Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Fri Mar 31 2006, 08:59PM

Spring break is winding down and summer vacations are right around the corner, so you should know tricky travel offers are consistently among the top five consumer complaints

Spring break is winding down and summer vacations are right around the corner, so you should know tricky travel offers are consistently among the top five consumer complaints. Americans lose twelve billion dollars a year to travel fraud. I think it happens because we're so hungry for rest and relaxation that we're vulnerable to promises of paradise. The most common come-on makes it seem like you've won a free vacation. I fell for this once myself back in my college days. If you pay attention, you'll notice that the trick is in the wording.Clare E. thought she had won a free cruise to the Bahamas. After all, she received a "certificate of authenticity" in the mail --complete with a confirmation number. Luckily, Clare contacted me to ask if she should pack her bags. I read her offer and noticed that it didn't say she had received a "fabulous vacation." It said she had received a "fabulous vacation offer." In other words, Clare was being given the chance to spend her own money on a cruise! That is absolutely typical. Poor Clare. The company had gotten her hopes up, so she didn't want to believe me. She ignored my advice and called the salesman back. Sure enough, he asked her for $1200 to pay for the trip she had "won." That's when Clare wised up.

What if she hadn't? What would have happened? Some travel offers are run by creative con artists who just take your money and run. But many do result in a trip for you –often a trip to hell and back. Some consumers report that their dream vacation turned out to be a week's stay in a crime-ridden neighborhood across a freeway from the beach in a cockroach infested motel. Other travelers have complained that they got to their destination only to find that the travel promoter never made a reservation and the hotel doesn't have a room for them.

Some travel offer promoters make it almost impossible for you to book the trip you've paid for. They pile on the conditions and restrictions so you can't go anywhere but then refuse to give you a refund. Other vacation peddlers don't disclose up front that almost nothing is included in their offer. Then they nickel and dime you for every detail. Oh, you want a bed in your hotel room? That'll be an extra $200. Meals aboard the cruise ship? $500. You will find that you could have booked a much nicer vacation on your own or through a travel agent of your choosing, rather than one that came after you.

If you pay a chunk of money now for the chance to vacation later, watch out. Time shares. Travel clubs. Campground memberships. With any deal like this, you may find that the package isn't worth what you paid or that you just won't want to use it in the future. I once heard from a couple that paid big bucks to join a travel club. When they got to one of the included resorts, they learned they could have vacationed there for half as much if they had booked the trip directly instead of through a middleman. Salespeople sometimes claim that if you lose interest in something like a timeshare, you can re-sell it at a profit. Very often that's not the case and you're stuck with it.

1. If the travel offer or "prize" comes in what seems like an urgent mail envelope, take a closer look. It's probably a bulk mailing designed to look important.
2. If the material inside the envelope looks like a certificate or voucher, that's another clue it's a con.
3. If the offer is initially pitched as a prize but ends up costing money, that's vintage vacation baloney.
4. If the marketer says the offer's only good for one day to pressure you into a quick decision, that's typical –and terrible.
5. If the travel seller's name is different from the travel provider's name, you may be dealing with a telemarketer who has no responsibility to you after the sale.
6. If the company sends a courier to pick up your payment, this may be an attempt to get around mail fraud laws.
7. If you get to your "free" vacation and the company tries to make you listen to a time share sales pitch, that's a classic. Check local laws. In some states it's illegal to attach conditions to a prize.

1. Check out any travel promoter with the Better Business Bureau and government consumer protection offices in your own state and the state where the company is based –before you buy.
2. For that matter, never give out your credit card number or checking account information unless you initiated the call.
3. Check out the offer with the hotels, airlines or cruise lines that are named to verify they are a part of it.
4. Get the details of your trip –including the cancellation clause–IN WRITING before you pay.
5. Learn the law in the state where the promoter is based. In Florida, where many of these companies are located, you have thirty days to cancel a vacation contract.
6. Be the hunter, not the hunted! Buy a travel book or find your own travel agent and tailor the trip of your dreams instead of falling for some prepackaged schlock that's marketed to the masses.

Complain to the attorney general in the state where the travel promoter is located. If the offer came in the mail, you can also complain to your local U.S. postal inspector's office.