishonest tactics by the sales agents.

    In a variation of the time share scam you aren't even told that you are participating in a time share promotion until you reach your destination, at which time you have to listen to sales pitches to obtain vouchers for food and accommodation. If you don't listen to the sales pitch you don't receive the benefits that you had believed would be free.

  • Free Plane Tickets - You are told that you have won free plane tickets, perhaps even including vacation destinations such as Hawaii. The catch? You must book your hotel and make other purchases, such as a rental car and perhaps even the purchase some or all of your meals, through the company which is offering the supposedly free tickets. The cost of accommodation, food and services are inflated to include, and often to exceed, the cost of what was supposedly "free" air fare.

  • Free Vacation Package - You are in fact flown to your destination for free, but once you arrive you are booked into a dirty, uncomfortable hotel with lousy food. Once you check in you may even be told that if you check out you will not be able to use your return ticket. Your choices are to stay in your miserable accommodation or to pay an exorbitant "upgrade" fee to get into a reasonable hotel.

    Although in theory you could buy your own return ticket, airlines usually charge a premium for last minute ticket purchases, you must pay for your meals and accommodation while you wait for your return flight, and you run the risk that flights returning on your schedule will be full -- and, of course, you are unlikely to enjoy what is left of your vacation.

  • The Disappearing Travel Agency - You are told that you have won a wonderful trip, no strings attached, but that you must pay certain fees to secure your reservation. Typical fees claimed are for port charges, airport security fees, service charges and room taxes. After you pay the fees, perhaps hundreds of dollars or more, you never hear from the travel agency again.

    When you try to call their number, you find that it is no longer in service and that the travel agency has disappeared from the face of the earth - with your money, or with account information they may use to make unauthorized purchases using your bank account number or credit card.

  • The "Limited Time Offer" - You are offered a spectacular travel package, good only for a limited time, but you are told that you must make an immediate and substantial non-refundable deposit to lock in the deal.

    After you pay your down payment, the travel promoter tells you that the dates you want aren't available, or may stall you and delay completing the booking until the offer expires (or the promoter disappears). You will not get your deposit back.

  • Vacation Discount Cards or Certificates - You pay up front for the vacation and travel discounts, but find that there are so many restrictions on when you can actually use the discounts that you can't take advantage of the offers, or you discover that the few hotels that accept the card or certificate only do so at "full rate" such that even with the purported discount you pay as much or more for a booking than the hotel would charge any other vacation traveler.

  • "Become a Travel Agent" Offers - You pay a fee that you are told will allow you to instantly become a travel agent, with promises of huge travel discounts. As the credential isn't real, no discounts are in fact available to you.

  • The Disappearing Discount - You purchase a discount vacation package, but every time you try to book your trip you are told that surcharges and additional fees apply such that you don't actually receive a discount if you book.

Protecting Yourself from Travel Scams

You can help avoid being cheated by taking the following steps:

Buyer Beware: if a travel deal sounds like it is too good to be true, it almost always will be.

Unsolicited Offers: Travel offers that you receive through unsolicited telephone calls, by email, or in the regular mail are much more likely to be fraudulent than those from travel agencies you have contacted.

High Pressure Tactics: Sometimes the salesperson on the other end of the line, or at an in-person meeting, simply won't take "no" for an answer. If the offer were as good as they say, those tactics would not be necessary. End the meeting or hang up the phone.

Stick With Known Companies: Purchase travel services only from businesses that you know or have confirmed to be genuine.

Take Your Time: If you are pressured to make a quick decision, the chances are much higher that you are being scammed. No matter how tempted you may be, insist on getting uninterrupted time to consider the offer before you make a decision.

Get the Full Details Before You Buy. Insist that the offer be outlined for you in detail and in writing, and make sure that the details are acceptable.

For example, when you are being offered a vacation package, find out what accommodation is included in the package and check it out before you book.

  • Check with the hotels to make sure that they actually work with the promoter - sometimes promoters lie about the hotels they intend to use.
  • If meals are included, find out what restaurants are included in the package, and any limits or restrictions on what you may order when dining.
  • If the package includes a rental car, find out what rental agency they will use and the model of car you will receive.
  • Find out what airport and airline they will use for any air travel.

Comparison Shop: Before making a decision, look for similar travel deals offered by other, legitimate travel agencies and services. You may find that what you are being told is "the deal of a lifetime" is available for less money through a reputable travel service.

Get Everything in Writing: If the offer comes over the phone or by email, ask the company to send you a full description of the package and all terms and conditions on the travel offer.

If they won't provide a written description of the offer, provide only general information but won't provide the details, or have made promises inconsistent with what they send in writing, you can be quite certain that they are trying to cheat you.

Learn of Any Date Restrictions: Make sure you know and understand all date restrictions that apply to a travel deal or package. You may find that so few days are available that you cannot actually schedule a holiday, and end up losing any deposit or fees you have paid to secure a deal that you are unable to use.

Don't Make Payments to Unknown Companies: Make sure that you are dealing with a genuine travel promoter or agency before providing them with a credit card number by telephone, email, or through a website.

Don't Send Payment by Wire Transfer, Express Mail or Courier: If you are pressed to send payment through a wire transfer service, by courier or by overnight mail, think twice. Unscrupulous promoters want your money as soon as possible, and sometimes use private couriers or overnight delivery services to avoid the possibility of federal mail fraud charges.

Pay by Credit Card: While there is no guarantee that you will be able to effect a charge-back if a travel deal that is sold to you turns out to be a fraud, you have no realistic chance of recovering your money if you pay by check, money order, wire transfer, or cash.

Note that you have fewer protections with a debit card than with a credit card, so use your credit card.

    Watch out for Fake Promoters

    Companies that offer fraudulent travel offers may use another company's name and letterhead, and may even use fake caller ID information so that it appears that they are the legitimate travel service.

    If you are contacted by a travel company and are not certain that the offer is real, look up the company's contact information and contact the actual company to verify the offer, or to verify that the person who is making the offer to you actually works for them.

    Copyright © 2004 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

    This article was last reviewed or amended on May 7, 2018.