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Scam or Legit?: Learn to ID Credible Travel Web Sites

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LaptopHTTPWith more and more travelers booking their airlines, hotels and car rentals online, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell which Web sites to trust, and which ones to avoid.

After all, a flashy Web site is no guarantee that the people running it are legitimate providers of travel.

Unfortunately, there’s no definitive source that can tell you beyond the shadow of a doubt that a travel company is legit.

But a good rule of thumb is that the more sources you can check, the more confident you can be that you’re finding a travel provider that’s a trustworthy one.

Better Business Bureau

One of the best ways to obtain credible, independent, consumer-oriented information is the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Their Web site has an easy-to-search online database that can offer a good idea of just what sort of business you’re dealing with. Simply input the company’s name into the appropriate search box, and choose the result you’re after. Alternately, the BBB now offers a search-by-URL feature if you only know the company’s Web address.

The information on offer here is usually comprehensive and informative. You’ll usually find contact information, the year the business started, the number of complaints received in the past 36 months, and whether or not the company is a member of the Better Business Bureau. Companies that have been around for awhile are a better bet in terms of reliability—in fact, the BBB makes new companies wait a year before joining. And the number of complaints—and the number of them that were resolved—can give you a good idea about its customer service.

Do keep in mind the size of the organization—larger companies with more customers will attract more complaints. But regardless of the size of the company, even more important than the number of complaints is whether or not they were successfully addressed.

For example, luxury tour provider Abercrombie & Kent attracted just one complaint over the past 36 months—and it was successfully resolved. Thus the BBB rates A&K’s record as “satisfactory.” Meanwhile, the more mass market Vantage Travel of Boston, which has roughly the same number of employees as A&K, attracted 44 complaints—and seven remain outstanding. This is a poor enough record to attract an “unsatisfactory” rating from the BBB.

As for membership in the BBB, this may generally be taken to be a good sign, but it doesn’t mean that great customer service is guaranteed. The BBB’s searchable online database is available at http://www.bbb.org

Certified Seller of Travel

The “certified seller of travel” program began in California in the mid-1990s, and is run by the state Attorney General’s office. Since the inception of this program, a number of other states have launched similar programs aimed at registering travel providers.

Some states, such as California, Florida, Hawaii, and Nevada, require that travel sellers register for these programs, so if you find a company that is not registered, warning bells should go off. While these laws don’t mandate much in terms of customer service, it means that the agencies involved have contributed to a travel trust that can be used to disburse refunds to customers for services not rendered.

Look for an eight-digit CST number—which should be on the company’s Web site and any advertising—and then verify it out here: http://ag.ca.gov/travel (click “Seller Search”)

You can use this list to find the online home of your state’s Attorney General:
http://www.naag.org/attorneys_general.php

Professional Organizations

There are a number of professional organizations that strive to maintain ethical standards in the travel industry. Membership in one or more of these organizations is usually a good sign that a travel provider is legit, although it is by no means a guarantee. Keep in mind that there are varying levels of authentication, verification, and enforcement among the various travel-related professional bodies.

  • IATANInternational Airlines Travel Agent Network – this professional association has a large membership and its IATAN ID card is the most widespread method of identifying a travel agent in the US. (closely affiliated is IATA, the international arm) Each IATAN travel provider has an ID number that they should post. You can verify codes here: http://www.checkacode.com
  • PATHProfessional Association of Travel Hosts – Formed fairly recently as a professional association for “hosting agencies” that provide assistance to many independent travel agents, PATH has a comparatively tough verification process. PATH members must have been in business for three years, and jump through a number of other administrative hoops. This organization is especially relevant for checking out home-based travel agencies. You can find PATH online here: http://www.pathonline.travel
  • ASTAAmerican Society of Travel Agents – Along with its members in various international branches, ASTA members must abide by a code of ethics. While enforcement isn’t exactly draconian, an ASTA membership is generally a positive sign.
    To search for the records of active agents, click here.
  • CLIACruise Lines International Association – If it has anything to do with cruises, CLIA is probably involved. Do be aware that a number of travel professionals regard the CLIA card as “the card of the least professional travel agents,” due to its rather low threshold for membership. The main criterion is that travel agents sell cruises and follow all federal, state and local laws. CLIA is online at http://cruising.org
  • ALL OTHERS: There are a number of other travel agent credentials, with varying levels of credibility. ARC, for example, is for travel agents booking air travel, and has relatively tough requirements. Many other travel agent verification systems have been folded into IATAN, however. Be wary of other official-sounding acronyms, and always investigate claims of credibility with unfamiliar, vaguely official-sounding programs.

The “Dot Travel” Domain

Even many road warriors are still not aware of the “dot travel” (.travel) domain, which was officially created in 2005. The company that operates this domain is Tralliance, which is responsible for registering and vetting travel companies that want Web addresses with this domain. Unlike dot com (.com) or dot biz (.biz) addresses, dot travel sites are authenticated by Tralliance so that only bona fide travel companies can use this domain.

Because travel companies have to go through an authentication process, “cyber squatters” that attempt to confuse consumers by buying Web addresses that look or sound similar to established travel companies are not present in this domain.

(Full disclosure: Peter Greenberg Worldwide spent a significant amount of time and energy to obtain www.petergreenberg.travel and found the process exhaustive, if not exhausting.)

You can use http://www.search.travel to discover dot travel sites, which will also show the level of authentication and verification. Alternately, many search engines, such as Google, can be made to search for sites only in the dot travel domain.

Google/Yahoo/Ask/MSN

Search engines are the default option for many when it comes to trying to hunt down information on the Web. And sometimes, they can be a good option when nothing else seems to be working.

But don’t just search for the company name. Try throwing in some terms that might lead you to Web pages that are more critical of the company. For example, instead of just searching for “XYZ Travel”, try “XYZ travel scam” or “XYZ travel consumer” or “XYZ travel problem.” You may find that these search terms bring up pages that give you the inside scoop on what real people are saying about the company.

Do keep in mind that one rant-filled blog by an anonymous consumer doesn’t mean that you should eschew a travel company. Anything you find with a search engine should be double or triple-checked from as many different sources as possible—both online and off.

References

And if you can’t find more independent sources to help you, feel free to ask your potential travel provider for references. Keep in mind that unscrupulous travel companies can often fake their references by providing contact information for people who may be somehow associated with the business. Some red flags for this happening include contacts that all live in the same city as the business.

By New Media Manager Matt Calcara for PeterGreenberg.com

For more information on credible travel sources, check out the Travel Resource Links.

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