Social media has become a haven to make money, and the travel game is no exception. More often than ever, I'm seeing more and more people who are acting as travel agents—planning and arranging group trips for strangers with absolutely no experience or knowledge about everything the job entails. The initial post or advertisement might look inviting---or you may even be loosely familiar with the organizers of the trip---but it's important to make sure that before you hand over your coins to someone with the expectation of flying to another part of the world, you're clear about what you're getting into.
I recently had someone close to me tell me about a Medellin, Colombia trip from hell with one of these "social media travel agents". They apparently threw local parties in her city and even organized a few domestic trips. So when they posted a flyer on Facebook to travel to the popular South American city, she was excited to go.
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The price for the room was $550 with a $100 deposit requested in July to travel Memorial Day weekend of the following year. She paid her deposit, but received no receipt or details about the trip upon payment. She says she figured she'd be patient since the last time she traveled with them, the details were released a few months prior to departure. January came around and she still had no info about living arrangements. She and other people in the group reached out to the organizers for months with no response.
Then things got down to the wire. Before she knew it, it was one month before it was time to leave and she still knew nothing about the hotel, excursions, or where the heck these people who'd taken her money had gone.
She says a week before the trip, they finally received Google spreadsheets detailing where they'd be staying but WITHOUT AN ADDRESS. They were left to figure that out on their own. Then, she arrived in Colombia where things got progressively worse. Four mansions were booked for 80 people—one of which was uninhabitable and bug infested. The rooms for the group were first come, first serve, and when she got to hers, it was about the size of a small walk-in closet ...WITH NO BATHROOM! All of the available beds ran out and one guy had to sleep on the couch in the living area.
She and the rest of the group finally heard from the organizers after being dodged for months. The correspondence wasn't to provide an explanation for the catastrophe. It was to let them know that they owed money for the airport shuttle. She was left with no choice but to pack up her stuff and check into the nearest affordable hotel.
The following day, she ran into one of the trip's organizers who completely gaslighted her and pretended to be unaware that there were any issues at all. She cut her losses and made the most of the rest of the trip, but needless to say, the experience was a wake-up call to be cautious when booking with a so-called "travel group or agency".
To help avoid situations like these, Joni Rials, founder of Seek and Sip Travel, has some tips on what to look out for and how to protect yourself:
Research the Agency Before Booking
"Nowadays, it's a little difficult to find out if an agency is reputable. You can check with the Better Business Bureau, but they are a privately owned business where consumers can report and post positive and negative business interactions," she says. "Many times, you just have to balance the positive with the negative interactions. I would suggest Google searching the agency you plan to book with to see if they have any pending lawsuits with the state. Also, reach out to people you may know, ask about their previous experiences and look online for reviews."
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"When you purchase travel insurance, reach out and ask if that particular travel agency is on the 'do not book list'. All insurance companies have those lists. If you're a frequent traveler, consider purchasing a bi-annual policy. It gives you all of the same benefits that you'd get with a single policy except your limits are higher. Also, having a good travel credit card can be a lifesaver in instances like this. Many good travel cards cover expenses if you call and explain that you've arrived at your destination, didn't receive what you paid for, and were forced to make other arrangements. You can also call your bank and tell them the issue, file a claim, and receive your money back."
Look into Their Presence Online & Always Get Proof of Payment
"After you've paid for your trip, you should always receive a confirmation email from the agency that details the entire trip including the destination, the hotel with the address, the kind of room you paid for, the length of your stay, etc. If you never receive a receipt for what you paid for, consider it a red flag! Also, do not ever Cash App or Zelle anyone when paying for a trip. You basically just gave someone cash to run off with."
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"Take a look at the company's social media profile and website before booking with them. Ask yourself how it makes you feel. What are the quality of their posts? Do they seem like a well-thought-out brand? Obviously, if they haven't put in the effort to update their posts or their website in six months to a year, this might be an indication that they also won't put much effort into making sure they plan quality trips for their clients."
If Things Go Bad, Know How to Build a Case
"Not only should you be aware of how your insurance and credit card work, but if you get into a situation where you end up booking with a shady agency, it is important to know how to build a case. When you're on a group trip and everyone is disgruntled, try and get statements from people. This way you have proof to corroborate your story and it doesn't turn into a 'my word vs. theirs' situation. Take plenty of photos of your living arrangements, chat up the front desk attendant or manager at your new hotel and see what they have to say about the seedy hotel you had to check out of. The more evidence you have, the stronger your claim.
"Finally, you'd be surprised at how many people book trips without getting the full names and emergency contact numbers of the people doing the planning. Don't be naive! Find out who you're booking with before handing over your money."
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