Passenger Rights Travel Scams Travel Tips & Advice

What ‘Force Majeure’ Means, and Why You Need to Know

When you purchase travel from an airline or another operator, you enter into a contract for a service or goods. And if some unforeseen calamity prevents the seller from delivering the promised goods or services, the seller can claim “force majeure” as a basis for terminating the contract without incurring any liability for breach of contract.

The term is a dubious one taken from the 1804 Code Napoleon, and refers to occurrences beyond the reasonable control of a party to a contract that prevents fulfillment. It’s similar to “acts of God” and “frustration of purpose.” As such, the concept extends back centuries in common law.

It usually refers to natural disasters, and most would consider the COVID-19 pandemic a force majeure. So if the pandemic prevents an airline, hotel, or some other travel supplier from fulfilling a contract with you, you can’t really file a legal claim for breach of contract: That’s a fair and traditional use of force majeure.

But, some dishonest suppliers claim that force majeure means they don’t have to refund the money you’ve paid them when they can’t fulfill their end of the contract. So far there has been nothing upholding that position; if there’s force majeure, you’re still entitled to your money back. Don’t fall for it if some supplier tries to get out of refunding your money by claiming force majeure, but also don’t assume you have any right to the service or to file a claim against an airline.

As we recently reported in our guide to canceling a trip during the pandemic: The airline companies are not directly liable for disruptions caused by COVID-19; therefore, passenger-rights groups like AirHelp have said they will not be pursuing additional compensation for affected flights.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

Booking Strategy Travel Scams

How Can You Tell If a ‘Travel Club’ Is a Scam?

The idea of a “travel club” covers a wide range of organizations and activities, from scam-like timeshares to legitimate memberships that can save you money. All are certainly not equal.

Many are legitimate low-risk operations, such as AARP, AAA, and other independent travel promoters. The most reliable ones are those you’ll recognize the names of. Some resort chains call themselves “clubs,” like Club Med’s all-inclusive resorts. Membership to these is mostly harmless marketing hype, but can offer real discounts: The more exclusive organizations may be exempt from agreements that prohibit third-party agencies from slashing their rates.

Membership fees, if any, are usually nominal—often under $50 a year—and you can easily opt out if the club doesn’t deliver real value. All you have to lose is the minimal initial fee. The discounts they claim may be no better than you could get through other sources, but they’re usually not worse, either. For well-known travel brands like these ones, the scam risk is minimal.

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How to Spot a Travel Club That’s a Scam

Others, however, pose a big financial risk. Some require stiff membership fees up front—usually several hundred up to thousands of dollars—and they may commit you to big annual fees indefinitely. They can certainly be honest in that they deliver what they promise; many travelers are happy with their memberships despite the risks and limitations. Others, however, ask you to pay big up front for some promised future benefit. These may or may not be honest; some are clearly outright scams, and others simply inflate the benefits and disguise the drawbacks.

According to law enforcement officials, oftentimes the promised “discount” and “savings” never materialize: The promoters provide prices that are no better than travelers can buy openly, through a wide range of discount sources, and the promised “dream” vacations never seem to become available. They’re selling pie in the sky, and Marie Callender is better at making pies.

The big-dollar travel clubs are the ones should be subject to your scam scrutiny. Although no approach is foolproof, you can usually find out what you need by asking and fact-checking a few specific questions. Here’s what you need to consider:

The Timeshare-Based Travel Club 

Many large travel “clubs” are nothing more than conventional timeshare operations, operating as clubs to avoid the unsavory reputation of timeshares. What they sell is guaranteed annual occupancy, in multiples of weeks, at a vacation area—typically a beach destination, maybe with rights to vacations in a string of different areas. And the questions you need to ask about them are the same as for a timeshare:

What Do I Actually Get?

Examine the offer in detail to find out exactly what it promises, in specific terms. Does it promise a guaranteed specific interval at a specific location? Does it promise enrollment in a recognized exchange system? Check the fine print on the exchange, especially for limitations on how you can use your exchange “points.”

Is There a Switch to the Bait?

Is the asking price the full price? Does the featured buy-in include everything you have to pay up front, or are you subject to additional fees and charges? Does the promotion say or hint that you’d be better off with a higher-level membership? 

What Is My Ongoing Obligation?

In most property-based clubs, your buy-in is only the start. You’re also on the hook for various monthly/yearly “maintenance” payments and assessments. And the operator typically reserves the right to increase these payments without your approval or right of refusal.

Is There Any Asset Value?

Some very high-end vacation clubs actually own a string of vacation properties; members share in the ownership of these properties, and the club operator agrees to repurchase for a reasonable price. But most mass-market vacation clubs offer no asset value to back up your initial “investment.” At best, you own your “membership” and can sell it or pass it along to your heirs. However, some deals are for the term of your life only and revert to the owner on your death.

Is There an Escape Clause or Resell Limitation?

Club promoters may not accept a return, even for a reduced price, and some timeshare-based clubs may limit your ability to resell. The travel literature is full of horror stories of people who just want to get rid of ongoing payments, even if it means giving the interest back to the promoter with no return.

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The “Big-Discount” Travel Club

Other clubs promise they have access to large discounts on airfares, hotels, cruises, rental cars, tours, and just about any other travel service you can name. The ones that charge minimal fees are no more than a nuisance; if they don’t work out, you won’t have to refinance your house. But some ask for big membership fees, and those can be a big risk. As with timeshare clones, you have to ask some questions before you buy into one of them:

What’s My Exposure to Risk?

As with a timeshare, you have to check what you actually get, your future ongoing obligations, and, perhaps most importantly, your cancellation options. Check the fine print to make sure that the discounts are guaranteed. “Subject to availability” doesn’t cut it. 

Are the Claimed Discounts Real?

Challenge—and verify—all claimed “discount” deals. Don’t be gullible: Ask to see a list of currently-available deals, and check them through conventional search systems before you accept any broad claim that it will save you money.

Are the Posted Discount Prices Honest?

One hotel-discount membership organization I recently checked out posted some really attractive original prices. But when I went through to the final buy-it page, I found the initial prices did not include mandatory resort fees, taxes, and fees imposed by the travel club. The all-up total prices were about the same as I could get through Tripadvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company) search links.

What Do Others Say?

The club’s promotional materials probably highlight gushing testimonials. Don’t take them at face value—promoters can easily satisfy enough travelers to elicit a few genuine rave reviews, which the company will then highlight. Instead, check with review and complaint sites like the Better Business Bureau, Yelp, Google reviews (which usually now appear simply by Googling a business), and any other online review source you like. Also, Google the club to see if it has generated any serious complaints—or, even worse, law enforcement actions.

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Scam Rules to Know for Any Kind of Travel Club

Make sure any club you’re considering can pass an easy scam test. Often, you can answer the scam-or-not question before you even see the details of a club promotion. Initial claims often can offer some early scam clues:

Scam Clue 1: The promotion is claiming that you’re getting something “free.” No travel service of real value is ever free. The club promoter is making a profit somewhere along the process. Nothing is free. Repeat this to yourself as often as is necessary.

Scam Clue 2: A promotion claiming you’ve “won” something. If you didn’t knowingly sign up for a sweepstakes run by some outfit that had terms and conditions you agreed to, any out-of-the-blue “winner” notification is almost surely a scam.

Scam Clue 3: A promotion claiming you’ve been “specially selected” for membership. A lot of robocalls are currently making this pitch. The only outcome you’ve been selected for is a fleecing.

Scam Clue 4: A promotion demanding that you “act now” or lose the deal. If a deal is actually honest, it will still be there after you take a day or so to check it.

Scam Clue 5: A promotion that poses as an investment. Some property-based clubs claim, or at least imply, that your membership is an investment. That’s just false for anything that’s not outright property ownership. Fractional ownership such as timeshare may be a good way to vacation to the same place every year—but it’s a lousy overall investment.

I can’t guarantee that following these guidelines can totally shield you from a scam (no one can). But they’re a good start to protecting yourself.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015. It had been updated to reflect the most current information. Prior reporting by Calvin Hennick contributed to this story.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

Cities Health & Wellness Travel Scams

Is New Orleans Safe? Neighborhoods to Avoid and Other Warnings

The Big Easy is the home of gumbo and beignets, rich Creole culture, voodoo magic—and, of course, jazz. Whether you’re planning to come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, or any other time of year, you’ll discover a colorful, historic, lively city with many fascinating layers.

But is New Orleans safe? The short answer is, it depends. On where you go, how you carry yourself, and, as with anywhere, sheer luck. And also on whether you know the places to avoid in New Orleans.

According to recent crime data, New Orleans’ violent crime rate is several times above the national average, and its property crime rate is also significantly higher than the rest of America’s. New Orleans, then, is not among the cities generally considered completely safe for travelers, unfortunately. While there are no official New Orleans travel warnings that we know of, NOLA is often included on lists of the world’s 50 most crime-filled cities. That said, murder rates in New Orleans have dropped in recent years, and robberies are also on the decline.

Travelers should use common sense, follow practical safety tips, stay in the city’s safest areas, and know the areas to avoid in New Orleans to keep themselves safe.

Besides criminal activity, there’s also the danger of natural disasters in New Orleans, particularly hurricanes. In addition, New Orleans’ weather means that the city faces a higher risk of tornadoes than the rest of the United States.

As for terrorism, New Orleans is considered a realistic target, though city officials recently implemented a series of crime-fighting technologies that will prepare it “to prevent and react to acts of terrorism.” New Orleans has also partnered with the FBI to prevent and respond to terrorist threats.

Despite the grim statistics, New Orleans is still very much worth a visit. But you do need to know where to go, how to act, and the New Orleans neighborhoods to avoid. Read on for thorough advice about how to stay safe in New Orleans.

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Tips for Staying Safe in New Orleans

  • Like anywhere else, New Orleans crime is higher in certain neighborhoods. Know which New Orleans neighborhoods to avoid—and which to stick to. And definitely don’t visit the cemeteries without a formal tour group, especially after dark.
  • If you’re walking, stay alert and, if possible, travel with a companion. After dark, avoid strolling around by yourself. Public transit, including streetcars and taxis, is relatively safe, but driving in New Orleans can present some problems—vehicle break-ins are quite common in New Orleans, as are traffic accidents.
  • The French Quarter and Bourbon Street are popular with tourists but rife with petty criminals, scammers, and con artists. Enjoy exploring Vieux Carre, but do everything you can to avoid getting pickpocketed or scammed.

Top Travel Safety Products for New Orleans

Safe Places—and Places to Avoid—in New Orleans

Is New Orleans safe? Before you visit, learn about the dangerous parts of New Orleans, as well as the safer neighborhoods to visit.

In terms of New Orleans neighborhoods to avoid, gang violence has increased in the 6th District, which includes Central City, the Garden District, Hoffman Triangle, Irish Channel, Touro, and Zion City, where there have been shootings and homicides.

With regard to Central City specifically, it was once a thriving immigrant stronghold, then fell into disrepair—except for the recent revival of Oretha Castle Haley (OCH) Boulevard, which is certainly worth visiting. But after dark, don’t stray past that boulevard into other parts of Central City, which are areas to avoid in New Orleans.

Neighborhoods that have a particularly bad reputation because they cause significant spikes in New Orleans’ crime rate include Desire and Florida—parts of these two areas have crime statistics worse than almost anywhere else in the United States—as well as Viavant-Venetian Isles, Fischer Dev, Tulane-Gravier, West Lake Forest, Dixon, Pines Village, the Lower 9th Ward, and Treme Lafitte.

St. Claude, for its part, has substantially more assaults, robberies, burglaries, and thefts than the national average, and so should be considered an area of New Orleans to either avoid or take precautions when visiting. Much the same is true for Tulane-Gravier, St. Roch, Marigny, and Pines Village.

Another place to be wary of in New Orleans is Mid-City, for several reasons: First, if the city floods again, Mid-City will be one of the hardest-hit areas. Touring Canal Street should be safe, especially via streetcar, but don’t go too far southwest of Canal, as it can be dangerous and is considered one of the places to avoid in New Orleans.

For safer places to stay, consider areas with the lowest crime rates in New Orleans: Uptown and the Garden District especially (before Magazine, away from the river), but also the French Quarter’s most popular blocks, from Bourbon Street to Decatur Street, and from Canal Street to Ann Street, where violent crime is highly unlikely. Still, beware of pickpockets and scammers who prey on distracted tourists here. Other relatively safe neighborhoods in New Orleans include Lakeshore-Lake Vista, Lakewood, Lakeview, Audubon, and Black Pearl.

One final note regarding places to avoid in New Orleans: The city’s cemeteries are fascinating, historic, and haunting. Many tour companies offer informative tours. Definitely take these tours—but do not attempt to visit the cemeteries yourself, especially after dark. Criminals are known to hide behind the tombs and monuments, awaiting the perfect moment to mug or rob looky-loos.

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How to Get Around Safely in New Orleans

To steer clear of New Orleans crime, the usual travel safety advice applies: Stay in well-lit areas where there are plenty of people, take someone you know along with you, walk alertly and with confidence, and do all you can not to look like a tourist—in New Orleans, this includes refraining from wearing Mardi Gras beads unless it’s actually Mardi Gras. Also, when you’re walking, beware of the city’s uneven sidewalks.

Taking public transit is somewhat safe in New Orleans—a global assessment of major cities’ public transportation systems ranks it fair to middling. New Orleans tends to have better traffic than some other major cities, though road fatalities have risen in recent years, so drive with caution.

Streetcars are plentiful and safe within the French Quarter—and between the French Quarter and the Garden District—at least until midnight. After that, stick with companions and taxis or ridesharing options. If you’re headed above Bourbon Street, toward Rampart, take a cab or travel in a group—whatever it takes to avoid walking alone after dark.

If you’ve driven here or rented a car with which to tour New Orleans, be aware that vehicle break-ins are a widespread crime within city limits. If you’re planning on storing belongings in your car, make sure they’re completely out of sight, preferably in the trunk, to save yourself from becoming a victim of this common New Orleans crime.

New Orleans Nightlife Safety Tips

A lot of the fun here happens after dark, which is why the city’s bars and clubs are always so crowded, but how safe is New Orleans’ nightlife? Staying safe in New Orleans at night means following a few general rules and using common sense: When you’re preparing to go out, stash only your ID, a single credit card, your phone, and, if necessary, a small, easy-to-manage purse. Never accept a drink you haven’t seen go directly from the bartender to you, and never drink any beverage that you’ve let out of your sight—date rape druggings have been known to occur in New Orleans.

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The French Quarter and Bourbon Street

You can’t go to New Orleans, of course, without visiting the French Quarter and its world-famous main drag, Bourbon Street. The district, also called Vieux Carre, is the legendary birthplace of jazz and so much more. But is Bourbon Street safe? And is the French Quarter safe once you get beyond Bourbon Street?

The good news is that French Quarter crime is mostly limited to the types of pettiness typical of the world’s most popular tourist spots—you will have to stay alert to criminals like pickpockets, purse snatchers, and scammers, especially during times of elevated tourism, like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, and you may have to deal with the occasional aggressive panhandler. But overall, this isn’t a place where you have to fear for your overall physical safety, particularly during daylight hours, and especially if you stick to the safer Burgundy and Dauphine areas.

As you traverse the Quarter, be careful not to be distracted by pickpockets’ accomplices. If you’re traveling alone, consider taking a cab after the sun sets. Muggings aren’t unheard of here, so once Bourbon Street gets dark, keep your wits about you. This means that, to sidestep becoming a victim of New Orleans crime, you should limit alcohol consumption and avoid going around alone.

In the French Quarter, con artists are active. If someone attempts to aggressively clean your shoes or bet on something obvious, leave the scene as soon as possible—tourists are often targeted by the New Orleans shoe scam and various betting scams. On Bourbon Street, scammers try to sell faux metals as gold, or distract travelers with fake petitions or strange behavior so that someone else can pick your pocket. Credit card scams are also common in the French Quarter, so only withdraw money from established banks.

New Orleans Weather Risks

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the region, and, given how unpredictable New Orleans weather can be, there are no assurances that a similar event won’t happen again, especially in the face of escalating climate change. In addition, New Orleans suffers from a higher risk of tornadoes than the rest of the United States.

In case these types of natural disasters hit while you’re visiting New Orleans, head immediately to higher ground if there’s flooding, tune into local media so that you can follow official orders (including to evacuate or to shelter in place), stay indoors and away from windows and glass doors, lie on the floor under a sturdy object, and don’t bathe or use electrical appliances.

What to Pack

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—original reporting by Avital Andrews

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Airport Travel Scams

The One Thing You Should Never Do With Your Boarding Pass

You’re at the gate. You’ve got your boarding pass. You’re heading somewhere exciting and you just can’t wait until you get there to share the news with your friends on social media. So you snap a picture of your boarding pass and post it to Facebook. Harmless, right?

[st_content_ad]Maybe not.

Because the information printed on your boarding pass actually reveals a lot more than you think.

Boarding Pass Don’ts

As explained by KrebsonSecurity, there are websites that can read the barcodes on your boarding pass and provide someone else access to your travel information—your phone number, frequent flyer number, and information not only about the flight in question but also all future flights booked through the same number.

With access to your boarding pass, someone could even change your seat on the plane, cancel any future flights, and reset your account PIN.

You may love your friends, but would you trust everyone you know on Facebook or Instagram with your private travel information? Didn’t think so.

The takeaway here: Don’t post pictures of your boarding pass on social media.

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Jamie Ditaranto is a writer and photographer who is always looking for her next adventure. Follow her on Twitter @jamieditaranto.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.


Security Travel Scams

What to Do If You’ve Lost Your Bag, Wallet, Everything

You’re winging your way across Europe, having the time of your life, when you make a simple mistake. You set your bag down as you slurp an extra-large gelato, and before you know it … your bag is gone. Unfortunately, today’s the day you tucked your passport, credit cards, and extra cash in your bag instead of in your money belt. That sinking feeling is the realization that—except for the euro or two in your pocket—you’ve lost everything.

Odds are this won’t ever happen to you. But if it does, these tips can make even this worst-case scenario a minor bump in your European adventure.

Don’t Panic

First of all, take a breath. Panic clouds your judgment. And don’t beat yourself up: Even the most careful traveler can get ripped off. I once met a family in Amsterdam who managed to lose all their bags between the airport and their first hotel, and went on to have a very successful trip.

Ask for Help

If you’re in a country where little English is spoken, enlist the help of a local English-speaker to assist you in making phone calls or explaining the situation to the police. Try your hotelier or someone at the tourist office. Fellow travelers you’ve met can also be sources of help.

File a Police Report

Find a police officer and report the theft or loss. Having a police report may help with replacing your passport and credit cards, and is a must if you file an insurance claim for a lost rail pass or expensive travel gear.

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Use the Internet

Get online at your hotel (if they don’t have a public Internet terminal, explain the situation and ask if you can use their reception-desk computer). If you’re between hotels, look for free Internet access at the tourist office or a library. Use the Internet to find contact details for the nearest U.S. embassy and your bank, retrieve the information you have stored online, or solicit help from folks back home.

Replace your passport

This is your top priority. Without a passport, you can’t leave the country, and you’ll find it difficult to check in to a new hotel or receive wired funds. To replace your passport, you’ll need to go in person to the closest American embassy (usually in the capital city) or consulate (in major towns). A helpful list is at, or check a local phone book.

A replacement passport costs $145 and can generally be issued within a few days, or faster if you make a good case that you need it right away. If you don’t have the funds, the embassy will help you contact someone at home who can wire money directly to the embassy.

Cancel debit and credit cards

Within two days, cancel your lost or stolen debit and credit cards (limiting your liability to $50) and order replacements. Their 800 numbers don’t work overseas; call the global customer-assistance centers collect. Store these numbers on your phone in case you find yourself in this situation. You’ll need to tell them the name of the bank that issued the card and the type of card; it helps if you can also provide your credit card number and identification-verification details. Your bank can generally deliver a new card to you in Europe within two to three business days. Also, notify your mobile phone carrier if your phone was stolen.

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To avoid losing it all, be prepared

Wear a money belt. Keep a few $20 bills in a separate bag or hidden somewhere on your person. If you’re traveling with a partner, carry photocopies of each other’s passports and other important documents; store important documents in a password-protected account online; and/or leave copies with loved ones who can fax them to you if needed.

Keep track of your stuff

You’re more likely to inadvertently lose your bag than to have it stolen. I’ve heard of travelers leaving passports under pillows, bags on the overhead rack on the bus, cameras in the taxi, and once even a backpack under a bush beside a hiking trail. You’re especially vulnerable when you’re tired, confused, or using public transportation. Don’t absentmindedly set a bag down next to you while you wait in line at the train station; always be in physical contact with your stuff.

Nowadays, you can purchase small GPS-tracking devices for your keys, bags, etc. If you have lost your phone, follow these steps; nowadays you have even a better chance of getting your stuff back with location services.

Whatever happens, try to make the best of the situation. Be flexible and patient. It may not help at the time, but try to remember that your loss will make for a good story when you get home. Like a friend of mine says, “When it comes to travel, Tragedy + Time = Comedy.”

Products for Staying Safe While Traveling

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

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Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at and follow his blog on Facebook.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2011. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Beach Cities Health & Wellness Security Travel Scams

Is Belize Safe? What Travelers Need to Know

Belize is a Central American country that’s relatively tiny—fewer than 500,000 citizens—but has big tourism, with more than a million cruise visitors and nearly 500,000 overnight visitors each year. English is the official language of this former British colony.

What draws those throngs of tourists to Belize? It’s the gorgeous wildlife, clear waters, rich hues, and lively culture. Also, Belize has largely avoided the rampant development to which many of its neighbor countries have capitulated; Belize’s government is committed to protecting its nation’s spectacular natural wonders so that travelers continue to come—and continue to bring their dollars with them.

But is Belize safe? Opinions range about whether Belize is dangerous; Canada’s government urges travelers to “exercise a high degree of caution” due to violent crime, while the U.K. government asserts that “most visits are trouble free.” As for the United States, its government recommends “increased caution” due to the Belize crime rate.

Indeed, Belize has the unfortunate distinction of having one of the world’s highest per capita murder rates. In particular, gangs operate near the Guatemalan border, which does happen to be near some tourist sites. However, the U.K. government notes that travelers are almost never affected by this gang activity, thanks to the Belize Defence Force’s regular patrolling of these dangerous areas.

Overall, the rate of major crimes is decreasing in Belize, especially wherever police presence has increased—Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye, specifically, although the crime rate in Belize has increased along its western border and into the northern part of the country. There is “no recent history of terrorism in Belize,” and political protests tend to be nonviolent. However, the volume of confrontational crimes against tourists in Belize is rising, including armed robbery and theft, making Belize travel warnings more relevant than ever.

Tips for Staying Safe in Belize

  • How dangerous is Belize? That depends on where you choose to go. Belize safety is highest in popular tourist destinations like Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye. On the other hand, areas along the Guatemalan border, as well as parts of southern Belize City, are the most dangerous.
  • Key information will help keep you safe, including knowing which are the poisonous spiders in Belize (see below), taking the typical precautions to deter thieves, and steering clear of places where the Belize crime rate is highest.
  • Do not engage Belize prostitutes. It’s illegal to do so, and many of Belize’s sex workers do not take the proper medical precautions, can transmit contagious diseases, and are likely to be victims of sex trafficking.

Safe and Dangerous Places: Belize City, Ambergris Caye, and Beyond

In recent years, there have been some high-profile murders of U.S. citizens in Belize’s tourist areas, including in Ambergris Caye, Hopkins, and Corozal, although most of the incidents that have contributed to Belize’s increasing murder rate happened in and around Belize City.

Though caution is warranted in most of Belize’s tourist spots, it’s prudent to entirely avoid certain parts of the country, particularly parts of Belize City and areas near the Guatemalan border. As the U.S. Department of State advises, “Minimize travel to the south side of Belize City to official business only, and avoid personal trips due to gang activity. … Several tourist areas along the western border with Guatemala have active military patrols due to security concerns. Some excursions to view ruins on the western border with Guatemala require a military patrol.”

It’s worth noting, however, that the greatest decrease in the Belize crime occurred in the tourist-friendly areas of Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye—though even when spending time in these regions, travelers should take steps to keep themselves and their belongings secure; Ambergis Caye safety is a contested issue and shouldn’t be taken as a given.

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How to Get Around Safely in Belize

The Belize safety issues that you should be most aware of include pickpocketing, burglary, and hotel-room theft, all of which happen throughout Belize. You’re most likely to get victimized by petty thieves, however, whenever you’re in crowded tourist areas and on public transit; these types of miscreants are major contributors to the Belize crime rate.

Some tips for staying safe in Belize include keeping your hotel room door locked, including when you’re in there, and using your room’s safe whenever possible. Cooperate if you’re confronted by a thief. Stay away from deserted areas, don’t hitchhike, don’t buy or do drugs, don’t drink too much, and keep all valuables out of sight—or, better yet, leave them at home. (In particular, don’t leave anything valuable on the beach when you’re swimming.)

Don’t run a tab at bars, and try to keep your credit card within view, since “skimming” is a common scam that happens when bartenders or waiters steal credit card information during a legitimate transaction.

Note, too, that Belize’s roads, although they’re improving, are often in poor condition, and traffic fatalities remain a real danger in Belize, especially during the rainy season. Four cruise passengers died in separate vehicle accidents in late 2019.

Belize’s buses aren’t particularly safe either, as they’re often poorly maintained and drivers are notorious for unsafe passing.

Taxis—identifiable by their green license plates—are your safest option for getting around Belize, though you’ll want to insist that the driver does not pick up additional passengers during your ride, and negotiate the fare in advance, since there are no meters. Uber and Lyft do not currently operate in Belize.

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As for natural disasters, it’s hurricanes and tropical storms that you should be wary of if you’re planning to travel to Belize. The region’s hurricane season spans from early June through late November, with September and October being the most heavily affected months. Although Belize does have a hurricane response plan, it’s considered insufficient should a Category 1 storm hit; resources would be quickly exhausted and roads are likely to flood, according to the U.S. State Department.

Another concern to keep in mind: poisonous spiders in Belize. Although wildlife is a key attraction here, some of Belize’s animals can be dangerous. (Editor’s note: There are a few disturbing images at this link.) Look out for spiders like black widows and brown recluses, amphibians like the poisonous dart frog, and snakes like the tommygoff, or fer-de-lance, which will often stand its ground rather than slithering away. Be careful where you step and use a flashlight when walking at night.

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Prostitution in Belize and San Pedro

Belize is a transit country along known drug and human trafficking smuggling routes, and this increases the number of Belize prostitutes, many of them—especially foreign-born children and women—victims of the sex slave trade. In particular, San Pedro Town, in southern Ambergris Caye, is a Belizean stopoff point for drugs and trafficking.

Criminal organizations operating out of nearby Guatemala and El Salvador are responsible for much of Belize’s gang activity related to human trafficking, and the U.S. State Department has categorized Belize as a Tier 3 nation, meaning that the nation “does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so.”

Any engagement with Belize prostitutes is highly inadvisable. Though prostitution is technically legal in Belize, contracting a sex worker’s services is not. And though enforcement remains weak (many officials look the other way), sex tourists still risk getting HIV, since testing here is strictly voluntary. They could also face severe legal consequences should officials decide to prosecute, and they contribute to a violent, corrupt system that condones human slavery. It’s not worth it.

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—original reporting by Avital Andrews

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Is Tasmania Safe? Warnings and Dangers Travelers Need to Know

An island off the southern coast of Australia, Tasmania makes an out-of-the-way but rewarding destination. But is Tasmania safe for travelers? Below is information about wildlife to watch out for and tips to keep yourself safe.

Tasmanian Snakes

There are three kinds of snakes in Tasmania. The white-lipped snake is generally harmless, but the tiger snake and the lowland copperhead snake are highly venomous and can be dangerous to humans. To be safe, it’s best to keep your distance from any snake in Tasmania.

Biting Ants

Another common danger in Tasmania are the local ants. Known as jack jumpers, they are small but nasty. Look out for black and orange ants. The ants are poisonous. If you think you’ve been nipped, you might notice an itch. Get immediate medical attention.

Driving in Tasmania

Tasmania is a large island with long distances. Driving is often a necessity. However, be careful when driving. Many roads are narrow and can get slippery in the rain. Slow down whenever possible in order to keep safe, especially in rain or snow. The roads are also full of animals crossing. Look for animals ranging from wallabies to Tasmanian devils as you’re driving. You don’t want to hurt the animal or yourself. Be particularly careful at night as many Tasmanian animals are nocturnal and will be more active during this time.

Climate Hazards in Tasmania

If you visit Tasmania during the colder months, you may encounter snow and ice, especially at higher elevations. Like the rest of Australia, Tasmania is sometimes subject to bushfires. The Tasmanian government notes that in the face of climate change, “Tasmania is expected to experience more heat waves, more frequent and intense bushfires, rising sea levels, increased storm surge, and increase in wind and flooding risk in certain locations.”

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated with the most current information.

Travel Scams Travel Technology

This Scary Travel Scam Hacks Directly into Your Phone

Your phone is on two percent battery and you’re stuck at the airport due to a delayed flight, when you see your saving grace—a free charging station at the gate! We’ve all been there, and we’ve all used them, especially while traveling, and you probably didn’t think twice about plugging in. Well, you should.

“Juice jacking,” as the travel scam is called, targets desperate travelers in need of a charge. Daniel Smith, a security researcher at Radware explains how this works. “Attackers can use fake charging stations to trick unsuspecting users into plugging in their device. Once the device is plugged in the user’s data and photos could be downloaded or malware can be written onto the device.”

Most recently, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office issued a new warning about the scam that became a concern in 2016, warning travelers to “avoid using public USB power charging stations in airports, hotels, and other locations because they may contain dangerous malware.”

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Hackers can download anything that is on your phone, since the charging port is doubling as a data port. We’re talking passwords, emails, photos, messages, and even banking and other personal information via apps.

How to Prevent Juice-Jacking

Don’t use public charging stations. If you are a heavy mobile user, bring an external battery pack so you can avoid risking your device’s privacy at a charging station,” suggests Smith.

Here are some thin and lightweight external batteries that are easy to travel with:

8 tiny backupbatteries thatcould save your trip


He also recommends plugging into your laptop to charge your phone if you’re traveling with one and don’t have an external charger. And, if you find yourself always on low battery and relying on public charging stations, there are products out there that will protect your phone data while charging in public spots.

Consider purchasing the super tiny SyncStop, which is a “USB defender” that protects any data from being stolen off of your phone.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

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The Airbnb Nightmare That Could Happen to You

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I was packed and ready to board my red-eye, transatlantic flight to England when I got the e-mail: My Airbnb had been canceled 11 hours before I was set to check in. There had been a “plumbing issue at the property,” the host told me, and staying there would be impossible given the lack of running water and necessary repairs.

“We’re happy to help you select another property to stay at!” a cheery Airbnb representative told me via phone as I frantically pulled up an Airbnb search page to see that only a handful of properties in London-proper were still bookable at 9 p.m. England time. “I’m not sure what that means,” I flatly replied.

My answer was icy for a reason: This was the second time an Airbnb host had canceled on me less than 12 hours before my arrival. “Plumbing issues” were cited for both. A measly 10 percent discount on a new booking was offered for both.

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As Airbnbs go, most people choose them for one of two reasons: affordability over local hotel options (this was my case, as I was visiting London in summer on set dates for a wedding), or for the advantage of staying in homey digs with amenities like a kitchen and laundry. But recent reports uncovering Airbnb scams paired with the company’s fuzzy cancellation/refund policies are reason to consider the possibility that your rental might end up costing you more money, and for far lesser lodging.

In my experience, I had no choice but to rebook one of the few Airbnbs left—a seedy option that was far from the area I had originally chosen to stay in, and that was more expensive than the original, larger, nicer listing I had booked months in advance. The hotels left by then were both astronomically expensive and no better than the second-rate rental option. Sitting on my six-hour flight after the mere hour I had to rebook, I increasingly began to feel like I should be owed something. It wasn’t until I complained to Airbnb multiple times via email (which went ignored) and then on social media that the company refunded me anything.

In a spate of recent reports, Airbnb customers detail being canceled on for similar reasons (plumbing, in many cases) even later in the process than I was. reporter Allie Conti recently detailed her Chicago listing being canceled 10 minutes before check-in time and talked to a slew of other customers with similar horror stories. Ultimately, she uncovered an Airbnb scam that spans cities and relies upon fake listings.

Note: I don’t think either of my canceled listings abroad seemed similarly fake, as Airbnb processed the rebooking rather than the owner—but I can say that Airbnb shrugged responsibility for the cancellation and my incurred cost until I publicly called them out on social media.

“For every person who doesn’t receive a complete refund, Airbnb makes money,” Conti said in her story on Airbnb scams. Airbnb is valued at $35 billion, and plans to go public next year. For comparison, hotel chains Marriott and Hilton are valued at $43 billion and $25 billion, respectively.

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Yet last-minute Airbnb cancellations seem to be a grim reality for many travelers: A recent poll by airfare deal site (SmarterTravel’s sister site) found that 32 percent of over 1,000 respondents had experienced a last-minute Airbnb cancellation, with half of them saying they were given less than 24 hours of notice. That’s 160 cancellations.

If a hotel ever canceled a room on a customer who prepaid with just hours to spare, it would most likely put the customer in an upgraded room, or in a different hotel at no extra cost (if no rooms were available at the original hotel). That’s generally what you’re owed as a paying customer with a binding contract—equal or greater value for what you paid. Or your money back in full.

But Airbnb has long told victims of last-minute cancellations that they simply need to rebook a new property on their own, using the prepaid amount toward a new reservation, or be refunded their money—”which could take several weeks.” I did request a simple refund in my prior Airbnb cancellation, but in the London case I couldn’t because of the red-eye-flight logistics involved.

When all was said and done, for a second time I wished I had just booked a hotel. And next time I will.

Airbnb’s CEO recently announced that the company will take a more hands-on approach to vetting its “verified” listings to guarantee accuracy and safety—without providing many specifics about how. According to travel website Skift’s response to the move: “Guarantees aren’t really anything new to the world of online travel; Travelocity has offered a 100 percent guest guarantee to customers for years, for instance. Platforms like Airbnb, however, have played off a lack of guarantees and skirting local regulations to help grow its platform over the years.”

What to Wear this Season

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her adventures on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

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6 Cruise Scams You Should Never Fall For

Those slick TV ads can make a cruise look like the “dream come true” experience of a lifetime. And a cruise can, in fact, be a wonderful experience. But sometimes that experience morphs from dream to disaster. A cruise is both a means of transportation and a destination resort with its own passport requirements. As a result, it can suffer some of the problems of both—especially if you fall victim to certain cruise scams.

The “Free Cruise” Scam

Cruise scam

[st_content_ad]This ploy has been around a long time, and it dominates the online reports of cruise scams. You get a letter saying you have “won” or “been selected for” a free Bahamas cruise (often from a company with “Caribbean” in its name despite the fact that the Bahamas are not in the Caribbean).

What you actually get in this cruise scam is some combination of (1) “fees and taxes,” including those imposed by the cruise line in addition to government fees; (2) a requirement to sit through a high-pressure timeshare presentation that may go on for four or five hours; (3) a dingy cabin in an obsolete ship without air-conditioning; (4) land accommodations in a run-down resort; and (5) constant pressure to “upgrade” ship or land accommodations. The internet is full of stories from folks who took the bait of this cruise scam.

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Local Cruise Scams

Cruise scam

Among the most prevalent cruise scams are those involving locals at ports of call. Usually they involve a minor loss of time and money, but occasionally they can be worse. Typical scams include fake taxi drivers who call out “taxi,” grab your baggage, ask for a payment, then hand you over to a real taxi driver who ignores what you paid the tout and charges you the going rate. In other cases, drivers will take you 10 miles for a two-mile trip.

Of course, you can find (or be found by) pickpockets, exchange dealers who give you counterfeit currency, and merchants who cheat on your credit card bill. Be especially wary of a merchant who tries to bill your card in U.S. dollars—it sounds nice, but it puts you on the hook for an extra exchange scam. Vigilance and wariness can insulate you from most of these local cruise scams, but there’s always a chance you’ll still fall victim. And if you get caught, you have very little chance of any recovery.

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Bad Sightseeing Tours

Cruise scam

This one isn’t quite an outright cruise scam, but many port visitors are really annoyed by a sightseeing tour that spends an hour at a souvenir store chosen because of the quality of its kickbacks rather than of its merchandise. A related minor cruise scam is the artwork produced by local street “artists” who are really just coloring in between the faint lines of a pre-printed scene.

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Online Cruise Scams

Cruise scam

A potentially dangerous cruise scam can compromise your identity, files, or both: an email apparently sent by a cruise line or resort asking you to hit a link for more information on your upcoming cruise. These originate with someone who has hacked the cruise line’s or operator’s data to get the names of current and prospective customers. And, obviously, either the message itself or the link contains malware. This online cruise scam is like those fake emails from FedEx or UPS going around that ask you to verify something about an upcoming shipment.

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Fake List Prices

Cruise scam

If it’s “75 percent off,” it’s bound to be a good deal—right? Not necessarily. The base price from which that 75 percent is deducted is often complete fiction. Even “brochure price” means very little. So forget about big discounts from fake list prices. You can decide whether a deal is good by comparing its price with prices for comparable cruises and by checking impartial cruise review websites such as SmarterTravel’s sister site, Cruise Critic.

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The Cruise Line Contract

Cruise scam

Although not a cruise scam in the classic sense, the worst problems you can face arise from the contract that you agree to when you buy a cruise. Those contracts are outrageously one-sided “contracts of adhesion” you would never sign if you had a chance to negotiate them yourself.

Although contracts differ a bit from company to company, almost all let the cruise line off the hook for a lot of problems and make you sign away what would normally be your rights as a consumer. Among them, the cruise line can:

  • Cancel your trip for any lawful reason without prior notice.
  • Disembark you or change your accommodations without liability for compensation or refund.
  • Require that you accept its refund fees without recourse.
  • Deviate from routes and schedules without prior notice.
  • Refuse any refund or damage claim resulting from a cancellation or change due to factors not within the cruise line’s exclusive control.
  • Make a proportionate refund if your cruise ends early or, at the cruise line’s option, give you only a future cruise credit.
  • Insulate itself from any liability for actions performed by any subcontractor, including the ship’s doctor and shore excursion operators.
  • Search your stateroom and belongings without prior notice.
  • Refuse liability for emotional distress or mental suffering under any circumstances other than those you can prove in court as resulting from personal injury or imminent risk of injury.
  • Limit your ability to litigate an issue to a single designated federal court or even a foreign country.
  • Prohibit you from entering a class-action lawsuit.
  • Value your personal property at no higher than $50 per traveler or $100 per stateroom unless you buy supplemental insurance.
  • Prevent you from drinking locally bought liquor while on board.
  • Require that disputes be resolved by compulsory arbitration.

The is just a partial list; be sure you’re aware of what you’re signing up for when you make that initial cruise purchase. Consider buying cruise insurance for a little extra protection in case things go wrong.

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Arts & Culture Money Oddities Travel Scams

Europe Travel Scams Every Tourist Needs to Know

Europe is chock-full of bucket list destinations that attract crowds year-round, from cheery Christmas markets to sunny beaches packed with visitors in summer. And with crowds come the inevitable and creative travel scams that con artists expertly execute on unsuspecting tourists.

[st_content_ad]Whenever you travel, you risk falling victim to travel scams: That’s been true since Marco Polo, and while such scams can affect anyone, knowing what to look for might help you avoid getting ripped off. You’re more susceptible to trickery in unfamiliar settings, after all, and scams usually have been perfected over years of trial and error.

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The Most Bizarre Europe Travel Scams

Gelato in hand, you’re strolling down a street in Italy when suddenly, a woman starts loudly arguing with a street vendor. A crowd gathers as he accuses her of shoplifting. To prove her innocence, she starts to strip: Once she’s down to her underwear, the vendor apologizes, the woman leaves, and the onlookers disappear—but so have their wallets, thanks to a team of pickpockets who were working the show.

This is just one of the bizarrely inventive ways that European scam artists operate. The good news is that if you’re wise to their tricks, you can just marvel at their ingenuity. The sneakiest pickpockets look like well-dressed businessmen, generally with something official-looking in their hand. Lately many are posing as tourists with fanny packs, cameras, and even guidebooks.

No matter which country you’re in, assume beggars are pickpockets and any scuffle is simply a distraction by a team of thieves. If you stop for any commotion or show, put your hands in your pockets before someone else does (or, even better, wear a money belt).

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Set-up scams are time-tested and popular. On the busy streets of Barcelona, Berlin, and Florence, you’ll find the shell game: Players pay to guess which of the moving shells hides the ball. It looks easy, but the winners are all ringers, and you can be sure that you’ll lose if you play.

The most rampant scams are more subtle, such as being overcharged by a taxi driver. Some cabbies will pretend to drop a large bill and pick up a hidden small one, then tell you that you didn’t pay enough. Others will select the pricier “night and weekend” rate on their meter, even on weekdays. To decrease your odds of getting ripped off, call for a taxi from a hotel or restaurant, or use your phone to order a rideshare instead. If you do hail a cab, choose one with a prominent taxi-company logo and telephone number. Either way, insist on using the meter, agree on a price up front, or know the going rate. If, for whatever reason, I’m charged a ridiculous price for a ride, I put a reasonable sum on the seat and say goodbye.

Whenever cash is involved, it pays to be alert. If someone offers to help you use a cash machine, politely refuse (the person wants your PIN code). If a cash machine eats your ATM card, check for a thin plastic insert with a little flap hanging out—crooks use tweezers to extract your card. Cashiers, and even bank tellers, thrive on the “slow count,” dealing out change with odd pauses in hopes that rushed tourists will gather up the money early and say “grazie.” Also, be careful when paying with large bills in restaurants and stores, and always inspect your change—in Italy, the now-worthless 500-lira coin looks like a two-euro coin.

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Some thieves hang out at train-ticket machines, eager to assist you in buying tickets with a pile of your quickly disappearing foreign cash. And skip the helping hand from official-looking railroad attendants at the Rome train station. They’ll lead you to your seat, then demand a “tip.”

In Spain, women offer you sprigs of rosemary (as if in friendship) and then grab your hand, read your fortune, and demand payment. Don’t make eye contact, don’t accept a sprig, and say firmly but politely, “No, gracias.”

Just because someone looks official doesn’t mean they are. In Italy, “Tourist Police” may stop you on the street, flash bogus badges, and ask to check your wallet for counterfeit bills or “drug money.” You won’t even notice some bills are missing until after they leave.

Never open your door to “hotel inspectors.” One waits outside while the other comes in to take a look around. While you’re distracted, the first thief slips in and snags valuables off your dresser.

In Vienna, official-looking women decked out in long velvet capes roam famous sights, claiming to work for the opera house and offering to sell you tickets. The tickets are fakes, and the only seats you’ll be buying are the ones on the bus back to your hotel.

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The Most Common Europe Travel Scams by Country

And there are still more travel scams to know about if you’re visiting Europe, according to an AIG Europe infographic outlining the eight most common scams by country in Europe. Study up so you don’t fall victim to “highway pirates” or bogus police officers on your next trip.

Italy, Puncturing Tires: Beware of “highway pirates” in Italy who will puncture your tires in a parking lot and follow you until you’re forced to stop. They will then pretend to help you while robbing you at the same time. If you do get a flat tire, be cautious about who offers to help you—especially around Naples—and never leave your valuables and luggage in your car.

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France, False Petitions: Be wary of children who pretend to be disabled and claim to represent an accredited charity. They will ask for your signature—and then your money. Ignore them and report the scam to police. Organized scammers like this receive a 1 million euro fine in France.

Spain, Fake Entry Fees: Scam artists are posing with fake IDs at the Spanish border and asking for an “entry fee” into Gibraltar. There is no entry fee to pass through, so ignore anyone asking for money and keep your valuables out of sight.

Czech Republic, Impersonated Police Officers: In this grand scam, a group of “police offers” will appear and accuse you of committing a crime. They will ask to see your wallet and passport, which is against the law, so you should refuse and ask to be taken to the nearest police station instead. This will most likely make them go away. Be sure to report them to the local authorities after.

Hungary, Counterfeit Money: Taxi drivers and dingy currency exchange booths commonly pass on counterfeit bills to unsuspecting tourists. Make sure to exchange your money only at a bank or in the airport, and double check that the bills you receive are the correct currency.

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Netherlands, Distraction Scams: Pay particular attention to this at restaurants in Central Amsterdam. Someone might come into the restaurant and either pretend to look for a friend or cause another distraction. Instead he or she will steal your bag right in front of you. Make sure you keep your possessions in your line of sight, and don’t leave bags or coats hanging on the back of your chair.

Croatia, Extortionate Bills: Some Croatian bars and restaurants—especially gentleman’s clubs—will add an unexplained surcharge to your bill, expecting you not to have enough cash. If you are short on funds, they’ll take you to an ATM and demand that you take out more money. It’s best to research restaurants, clubs, and bars before going, and ask your hotel (rather than taxi drivers, who may be in on the scam) for recommendations.

Poland, Phony Taxis: At airports and major tourist attractions in Poland, many unregulated drivers will pick up unsuspecting tourists and claim their meter is broken. Avoid this overcharge by only using official taxis; check for the name and number of the company on the car. Another way to check their legitimacy is by looking for a rate card.

We don’t mean to paint Europe as a dangerous place. In fact, it’s safer than America. Muggings in Europe are uncommon. Thieves want to separate you from your money painlessly. Europe travel scams are easy to avoid if you recognize them. But remember: Even the most vigilant traveler can get conned. If this happens, don’t let it ruin your trip. With the right attitude and lighter bags, you can still have a wonderful time.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2016. It’s been updated to reflect the most current information. Rick Steves, Ashley Rossi, and Ed Perkins contributed to this story.

Money Travel Scams

The 15 Biggest Travel Scams, and How to Avoid Them

You know that old saying “there’s a sucker born every minute”? Don’t be one of them. Stay ahead of these surprisingly effective travel scams to keep your vacation plans from falling apart. The schemes below may be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to travel cons, but preparing yourself for these common swindles is a good place to start.

Vacation Clubs

Wholesale travel clubs claim that you’ll have access to incredibly cheap vacations if you join. However, once you pay the joining fees, you find that the deals offered aren’t any better than what you can find for yourself online—for free. Consumer advocate Christopher Elliott, whose book Scammed lays out a helpful roadmap for being a responsible and effective shopper in a world of corporate swindles, has told SmarterTravel: “I’ve never come across a legitimate travel club. My advice is to run, don’t walk.”

Elliott advises that anyone considering joining a travel club do research with a very critical eye beforehand. Simply doing an internet search for the name of the travel company plus “travel scam” will usually reveal a host of problems experienced by other members. Also check the Better Business Bureau for complaints about the specific service before you buy.

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Timeshare Sales

Ed Perkins, a longtime contributing editor at SmarterTravel, calls the up-front fees for selling your timeshare the biggest travel scam out there.

“Scammers promise to get you out from under, saying they have buyers, but all they really do is take a fee, upward of $400, and do nothing,” says Perkins.

Never pay up front to have someone help you sell your timeshare. If you want out, go to a licensed company and check them out with the Better Business Bureau before listing with them. If you’re having trouble getting out of your timeshare, work with a rental company and rent it out to recoup some of the money until you can sell.

Vacation Certificates

Ed Perkins also warns against prepaid vacation certificates: “Travel scams promise really great prices but deliver nothing. The idea here is to get the up-front money, then keep stalling: ‘Sorry, these dates are sold out; try again soon.’ They delay until people just quit trying.” Or the company charges huge additional fees to redeem the certificates, and the trip is considerably less luxurious than promised. Before prepaying for a vacation package, be sure to research fees and blackout dates, as well as the company’s reputation.

“Travel-Agent” Card Mills

Ah, the life of travel agents. Cheap hotels and airfares are thrown at their feet once they pull out their travel-agent ID cards, right? Wrong. Don’t believe the hype from outfits that promise to issue you a travel-agent ID that provides access to discounts. Scammers charge hundreds of dollars for these cards, but victims who shell out will quickly find that no place will accept the fakes, and they never see any discounts. The only way to avoid this travel scam is to not buy a travel-agent card if you’re not a travel agent—there’s really no legal way to get around it.

Car-Rental Collision Damage Waivers

Rick Steves calls the car-rental collision damage waivers (CDW) a “collision damage waiver racket” for a reason. When you rent a car, the company often pressures you to buy a CDW supplement, which will prevent you from having to pay a high insurance deductible if the car is damaged. (The deductible can be thousands of dollars before insurance kicks in.)

But most major credit cards already include deductible collision coverage for free, so check your credit-card terms and pay for the rental car with your credit card. Then you’ll be covered without having to shell out extra cash for phony insurance. Most credit-card collision coverage is secondary, meaning you have to claim from your regular insurance first. If you don’t want a claim on your insurance, you can buy third-party primary collision coverage from the booking agency for about $10-$11 a day. Or, if it’s pricey, you can instead buy coverage from an independent outlet; sites like offer rental coverage from $7.99 per day. That’s about one-third of what the rental companies charge.

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“You Won a Free Trip!”

If you’ve ever dropped your business card in a “win a free trip” drawing at a restaurant or signed up to win at a fair, you may have gotten a phone call, letter, or email claiming you’ve won a free vacation. These days, the hustle is often via robocall. Be wary—many of these “prizes” are actually booby traps in which you’ll have to pay hefty fees to claim the vacation or give your credit card number to “verify your eligibility,” resulting in identity theft. After a recent lull in monitoring these robocalls, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is again cracking down on them. If you’re scammed, get the names of resorts and airlines included in the prize and call them independently to verify the trip. Never give credit card information to someone who cold-calls you, and be sure to get details of the prize in writing before accepting.

Fake International Driving Permits

The FTC also warns against fake International Driving Permits (IDPs). Some countries require tourists to have an IDP in addition to a U.S. driver’s license. However, there are only two American associations that are legally authorized to issue IDPs—the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA). Fraudulent companies sell fake IDPs over the Internet, but you’ll pay hundreds of dollars for a permit only to face legal problems for using the imposter IDs in another country.

The Bait and Switch

The hotel you’re thinking of booking is suspiciously cheap, but the property’s website makes it look beautiful and centrally located. When you arrive, the hotel is run-down, missing amenities, and in a deserted part of town—and it won’t refund your money. Avoid this travel scam by using websites like Oyster (one of SmarterTravel’s sister sites) and TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent site) to read real customer reviews and see honest photos of the property.

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“Grandparent” Travel Scams

Even if you’re not currently traveling, you can still be the victim of a travel scam: The State Department warns that scammers will call an older relative or friend of someone who’s away on vacation and pretend to be the traveler in desperate need of help. The scammer usually poses as the traveler or a foreign government official and directs the victim to wire a large sum of money, citing an array of things: They have been robbed and need money to return to the United States, or they have run into legal trouble and need bail money. Sometimes the scammer will even pretend to be someone from the U.S. embassy calling on behalf of the relative for money. Never wire money in response to a suspicious phone call; instead contact the State Department to ask if the situation is legitimate, or call your relative directly. If you encounter this scam, the FBI advises you report it to local authorities or a state consumer protection agency. You can also file a complaint with the FCC.

The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) offers the following advice to prevent “grandparent” travel scams:

  • Never give out personal information such as account numbers, Social Security numbers, mothers’ maiden names, passwords, or other identifying information in response to suspicious calls or to callers demanding immediate action.
  • Scammers can spoof the caller ID of their number to make it appear to be from a trusted source.
    • If a caller claiming to represent a company or a government agency asks for personal information, hang up and verify the authenticity of the request by contacting the company or agency yourself, using information found on its official website or through other means such as the phone book.
    • If a caller claims to represent a company with which you have an account—such as a utility or a bank—hang up and check the contact information on a recent bill or statement, then call the company back yourself.

Rental Property Scam

Rule of thumb: Never go to Craigslist (or anything similar) for a rental home. Scammers will place an ad and ask the victim to wire money to secure the vacation rental—and then disappear. Or they’ll have you send money to them rather than to the actual property owner. Avoid the rental scam risk by going through a reputable vacation rental site with protections and insurance guarantees such as Airbnb, HomeAway, or SmarterTravel’s sister site FlipKey, all of which will protect your money from fraudsters.

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Bogus Travel Agents

Don’t trust a tour operator or packager you don’t know of or can’t find reviews of easily online—especially with a big payment. An even more worrisome version of these travel scams in the U.S. is fake versions of websites: You search for a hotel or tour and get through to what looks like a legitimate website from a known company. But it isn’t: It’s a copy-cat version run by a scamster who paid a lot of money for a good search engine position. At best, after you make a payment, the hotel will honor your reservation—but probably at a higher price than you should have paid. At worst, you get nothing.

Take a close look at the website’s URL. Unsure if it’s right? Do a new search to find the company’s homepage and compare it to the first half of the link—any rogue characters, numbers, or symbols might mean it’s a fake. You should also never pay for a service via wire transfer, or any other irreversible money-transfer system.

Currency Short-Changing

A longstanding travel scam relies on tourists’ unfamiliarity with a foreign currency. This can take various forms: counterfeit bills, miscounting change, mixing smaller bills into what should be a pile of larger notes, etc. Get to know the bills of any country you visit, and limit the amount of foreign currency you exchange and have with you at any time. Get your foreign currency from an ATM, and put all your big-ticket purchases on a credit card.

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Counterfeit Event Tickets

These days, high-tech forging can make almost any piece of paper or cardboard look authentic. Don’t buy a high-priced ticket (or even a low-priced one) to a sold-out event from someone on the street or via an unfamiliar website. You might be turned away at the gate. Buy from an authorized source—the box office or an online dealer that’s a verified reseller.

Fake Tour Guides

Have you ever been walking in a tourist-frequented area and had someone approach you offering to be your guide? Of course, you would have no idea in this situation whether this person has any useful knowledge of the city, but you may be coaxed into a nearby store that they claim offers the “best” prices on local specialties.

Pre-arrange a guide through an official tourism office or a local travel agency so you can compare prices and know what you’re getting. I once arranged the best local guide I ever had through an American Express agency. A university history professor showed us the fantastic National Museum of Damascus in Syria.

Credit Card Fraud

One of many potential credit card fraud risks is the familiar “verification call” gambit. In this travel scam, within a few hours of checking into a hotel, you get a call from someone claiming to be at the front desk to “verify” the details of the card you used. Of course, that caller is a scammer with no connection to the hotel who just wants to get your card data. In this and any other situations, be highly suspicious of anyone who calls you asking for credit or debit card information, no matter how plausible the excuse may seem. Tell the caller you’ll be right down to settle the problem, and instead call a known number, like the hotel’s direct line, to settle whatever account is involved.

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2012. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Caroline Morse Teel and Ed Perkins contributed to this story.

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What Happens When a Travel Provider Like Thomas Cook Shuts Down?

By now, you’ve undoubtedly heard that Thomas Cook Group, the British travel operator—which encapsulates retail travel agencies, wholesale tour packagers, and even airlines—has shuttered under bankruptcy. This is the largest tour operator failure in not-so-recent memory; it’s left some 600,000 travelers stranded at their foreign destinations, and many tour buyers who haven’t started their trips yet are unlikely to see the tours they bought or any money they prepaid. The issue raises the question: What happens to customers when a tour operator they paid shuts down; are there any legal guarantees of reimbursement? The short answer: only for some people.

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The Thomas Cook Shutdown

As of September 23, all Thomas Cook retail agencies have closed and all tour operations are down. Two affiliated airlines, Condor and Thomas Cook Airlines Scandinavia, are still operating. Condor has told travelers with Condor tickets that it will accommodate them on flights to return home, but will not accommodate travelers who haven’t started Thomas Cook package trips yet.

According to stranded Thomas Cook travelers and multiple media reports, many hotels are owed money—and will probably not be paid—for accommodations they have provided or are now providing. Some hotels reportedly tried to collect replacement payment from travelers, but the general advice from the British government and other authorities has been that travelers shouldn’t be held responsible for the missing payments. The tourism ministry of Turkey ordered hotels not to charge Thomas Cook travelers the missing fees, saying the Turkish government will pay them instead.

About three-quarters of the stranded travelers started their trips from either the U.K. or Germany. The U.K. and German governments have mounted massive efforts to get the hundreds of thousands of travelers home via chartered airplanes, which are being called the “largest peacetime repatriation in U.K. history.”

ATOL: Who’s Likely to Get Reimbursed

British travelers are about the only ones in luck when this sort of situation occurs: Many U.K. travelers booking with a tour company are covered financially by the United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority’s ATOL (Air Travel Organizer’s License), a trust fund established to cover travelers involved in tour-operator failures. The tour operator has to be covered under the ATOL program by paying fees to it (and Thomas Cook was).

There doesn’t seem to be any such existing effort for travelers from other countries, meaning that only Britons who were customers of an ATOL-licensed operator are likely to receive payout. Said customers can file an ATOL claim through the British government, here.

If You’re Stranded at Your Destination

Absent any formal recovery programs, North American travelers booked on any of Thomas Cook airlines’ now-non-existent return flights should check with other airlines for possible reduced emergency one-way return fares, which are typically offered when a tour operator or airline fails. Travelers with returns booked on other airlines should expect to use those flights as ticketed, but check with the airline to make sure your reservation still stands.

Insurance loophole: If you bought trip-interruption insurance that includes “supplier bankruptcy” or “supplier default” in the fine print as a “covered reason,” that insurance should cover the cost of a new return ticket home. Contact your insurance provider before buying.

If You’ve Paid for (But Not Started) a Thomas Cook Trip

If you booked a package tour that included Thomas Cook Airlines, your reservation is probably now invalid—and you should receive notice saying so. You aren’t likely to get any refund from Thomas Cook, but have two back-up options to recover your payment:

  • If you bought trip-cancellation insurance that includes “supplier bankruptcy” or “supplier default” as a “covered reason,” that insurance should reimburse the cost of your package.
  • If you paid by credit card, ask your bank to reverse the charge, in accordance with federal regulations that state you can get your money back.

If you have a Thomas Cook tour package that booked air travel on some other airline, your air trips should still be legitimate—but the vacation package is not.

If You’re Concerned about Other Travel Companies Shuttering

In the United States: Airline and tour operator failures were once a serious problem for travelers from the U.S. and Canada, but they’ve not been recently. The North American airline marketplace has pretty much weeded out all the weak players, and at this point financiers do not seem to be worried, at least about any of the large U.S.-based airlines. Then again, those failures can be hard to predict if you’re not in-the-know. Enter insurance provider Travel Guard’s Alert List, a list of companies it won’t cover for default. The list contains no airlines that are currently flying, and no well-known tour operators.

In Europe, and beyond: Abroad, however, airline failures remain an ongoing threat. Recently a handful of European low-cost airlines have failed, and industry mavens seem to believe that there are still “too many” small lines and too much price competition for all participants to survive even a slight downturn. Any airline with a lot of debt on its balance sheet is a candidate for failure.

Meaning: In both cases, as long as you purchase TCI insurance you’re likely to be protected from a travel provider shut down.

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How to Protect Yourself

There are three basic strategies to minimize risk of airline or operator failure:

  • Limit your up-front risk. Book as many of your arrangements as you can at cancellable rates. Refundable air tickets carry outrageous prices, but even if you have to cancel a nonrefundable ticket, you can usually retain the value minus a change fee (except for on basic-economy fares). Meaning: Book refundable tickets/hotel reservations, and avoid basic economy.
  • Make advance prepayments by credit card only; chargeback provisions do not apply to debit cards or other similar direct forms of payment.
  • If you have a lot at risk, buy trip-cancellation and trip-interruption insurance (TCI/TII) to ensure you’ll be covered.

Insurance Gotchas of a Travel Provider Shutdown

Many TCI/TII travel insurance policies cover the failure of a travel supplier. Coverage includes reimbursement for prepayments that you can’t recover from a defunct supplier, plus funds for alternate accommodations and return fare if you’re stranded by a travel provider shutdown. But, be careful of what you buy and when you buy it:

  • Some policies list supplier “bankruptcy” as a covered reason; others say supplier “default.” Default protection is stronger: Companies often fail without ever officially declaring bankruptcy.
  • You have to buy the insurance within a limited period after you make your initial payment, typically two or three weeks later. Parenthetically, that’s also the time requirement in many policies to waive the exclusion for pre-existing conditions; something you definitely want to do.
  • You have to buy the insurance within the minimum specified time before departure; typically two weeks or so.
  • Don’t try to buy last-minute insurance as a bail-out: Travel insurance will not cover any contingency that was “foreseen” at the time you bought the policy. Thus, it’s a waste of money.
  • Buy insurance through an independent third-party travel insurance specialist. Most policies do not cover the default of the company that sells you the insurance. Meaning: When Thomas Cook went under, so did any travel insurance purchased with the package.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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How to Avoid Counterfeit Money When Traveling

It can happen almost anywhere, and it happened to me in Spain. As I paid for my usual haul of groceries for the week in euros, the cashier held a banknote up to the harsh store lights and shook his head. As if summoned from an invisible checkpoint, a police officer—who apparently regularly manned the exit at my local Lidl supermarket—appeared and confirmed the bill was false, “malo.” Recognizing that I was one of the many American students living in the area, he explained that, even though it’s technically illegal to possess or use counterfeit money, I wouldn’t be in trouble. I thanked him, pulled out a new 20 to pay (the fake bill stayed with them), and scurried out.

I don’t know where I got that lone counterfeit bill because it could have come from anywhere. At the countless shops, farmers’ market vendors, and train stations I frequented while living in Seville, bills and coins were quickly passed back and forth without a second glance. Since that grocery store encounter, however, I’ve stopped using cash as much in my travels—and learned to be mindful of certain currencies when I do need to use bills.

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Currencies to Watch for Counterfeit Money While Traveling

Euros are one of the most counterfeited bills in the world, along with U.K. pounds (even the coins), Chinese yuan, Indian rupees, Mexican pesos, and, yes, U.S. dollars. Many Central and South American countries’ bills are also commonly counterfeited, as are Canadian dollars. The most commonly replicated bills across currency types are typically 20s and 50s.

I was lucky enough to have been let off for having counterfeit money, losing just 20 euros in the process. But other travelers might not be so lucky.

How to Check Your Bills

UK pounds counterfeit money.

Any time you receive large bills abroad, it’s worth giving them a second look. Many of the places that are most likely to pass counterfeit bills (grocery stores, banks, currency-exchange counters) have iodine ink pens that test the paper for authenticity—but those pens aren’t a foolproof method since some counterfeiters even get their hands on the right paper. There are a few specific things you can look for to check a bill the second it’s passed to you. If you spot any issues, give the bill back before it becomes your problem.

On high-value bills, look for a hologram: The most obvious difference on some counterfeits is the lack of a shiny foil hologram on higher-value bills. Some new bills now have a transparent version of this on high amounts, and many countries stamp raised or multi-colored holograms on bills to make them more difficult to replicate. It only takes a quick glance to notice the lack of a hologram if you’ve seen any other bills of the same denomination.

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Check the tiniest print: Perhaps the best way to recognize even the stealthiest counterfeit money is to check the clarity of a bill’s fine print. Most currencies are adorned with teeny-tiny lines, designs, and printed numbers, including dotted lines on portraits and in detailed borders. These features are incredibly difficult to replicate in most printings. If the small text or lines of designs on a bill look to be blurry or the ink seems to be running together, it might be fake.

Note the texture and color: According to the United States Secret Service, U.S dollars have tiny blue and red fibers embedded into the paper. Replicas might try to mimic the actual fibers with printed colors, which should be recognizable in the lack of texture on a bill. If a bill feels different than the others you’ve handled, it could be a fake.

Look for a watermark: The cashier at my supermarket was probably looking for a specific watermark, which most travelers probably wouldn’t know to look for. If you’re handling bills in a different currency, however, it’s worth checking for any watermarks upon acquiring the cash so you can look for that hidden symbol on any other suspicious bills you might come across.

It might seem silly, but all it takes is one high-value bill being fake for you to lose out on money on your vacation. If you’re using any of the above currencies, consider giving your cash a second look.

Readers: Have you ever encountered counterfeit money while traveling? Comment below.

Traveling? Here’s What to Pack for Your Next Trip

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SmarterTravel Editor Shannon McMahon writes about all things travel. Follow her on Instagram at @shanmcmahon.

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12 Travel Insurance Gotchas You Need to Know

“Do you want insurance?” When you book a flight, you’re likely to get that question from an agent, or to see it beside a digital ‘check’ box you might ignore. And it’s often fine to pass over: Lots of travel insurance is, in fact, either unnecessary or overpriced—or both.

But certainly, there are times when travel insurance really is a good idea. Like:

  • Trip-cancellation insurance (TCI): You need it any time you have a prepayment that is larger than you can afford to walk away from if you unexpectedly have to cancel the trip.
  • Trip-interruption insurance (TII, almost always bundled with TCI): You might need it if you’re traveling someplace where having to return home unexpectedly would cost you a lot in extra fares and fees.
  • Medical insurance: You probably need it if your regular health insurance doesn’t cover you adequately when you’re out of the United States. That includes everybody on Medicare plus many others.
  • Medical evacuation (medevac, often included with medical): You might need it if you suffer a sickness or injury that requires special transport—helicopter or private jet, for example—to a hospital or home, often not covered by conventional medical insurance.

And with any kind of insurance, you have to worry about hidden gotchas that can leave you high and dry, even if you thought you paid for top-notch coverage. Insurance companies hire agents who are experts at figuring out reasons not to pay claims. Here are the main trouble spots to keep in mind before you buy, and how you might be able to minimize your risk of being duped.

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‘Named Peril’ Insurance

Travel insurance is typically “named peril” insurance, which means that it covers only those contingencies and individuals specifically named in its contract. Conventional TCI/TII and medical/medevac policies all contain laundry lists of occurrences that the insurer will accept as reasons for cancellation; these are listed as “covered reasons” and vary from policy to policy. This gotcha rule is simple: If it isn’t named, it isn’t covered. And check policies carefully, as named perils vary from policy to policy.

‘Covered Reasons’

Covered reasons—the named perils each policy covers—typically include a wide range of sicknesses and accidents—breaking a leg or coming down with pneumonia, for example—that could befall you, your traveling companion, or a close relative at home. But they also usually include unexpected events such as a fire at your home or a call to jury duty. And they generally include force majeure events, at either your destination or at home, that would prevent you from traveling: hurricanes, floods, fires, political events such as terrorist attacks, and default of a travel supplier. But they seldom include anything even remotely foreseeable, such as elective surgery, or risky behavior, such as downhill skiing.  And they exclude self-inflicted injuries.

Minimizing the risk: Buy a “cancel for any reason” policy, but see item seven for gotchas in those.

Financial Default

Most TCI/TII policies cover default of a supplier. But the definition of “default” is pretty narrow: namely, if the supplier quits business entirely. Some policies cover just “bankruptcy” rather than “default,” which can be a problem since many failed suppliers never get around to filing bankruptcy. Also, the default condition does not apply if a supplier has to cut back operations due to a financial problem but stays in business. Other coverages in the policy may include these instances, but you can’t be sure. And default policies never cover default of the supplier from which you buy the insurance.

Minimizing the risk: Get a policy with the broadest definition of “default,” and never buy insurance through your travel supplier.

Destination Problems

Most policies allow you to cancel for weather or similar reasons only if your airline stops flying to your destination or your hotel is “uninhabitable.” For example, as long as your golf-resort hotel is habitable, the insurance won’t cover cancellation because the golf course is unplayable. And weather-based cancellations are generally not valid if you buy the insurance after a major storm at your destination has already been identified or named by the National Weather Service. Similarly, civil unrest and crime at your destination are typically not covered unless the State Department has actually issued a warning. 

Minimizing the risk: Get a policy with the broadest definition of “destination problems,” but recognize that you can’t completely avoid this risk.

‘Preexisting’ Medical Conditions

Most ordinary TCI/TII and medical insurance excludes coverage for a preexisting medical condition: a sickness or condition for which you received treatment within a certain period, usually 60 to 180 days, before you purchased insurance. Depending on the policy, this can mean a condition for which you showed symptoms that would have prompted a reasonable person to seek diagnosis, care, or treatment; for which care or treatment was given or recommended by a physician; or that required the taking of prescription drugs or medicines.

Minimizing the risk: Most insurers waive this exclusion if you buy the insurance within a short period of time—a few days to two weeks, depending on the policy—from the date that you make your first prepayment or deposit. This protection costs nothing, and it avoids the most common cause of disagreements between travelers and insurers.

‘Forseeable’ Conditions

Even if you take advantage of a preexisting-conditions waiver, an insurer can still deny your claim for a loss due to a preexisting condition that is foreseeable at the time you buy the policy. If, for example, a close family member has previously been diagnosed with late-stage terminal cancer, you probably can’t cancel your trip because that person suddenly gets worse or dies. You won’t be covered if a travel warning is in effect for your destination when you buy the insurance. And you must be able to travel at the time you buy the insurance.

Minimizing the risk: You can’t change these rules; just be aware of them.

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Cancel for Any Reason Conditions

Many insurers now offer an optional “cancel for any reason” or “cancel for work reasons” policy addition. For many travelers, unexpected work demands are the most likely reason to cancel, and these policies avoid that risk. Similarly, if you want to cancel because of civil unrest in your destination, you can.

But these policies are a bit different from ordinary policies: They only allow cancellation up to 48 hours prior to departure, some offer only 75 percent or 90 percent coverage, and most are more expensive than conventional policies. Legally, some jurisdictions do not even consider them “insurance.” 

Minimizing the risk: You can’t do much beyond what is allowed in the policy.

Secondary Coverage

Many elements of travel insurance are secondary, meaning the policies pay for only what you can’t first recover from your suppliers and your other insurance. With TCI/TII, you have to seek as much of a refund as you can from your airline, resort, cruise line, vacation rental, or whatever. With medical expenses, you have to claim from your own insurance first (if it covers you where you are), and you might have to front the money for emergency care on the spot and later claim reimbursement from your own insurance. With personal effects (like clothing and toiletries), baggage, and such, you may first have to claim from your carrier and your own insurance. 

Minimizing the risk: Some policies provide primary medical, personal-effects, and other coverages—much preferred to secondary policies.


TCI/TII and medical/medevac insurance both require that you follow the rules. Specifically, that means you have to let the insurance company make all the necessary arrangements, including choosing the physician and hospital, arranging return transportation, and lots of other details. The travel-insurance industry is full of legends about travelers who made their own arrangements—and didn’t get paid. 

Minimizing the risk: Easy—just do what the policy says.

Less-than-Full Payment

If you cover less than the full cost of your trip—even if you just “round down” your prepayments—some policies will invalidate the entire coverage. Most policies require that you cover the total nonrefundable portion of your trip, including payments that really don’t worry you, and a few require that you cover the total trip cost, including refundable deposits. 

Minimizing the Risk: Check the fine print of any policy you’re considering, and avoid those that require you to cover refundable payments.

Age-Based Pricing

Most TCI/TII and medical/medevac rates depend on your age. Rates start to rise rapidly for travelers 70 and over.

Minimizing the risk: The big online insurance agencies automatically price your quote to your age—and unless you pay a lot, you may have to give up the waiver of preexisting medical conditions. Also, some policies that are not age rated impose a maximum age. Supplier waivers are usually not age rated, so even if their coverage is inferior to third-party policies, they may be your only practical choice if you’re in your 70s or older.

Expecting Miracles

Like most insurance, TCI/TII is about money and only money. It can’t preserve your vacation or arrange or pay for an alternate trip. And because so much TCI/TII is secondary, even if it covers your claims, you could be paying out of pocket for months and might have to pay up front for any substitute arrangements.

Minimizing the risk: Even if you buy insurance, have a “plan B” in mind in case something goes wrong with your original trip.

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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuse every day at SmarterTravel.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.