Vacation Booking Scams

Incurable Wanderlust Podcast - Season 1, Episode 6

When it comes to travel, most people think about the scams that they will experience / come across while in destination, but what about the scams that you can come across while booking or planning your trip? That is where this episode comes in! I discuss the most common pre-travel scams, as well as what to look out for if you don't realize it's a scam and a few tips you can follow to help keep yourself safe or at least reduce your chances of falling for a scam.

Article mentioned in episode: Travel Scams:

You might also like: When I was scammed in Havana, Cuba:

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One of our listeners reached out and requested travel scams topics that they would be interested in listening to. So this week I thought it was a good time to touch on it as I've been getting relentless scam phone calls. While these calls haven't been traveler related yet, I just couldn't get the idea of scams out of my head so today is the day I finally touch on the topic!

Now that people are starting to travel more as COVID restrictions relaxed travel scams are starting to become more commonplace. While there is a great article on already about the common scams that you'll usually come across while traveling and I do welcome you to check it out. I'll link it in the podcast description below. This podcast is more about scams that you encounter when purchasing or making reservations for a trip.

Let's start with the amazing deal or the too good to be true deal. With inflation becoming a huge issue people being out of work due to COVID plus the cost of travel increasing to not only make up for COVID losses but to help rebuild tourist infrastructure, people are hunting out deals more now than ever.

A scam like this could be posting on a site like Airbnb where it looks legit but the owner will cut you a crazy good deal if you pay via a different way instead of processing a credit card through Airbnb. The reason for being able to give you this discount if you pay another way is usually because Airbnb will "charge" them super high fees but if you circumnavigate the Airbnb payment system, they can pass the savings on to you magically. This is false however and you are opening yourself up to a scam where there will be no repercussions for the scam artist. If this does happen, make sure to decline, and then report them to Airbnb to prevent someone else from falling for this scam.

There's also the classic bait and switch that can be done where you pay for the rental at a great price but when you get there the unit looks nothing like the photos or perhaps there is a plumbing disaster at the unit you rented so they put you in a different one. Typically you will get what you pay for so if the condo you're renting looks like one that should be several $1,000 per night, but it's only costing you a couple $100 then you'll want to do some research. For example, you could see what other rentals in the area are going for. Maybe it is low season so prices are sure they're cheap or you can even do a reverse Google image search to see if the photos of the listing are posted somewhere else. Keep listening to this podcast because I do go through how to do a reverse image search, both on your phone as well as on a desktop computer.

Another scam is the high price or high pressure sale. I've received phone calls where I won a cruise including airfare, they only need my credit card to take a deposit or to make sure that I'll take the trip. Another time I won a cruise and a trip to Disney World but I needed to just pay the taxes on the trip and giving them my credit card number over the phone, right now, was the only way to guarantee my spot because once I hung up the deal was off the table. The guy I was talking to was so monotone and unenthusiastic that you would think I was the 20th person he spoke to that day and he still hadn't received a credit card number.

These high pressure tactics are also used a lot with timeshare presentations but make sure you stand your ground and not get pressured in. The Now or Never scammers are great at trying to make you feel guilty for not jumping on an offer. The reason for this is because if you have any time to do research, you'll typically find out that it's bogus. There are also chances that you might arrive to where the cruise or the resort is that you won a free vacation at but they have no reservation for you or the cruise doesn't even depart that day so you end up spending additional money on things like reservation changes or hotels, car rentals, etc.

Now I briefly mentioned timeshares but you can also fall victim to the travel club membership. Both of these travel types promise ways to help you take a dream vacation yearly, usually at a reduced price compared to what the average traveler would pay for taking the trip themselves.

While some people love their timeshares, more times than not, they're just a scam with things like blackout dates, discounts only being valid on specific or special offseason dates, ridiculous fees for perks or upgrades or severe restrictions on the available trips to the point where you can't even take it

Another scam you might not think of is passport applications. Now I'm not talking about if you apply to the correct government agency or body, but if you use a third party that may say that they can "help speed" up the application process. A couple of months back in Canada, it was almost impossible to get a passport in a reasonable timeframe if you did not have an appointment. People were so desperate, especially when they were close to taking a trip, and while there are companies out there that were charging by the hour to wait in line for you, they were legit. There was also a lot of scammers that promise that they knew someone or could bribe someone and get your renewed passport back to you in a fast timeframe. Now while the Government of Canada's website states that there are no third parties that can help speed up your application, it did not prevent people are falling from this scam. The problem with this is you're not only out money, the scammer now has a lot of personal information, like your full name, date of birth, location of birth, address, and nationality which is all information that they need to start applying for credit cards in your name.

This really however, is just to take on an older scam, the international travel documents scam.

Well some people consider these a scam and others consider them a service. There are companies out there that will charge you to apply for visas on your behalf. Visas usually have a processing fee depending on the country you are applying to, the passport nationality you are traveling on, and filling out paperwork does not cost anything if you do it yourself but these companies will charge you to complete the paperwork and file it on your behalf. If it is a legitimate company then you do not need to worry about your information, you're just being price gouged for the service but if you're not sure if the company is legit then there's a strong chance that your information will be stolen or sold. The US Department of State Federal Trade Commission considers any company that charges you to complete paperwork that is free a scam.

Now did you know that if you are traveling to certain countries, and you're going to rent a car, you need to actually have an international driving permit. While a lot of us travelers feel that it's just a money grab by the automobile associations (for example, AAA BCA, ata etc.) it is actually a legitimate item that you're supposed to have, depending on where you travel, because it translates the information on your driver's license into 10 different languages. So there's no confusion as to what your license means in the country you're traveling to. Now the actual scam comes in because there are a variety of websites that sell fake IDPs but they can actually only be issued by select automobile associations, both in Canada and the USA.

Now while we as a society are starting to get used to knowing when calls are a scam, would you be able to know when a website is fake? What about an email or social media? I have friends on Facebook and friends of friends that share a Facebook page to be entered in to win a Mexican or Caribbean all inclusive vacation or maybe a villa rental but if you actually look at the page, there's no company associated with it. If you just take the time to simply click through to see who's posting it, from where, and what the business is, this can really help you prevent spreading fraudulent messages. Most of the time there's no company name, no address, no contact information - it's just win a free villa with no other information.

I've also received DMS for my cash app from people mostly that want to be my sugar daddy, or they want to send me X number of dollars because I seem friendly or because business X is giving it away to promote their company. If anything involves a company, I will reach out to them usually on Twitter and ask if this person or company reaching out to me is a legit contact of theirs and so far 10 out of 10 times they're not, it's a scam.

With emails it is super easy to look at the email address and the subject line to usually determine if it's fake. Another way is to read the message and look for grammatical or spelling errors. Also check the sender's name against the email as well as the signature in the email; a lot of times the sender's name will say one thing, the email will say another, and then the signature will be something completely different. If someone is requesting personal information and you are not expecting an email of them about that, and that's also a huge red flag.

However, when it comes to websites these days, anyone can have a website and it is super easy to make them look legit and professional. Another thing that also does not help the fact is that we as a society are becoming even more used to booking our own travel online for every Expedia site. There's five to 10 more like it. How can you really tell if they're real though?

Fake sites will even take photos and information from real sites so then the advertisements that you might see on other sites like Facebook or Instagram look real so how can you really tell? There are a few ways to do this and you can even follow most of the following in regards to any form of travel offering to see if it's legit:

  1. if it seems too good to be true, it probably is
  2. make sure that you enter the website URL correctly and if you are using a search engine then you are clicking on the correct link.

For example, let's say you accidentally type in and you get to a travel site that seems correct but the proper website is actually If you book something on site, it's not affiliated with the correct Expedia so you're out of that money that you've spent unless it's a legitimate website.

For the second example, let's say you enter Expedia into Google and just click the first link that pops up, have you ever noticed that the first links now are advertisements? If you look at the first link, it'll usually have a grey "Ad" written to the left of it.

If you did not realize that Google puts the ads up top now you may have actually clicked on an incorrect link without realizing it. Some of these ads can spoof websites so when you log in, you won't be able to actually log into your account when you go to login but it will record your login information so someone can use this information to sell to scammers or use it themselves to apply for things like credit cards in your name or make charges in your name. So make sure that you're visiting the correct website.

Apps are pretty much the exact same thing. So if you are downloading a specific app for your travel, make sure that you are downloading the correct one. Usually the app image will feature the company's logo, so that's a good place to start. Next see what company has put it onto the App Store, which is usually in smaller print underneath the name of the app and you can also scroll down and read the reviews.

3. If you have come across a new site on a search engine that seems legit, see if you can find a "contact us" page with a phone number and direct email not just a form that you fill out. If they list an address, pop it into a search engine to make sure that it's actually registered to the company whose website you are on. I would also take the name of the company and pop it into a search engine to see what people are saying about it. For example, "Company X reviews" or "is Company X a scam". You can also look on Reddit as they usually have information about every sketchy company that's out there or one person at least has asked the same question as you're on there to find an answer for.

4. check the payments that they accept. If it's something other than a credit card so things like wire transfers, e-transfers, bank drafts, or even direct debit then make sure to fully vet the company before you make any payments. The reason for this is because with a credit card you can flag a charge as fraudulent whereas with any of the payment methods I've listed, the money comes directly out of your bank account so the chances of you reclaiming any of it if it is fraud is slim to none. If they want you to pay in Bitcoin or via gift card run, do not walk away from this scam.

5. If there are photos, check them out carefully. If you're renting a condo and it says that it's on an upper floor, look out the windows in the photos - do they match the description? I've come across this one quite often, for example, one time a condo I was looking at to rent was on the 20th floor in the part of the city that's very urban, and only had high rises in the area. One of the photos was of the kitchen and the view of the window was street level of a single family home with a very grassy front lawn; clearly not only did it not fit with the description, it didn't even fit with the right area of town. If you're not sure what the area of town is supposed to look like, then check out Google Street View as it will show you exactly what the area looks like.

Some scammers will also attempt "Photoshop". Usually this is where they'll add or remove something from a photo, the most obvious things will have shadow or lighting that does not match with the items around it. However, it is possible that the images are rendering due to it being a new build.

So if you see something like this, try and do a little bit of research because if the building is more than two years old, there should be a real photo and not just a builders rendering. If they are using a builders renderings, you might want to really question why this property is not in good enough shape to post any real photos. Another "Photoshop" hack is when something is removed from a photo using a solid color. You may see this a lot on social media profiles that post examples of reviews from people. Typically the person will be holding up a sign that states "thank you or x got me 1000s of dollars" but when you actually look closely at the sign, the white behind the writing does not match the color of the sign around it.

One of my favorite tricks to do with these images, regardless of if it's been "photoshopped" or not but I take them and I like to do a reverse image search on them. So I do this all the time when I get weird people DMing me on social media, which happens a ton, but you could also do it for things like rentals.

If you're on a computer, save an image or two from the listing, and then go to Google Images. Then click on the file, if it's saved on your desktop or in downloads, click it and drag the image to the Google search bar. Google will then come back with exact or similar images. Take a scroll through and see if you can find a copy of the photo.

If you're using a phone then you could use an app like Google lens to scan the photo but my favorite free app is our IMG reverse image search. It allows you to search Bing, Google, and Yandex which is a Russian search engine.

A lot of times I will find images that are similar to it on Bing or Google but Yandex, I always get a ton of hits with the exact image. I have sent a few Nigerian scammers their screengrabs over social media so that I know that they're lying to me before I report them. It does work extremely well.

6. look at reviews. So even on legitimate websites like Airbnb, there can still be scammers. Do not let your guard down and make sure to check out the photos as well as the reviews. I once used Airbnb to book a transfer from the airport to our accommodation. Airbnb was a legit website and they had just launched the experiences so there were no reviews on any of the transfers or tours, which meant I was flying completely blind. I booked a transfer after reading the description and after all, not only was Airbnb legit, I thought it was just a transfer so if it doesn't work out, there's always plan B like a taxi when I arrive.

The guy was super friendly and very helpful as I told him when our flight was coming in why we were traveling to the city, etc. It was not until I was inquiring about the transit length from the airport to the accommodation that things started to get weird. I told him that we were looking at getting a tour that needed to pick us up from our accommodation so I was wondering how long the drive from the airport to the accommodation would be so that I could arrange your pickup. It was then that this guy let it slip that the transfer would take us from the airport to his cousin's house so he could talk to us for about three hours and then they would drop us off at our accommodation.

I quickly was panicking because nowhere in the description did it mention a cousin's house nor three hours and it was full prepay non refundable. Airbnb also did not make it easy for me to contact them but when I finally found an email I explained the situation, included screengrabs, they then looked at our chat logs and then canceled the transfer while refunding me in full. Sometimes you just have to take the risk but first look at the fine print and see how the company handles items that turn out to be falsely represented or just not the correct information at all, and how to file a claim or request for reimbursement. Since its launch the Airbnb experiences have become a well known breeding ground for scam artists so make sure that you are looking at reviews or using a completely different trusted site like Viator.

7. Don't sign up for or pay for anything until you know the terms of the contract. What is the payment schedule? What is the cancellation and refund policy? What is it exactly that you are purchasing? If they won't give you the information, especially in writing or they are pressuring you to make a decision right now? Just walk away.

8. trust your gut. If it seems weird, then it probably is. As with any scam, you need to file a police report because if for some reason your information is sold or given away, and fraud is committed in your name, having a police file that proves your personal information was stolen can help overturn any identity fraud issues faster.

There are also a few ways that you can protect yourself when you purchase travel.

You could use a licensed travel agency. Most licensed travel agencies are accredited by a government body which helps regulate the industry but also can give you access to some money if the travel agency goes bankrupt and leaves you stranded.

There are a ton of travel agencies that can specialize in specific areas of the world, or even formed to travel. Usually agencies will charge you a fee to issue flight, as they do not make any money selling flights but things like hotels, car rentals and even cruises are sold to you at the cost they are provided to the agents at because there's already a commission worked into the price. What I mean by this is if you find a hotel online for $100 per night, the agent will be able to book it at the $100 per night rate for you but the hotel may give the agent 10% of that; you're not charged any additional fees but the agent is able to make some money.

Another perk of using a travel agent is bulk buying power. If you're using an agent or agency that specializes in a specific item or class of travel and they drive a lot of business to a supplier because of this niching, the supplier may provide the agency with additional perks that they can pass on to their clients to sweeten the deal. For example, GoGo is the all inclusive arm of Flight Center. Now because GoGo keeps sending so much business to their suppliers, they're able to score things like free upgrades or free credits for their clients that the clients cannot get if they were to book a trip themselves.

This is also true when it comes to travel insurance. You need to make sure that you're purchasing the correct package from an agent that is licensed to sell to you. Even if the agency is licensed, the agent quoting and signing the package has to be licensed as well. There also may be some silly laws that prevent certain companies from selling to you. For example, almost 10 years ago the Government of Alberta decided that only insurance agencies in Alberta can sell insurance (including travel insurance) to Albertans. We were located in BC, we legally had to offer travel insurance to anyone who bought through us. We got around this by putting a disclaimer in for our clients in Alberta but you never know when something like this could cause issues for you when you actually need to make a claim.

You can also ask trusted friends families or colleagues for recommendations. Who have they booked with what excursion or hotel did they take your staff people that have gone before you are a great way to make sure that you're getting a legitimate vacation.

Now make sure to read the fine print and ask questions. Hotels a lot of times will charge a resort fee, which will be in addition to your nightly room cost. When you get to the checkout screen usually you will see the total cost and then sometimes you will see "plus daily resort fee" or "plus mandatory fees and taxes". This means that there's a good chance the price you're agreeing to when you make the reservation is going to be higher than the price you see so make sure to check the terms and conditions or the fine print to figure out what might be added on top.

A lot of the times the resort fees will cover things like pool access Wi Fi, but it might only include access to towels in the bathroom; the fine print will list what's covered by the fee. You can also thank Hawaii for starting the resort fee trend and Vegas for expanding the prices while reducing the inclusions. If you cannot find out this information on the website, do not hesitate to pick up the phone and call a reservation center or the hotel directly to ask. Resort fees are totally legal for hotels to charge so do not expect that you will get it waived.

My final suggestion is to comparison shop. Not only will this help you determine you're getting the best value, it can also help you realize when something is just too good to be true. I know quite a few people that have purchased tickets through third parties that they found off a search engine and then were hounded by people from a certain call center country to get them to pay for more because the flight they booked online wasn't actually available.

I've also had people ask me to price match these websites because they see it on a questionable third party but cannot find the same price on any legitimate website. If you cannot find that price or even close to it on a website that is well known that right there should be a big red flag.

And with that information, I think here is a great time to end the podcast. Now remember to visit the link in description to read up on scans that you might come across while traveling. Safe travels!

Thank you for listening and make sure to follow or subscribe so you never miss an episode, and can find us when you need to find your next trip. If you can recommend the Incurable Wanderlust to those that you travel with and also if you have a moment, leave us a rating and review. In the review if there are topics or destinations that you'd like to learn more about make sure to include it in your comment. Also, do not forget to visit for more helpful tips, tricks and trips, as well as podcast transcripts. And if you want to stay up to date with me, then follow me on Instagram @female_abroad . Remember the incurable wanderlust is a weekly podcast with new episodes released every Thursday. Thanks again for listening and until next week. Safe travels!