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Planning a school break trip? A sunny
beach? A foreign country? Skiing? If you're using a
special tour package, you may think everything's taken
care of. How sure are you?
Before you show up at the airport
with your boogie board, passport, or skis, review the
tour package carefully and investigate the operator.
Lots of students don't get the trip they expect; others
lose out completely. They didn't take the time to carefully
read the fine print, evaluate the promotion and make
sure it's not run by a fly-by-night company peddling
a first-class scam.
Flights for many school break trips
are by public charter, which have different rules than
commercial flights. Before you dot the "i"s
and cross the "t"s on your contract, do some
homework and take a good look at the package. The Federal
Trade Commission (FTC) and the American Society of Travel
Agents (ASTA) offer the following tips and information
to help you avoid a school break bust.
Check out the operator. Avoid high-pressure sales
pitches for a school break package. Ask the operator
to send you information about the business, and the
names of satisfied customers. Ask friends who have
used the operator about their experience. Check with
local travel agents to see if they know if the operator
is legitimate, or call ASTA's Consumer Affairs Department
If the trip involves a charter flight, call the
Department of Transportation (DOT) Public Charter
Licensing Division (202-366-2396) to make sure the
charter operator has properly filed to operate charter
flights from your departure city to your destination.
Charter packages cannot be sold until the charter
filing is approved by the DOT.
Read the fine print. Get a copy of the operator/participant
contract. This will tell you the conditions under
which the operator can change flight schedules (usually
charters can be canceled for any reason by the operator
up until 10 days before the trip), hotel accommodations
(operators may put you up in an alternate hotel listed
in the operator contract that is not as nice as the
hotel advertised in the package materials), and the
rules and penalties for cancellation. Ask about cancellation
insurance. Rules state that an operator cannot ask
for or accept your payment until you have signed and
returned the contract.
Understand your rights. According to DOT rules,
you have a right to cancel a charter package without
penalty if the operator makes a "major change."
Major changes include a change of departure or return
date or city, a hotel substitution to a property not
named in the charter operator/participant contract,
or a package price increase of more than 10 percent.
Pay by credit card. It gives you more protection
than cash or a check. If you pay by check for a charter
package, make sure it is payable to an escrow account
(as required by federal law for charters) and call
the bank handling the escrow account to verify its
validity. Be wary of charter operators who are reluctant
to provide escrow bank information - they may be selling
another firm's space - or who tell you they'll send
a courier to pick up your money.
Expect flight delays. They're
common on charter flights. DOT rules allow for a charter
flight to be delayed up to 48 hours if mechanical
difficulties occur. And the operator is not obligated
to provide alternate transportation or compensate
you for your expenses if such a delay occurs. Check
the contract to see if the operator will cover any
costs (lodging, car rental, etc.) associated with
flight delays not related to mechanical difficulties.
Produced in cooperation
with the American Society of Travel Agents.
The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive
and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information
to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a
complaint or to get free
information on consumer issues, visit www.ftc.gov
or call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357); TTY: 1-866-653-4261. The
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Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil
and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.