With scammers now posing as travel agents, we asked experts how best to avoid losing time and money on a fake travel agent.
Travel agents can save you time and money—and don’t even think about booking a cruise or a Disney vacay without one. But you wouldn’t hire a doctor, a lawyer, a babysitter, or a handyman without checking their credentials. Why should a travel agent be any different?
After all, this could just be someone sitting behind a computer who has no idea what they’re doing, or worse, it could be a scammer who disappears as soon as you hand over your vacation money.
In one instance, Christine Hayes, of Pennsylvania, posed as a fake travel agent and managed to allegedly steal hundreds of thousands of dollars from more than 80 people whom she tricked into purchasing vacation packages. The reality: She sold them tickets to nowhere, according to NBC. We spoke with the experts to learn what you need to research before handing over your money and your personal details to anyone claiming to be a travel agent.
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Look for Qualifications and ASTA Membership
While there aren’t any specific certifications that travel agents need to acquire to become travel agents, each host agency should have its own training program, which could range from attending classes on geography, business management, and marketing to simply watching several YouTube videos, says Nicole Donoway, a travel agent and the owner of Destinations by Donoway.
But travel agents should have (but aren’t required to have) membership with the American Society of Travel Advisors, which is an association ensuring ethical business practices. ASTA also offers a Verified Travel Advisor program, which teaches professional knowledge.
Travel agents specializing in cruises should be trained by the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), which provides several levels of training based on the number of years you’ve been an agent and the level of knowledge you have. The first level is Certified Cruise Counselor, which gives agents a good starting point for selling cruises. The Better Business Bureau also recommends contacting the American Society of Travel Agents to check if the travel agent you’re considering belongs to this organization. You should also check their Better Business profile for any complaints.
Be Wary of Travel Agents Who Aren’t Specialized
Each travel agent should have a specific specialty, and this could range from Disney to cruises to exotic vacations, says Sandra McLemore, a travel industry expert, travel TV host, and business coach to travel advisors.
“In the same way that you see a specialist for your body: a cardiologist, dermatologist, dentist, etc., do the same for each vacation that you take,” McLemore says. “If I am going to a Disney resort or on a Disney cruise ship, I will only work with a Disney specialist, but if I’m taking a cruise down the Nile River to see the pyramids in Egypt, I’ll switch to a different travel advisor and work with a river cruise specialist.”
Check the Agent’s Travel ID and Registration
Travel advisors are either registered with a host agency or have jumped through hoops to become independently certified. These travel advisors have insurance called Errors & Omissions that can protect them and the traveler, in addition to standard travel insurance. Look for the agent’s travel ID and any registration, insurance, and certification details on the website, and don’t be afraid to Google them to back up their website claims, McLemore advises.
Don’t Skip the Reviews
We do it before buying a car or a refrigerator, so why not check out your potential agent, too?
“Looking for evidence that they know what they are talking about is important, but also that they listen and support clients with not only booking but also when problems arise because, let’s face it, it happens,” says Dawn Kidd, a certified cruise counselor and certified travel advisor with Kidd Travel.
Come Prepared With Questions
Before hiring an agent, ask about their expertise in the area you hope to travel—and be specific, says Stephanie Chastain, the owner of Infinite Ireland Travel Co., a boutique travel agency specializing in Ireland itineraries.
“Have they planned multiple trips there? Have they traveled there themselves? Can they name an experience, a hotel, or a restaurant that might be a good fit for you in the course of a quick conversation?” Chastain asks. If they answer “no” or cannot give a specific answer, you may want to keep looking for another agent.
The best agents have an established network of on-the-ground partners that focus on providing authentic, local experiences. Plus, Chastain says, travelers these days have easy access to packages and hotel rooms online, so when seeking professional service for expert advice, make sure that they really are the experts.
Keep an Eye Out for These Red Flags
If there’s no phone number to reach them, this is a major red flag, says Emily Smith, a former travel agent and the owner of the blog, The Female Abroad. Another red flag: They only work specific hours, and there’s no way to reach them after hours if you have an emergency.
You should also get a written copy of the quote or contract stating what is included in your travel, along with the dates, the full cost, the payment schedule, and anything else you need to know about the vacation. If any of these are missing, then run to the next agent stat, Smith says.