Dear Mr. Vaughn,
Recently you suggested in your column that travelers check out “sellers” of special priced trips, as some of them are bogus. Perhaps in a near future column, you would suggest how one checks out agents for various trips. Is there a good source for this or a special Web site where one can go to get this information? — Lorraine Schukar
Unfortunately, there is not one central Web site that contains information on travel agencies or MLM (multi-level marketing) schemes in general. Below are some recommendations that may assist you.
1. Ask the agent you are working with for the Washington State Seller of Travel License Number and CLIA or IATA (Professional Associations that Certify Agents) number and how long they have been in business.
2. Ask if they have an established trust account or required bond that is posted pursuant to the Seller of Travel License requirement.
3. Ask if they have a retail store location and where it is. You may feel more at ease by going into the store and dealing with the agent face to face.
4. If they are home based, ask who they are associated with (i.e. parent company, travel consortium, etc.). Also, are they licensed in the state of Washington? Are they part of a multi-level marketing scheme designed to exploit your interest in travel and entice more people to be part of their company for payment of fees? If they are, it is generally best to avoid doing business with them. Do you feel comfortable parting with several thousands of dollars for a vacation at the local Starbucks where you meet the home-based agent who doesn’t want you to come to their home?
5. Ask them to give you a summary of their full-time travel agent experience. MLM companies are famous for suggesting anybody can be a travel agent and book their own trips as well as trips for friends and family. While being offensive to travel agents in general, I can tell you from several years of experience: It takes substantial training and experience to become a competent agent. Ask yourself how much you know about 47 different cruise lines sailing nearly 300 ships to over 5,000 destinations annually. How many land resort operators are there and how do you ensure you are getting the best price, best value and are protected if they don’t deliver? It is a complicated and complex business. Certainly, booking an airline ticket online doesn’t require any particular skill level, as the decisions are pretty straightforward and simple. You are going from point A to point B and want to sit at the front or back of the plane in a window or aisle seat. When you get into more complicated trips, it definitely requires knowledge, skills and abilities that professional travel agents possess.
6. Check with the Consumer Affairs Division of the state attorney general’s office to see if they have been the subject of complaints or enforcement action.
7. Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if they have been the subject of complaints.
8. Go onto Google and type in the name of the travel agent, agency and parent company to see if anything comes up. Often, sites like RipoffReport.com will have information and customer complaints if it is a large problem.
9. Are they members of the local Chamber of Commerce?
10. Ask for referrals for travel agencies from friends, family and co-workers. If they have had a good experience with the agent, chances are you will be well taken care of.
11. I recommend that you purchase independent travel protection insurance if you don’t know who you are dealing with. You can go onto the Web sites for Access America or Travel Guard and purchase the insurance to protect your investment.
12. Does what they are offering sound reasonable? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Do some comparison shopping online to get a feel for the average value of a trip like you are planning. Be sure to compare apples to apples by using the same dates, types of accommodations, etc. If the company you are working with is offering the same thing at a much lower price, be wary. How are they doing that? Why would they do that? Be cautious. If mega-companies like Costco or others with their huge buying power can’t offer that kind of deal, how could some no-name company offer it?
I know this may be a little work, but if you are spending thousands of dollars, it is worth it to check out who you are dealing with. I hope this helps.
Jerry Vaughn is president of World Voyager Vacations in Federal Way. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.