How to avoid a summer vacation scam (and other pitfalls)

  • If you're like many travelers, you could be caught off guard by unexpected issues when planning for and going on a big trip.
  • Here's how to protect yourself from vacation scams or, worse, a misfortune of your own doing.

Nothing can spoil your carefully planned R&R like getting ripped off.

Or worse, a misfortune of your own doing — think an expired passport, lost wallet or booking a vacation to, say Walley World, only to discover it's temporarily closed.

However, these are all pitfalls that can be avoided. Ahead of summer travel season, here's how to sidestep a few all-too-common snags.

You fall victim to a travel scam

With the rise of deeply discounted online offers and unregulated home rentals has come a slew of potential scams.

Travel fraud rose 16 percent last year and cost travelers $283 to $588 per fraudulent transaction, according to a recent report by credit reporting company Experian.

"The reason why most folks get into this situation is because they are out there hunting for a deal," said Mike Bruemmer, Experian's vice president of consumer protection. "If it's too good to be true, it usually is."

Avoid "instant" travel discounts through third parties designed to lure you into an impulse purchase on a hotel, plane ticket or cruise, Bruemmer said.

Often, high-pressure booking tactics require payment well in advance, and that leaves vacationers with little recourse if their trip falls flat (there's only a 60-day limit on disputing a credit card purchase, according to the Federal Trade Commission).

If you're looking for an apartment rental, steer clear of making arrangements directly with an owner, who may or may not be legitimate, and opt for a trusted site such as Airbnb or Expedia's HomeAway, which have built-in protections and money-back guarantees.

And even then, avoid providing any more personal identification than is necessary, such as a Social Security number or agreeing to a credit check.

Your passport is no longer valid

Be sure to verify that you have your passport — and that it has not expired — well before your international trip.

Anthony Michael Hall, Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, and Dana Barron waving from car in a scene from the film 'Vacation', 1983.
Warner Brothers | Getty Images
Anthony Michael Hall, Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, and Dana Barron waving from car in a scene from the film 'Vacation', 1983.

Keep in mind that the expiration date on that document is misleading.

That is because you generally want to have a passport that is valid for at least six months from the date of your trip, according to Julie Hall, a spokeswoman at travel organization AAA.

If you need to renew your passport or apply for one, be sure to leave plenty of time. The process can take six weeks, Hall said.

It is possible to obtain expedited passports in some cities, such as New York, though those services may be harder to find in other locations, said Erika A. Richter, director of communications at the American Society of Travel Agents.

"Your vacation time is an investment." -Erika A. Richter, American Society of Travel Agents

Not updating this key document could be a deal breaker if you arrive at the airport gate unprepared.

"That is a situation where you would have to have someone advocate on your behalf," Richter said. "If you're not insured, that's your whole vacation right there."

You lose your wallet or passport

Be sure to make paper copies of all of the key documents and contents of your wallet before you depart.

Ideally, you want to leave a copy of these documents with a trusted family member or friend before your trip. Keep another copy with you, but separate from your actual wallet and passport while you travel.

"If you do lose it, you have it copied and ready to go and that makes that process a little smoother," Hall said.

Your cellphone, credit cards don't work

Letting your bank or credit card company know you are traveling ahead of time will prevent any hassles at your destination.

"They can put a note on your account so none of your charges get flagged and your credit card isn't declined," Hall said.

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Likewise, you want to make sure your cellphone service isn't interrupted.

As more people travel, cellphone companies have started to offer different packages to accommodate them, Hall said.

"It's definitely worth calling and seeing what your options are," she said.

You have a health issue

A major health scare at your destination that requires an emergency evacuation could cost you $100,000 or more if you are not covered by insurance, according to Megan Cruz, executive director at the US Travel Insurance Association.

"The wise thing to do is to think about all of the things that can go wrong and think about if you could afford the out-of-pocket expense for them," Cruz said.

The right travel insurance will help cover those medical emergencies and other unexpected developments.

The best way to find the right insurance for you is to shop around, Richter said.

There are many types of coverage depending on variables like when you're traveling and how long you're staying.

"It's always that one scenario where you think everything's going to be fine and you really wish you had protected your investment," Richter said. "Your vacation time is an investment."

Other things to know before you go

  • Download the mobile app for your airline to keep tabs on your flight status in case of delays or cancellations. "A lot of times if you go on their app and tweet them, you can get quicker service," said Hall.
  • Work with a travel agent. Booking your trip through a professional will not only help you if you encounter problems but can help you find better deals. "A lot of the costs, if they do add a fee, can be recouped and then some," Hall said.
  • If you are traveling abroad, sign up for the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which lets U.S. citizens and nationals share their travel plans with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

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