Disney Trip Planning

The Perils of Online Travel What to know to have a stress-free vacation

By Pete Werner
DIS Founder/Webmaster

What to know to have a stress free vacationI’m fond of saying that the internet has always leveled the playing field.  Anyone with a good idea, a little talent and a touch of luck can create a website and earn more than a modest living, and in doing so can compete on a relatively level playing field with ‘the big guys’.  I’m a great example of this. This site, and the business it has inspired was founded in a spare bedroom and has grown over the last 11 years into one of the most visited web sites on the internet. 

However, the same tools and inspiration that made this site a success, have also given rise to some less than reputable businesses. What makes the internet great is that a guy can start a business in his garage, and what makes the internet a haven for scam artists…is that a guy can start a business in his garage.

With any number of sites to choose from when looking to book travel (not just Disney mind you, but travel to any destination), it’s more important than ever that you – the customer – be vigilant in making sure your hard earned vacation dollars are falling into the right hands.  With this in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss some of the pitfalls of online travel and how you can protect yourself from getting scammed.

Tip #1:  The best offense is a good defense.

PLAN, RESEARCH, then PLAN AND RESEARCH SOME MORE. The internet has provided us a tool for planning and booking our vacations that we never could have imagined 10 years ago.  Once we were limited to just the advertisements we read in magazines and newspapers, and the advice of our local travel agent.  Now, we have access to a world full of offers, great deals, great information and yes – scams.  Use the internet to your advantage and research your trip thoroughly BEFORE you book.  Understand as much about the destination you want to visit as you can – and always look for unbiased sites that will provide accurate reviews and information from real people. One of the reasons our discussion boards are  among the most visited on the internet is for this very reason – it’s full of real people who are willing to honestly share their thoughts and opinions on any number of destinations. 

Of course our site is dedicated to discussions of all things Disney, but there are scores of sites out there dedicated to virtually every destination you can imagine.  Some excellent examples of this are sites like CruiseCritic.com, which is a tremendous resource for researching a wide variety of cruises. Fodor’s website (the travel guidebook folks) also have extensive discussion forums covering virtually every location in the world.  One of my personal favorites is TripAdvisor.com – a site that allows visitors to post reviews of hotels from all over world. These are great sites if you’re unsure of a deal or just want more information about a particular destination before you book. It’s always worth repeating – PLAN AND RESEARCH before you turn over your credit card info.

Another often overlooked resource is the Better Business Bureau.  Some people think that a company has to be a member of the BBB in order for them to give any information about them, which is not the case.  The BBB maintains files on all complaints it receives, and its website allows you to easily search a company for information. What you want to look for are the number of complaints a company has had in the last twelve months and how many of those complaints were resolved to the customer’s satisfaction. Large, high volume travel companies may have a seemingly high number of complaints, but if most or all of them are resolved successfully, it’s a good indication that the company is legitimate and will stand by its product.

Tip #2: Beware the All-Inclusive Package (or Read the Fine Print)

All-inclusive packages are becoming more and more popular as people have less time to plan every detail of a vacation. All-Inclusive packages don’t always mean you’re getting a better price - sometimes you’re just getting the convenience of having a ‘one stop shop’ to book your vacation – and there’s nothing wrong with that. 

Sometimes these packages do represent a real savings – a good example is Disney’s Free Dining promotion.  However, if you don’t read the fine print, you may not realize that these “all-inclusive” packages have limitations.

We’ve seen it happen numerous times where people think that “free dining” means they’ll be able to eat wherever and whenever they want, only to arrive on vacation and find out that’s not true.  That doesn’t mean Disney is ripping you off, it means you didn’t read the fine print – in this case you’re getting the basic dining plan which  gives you one table service meal, one counter service meal and one snack per day.  If you understand this in advance and plan your vacation accordingly, you’ll not only get the most out of the package but you’ll also avoid any ‘surprises’ when you arrive on vacation. 

We recommend that you print out all the information on your package and  have it with you when you arrive.  If there are any questions about what’s supposed to be included, having proof of what was advertised will certainly help bolster your argument. 

Tip #3:  If it looks too good to be true, it probably is

I’m sure you’ve seen the offers – 5 days / 4 nights at a 4 star resort for $50 a night.  As your mother surely told you – if it looks too good to be true it usually is.  When you see deals like this, it is often from a timeshare outfit who will provide your room at the price quoted, but only if you agree to sit through a long, high pressure sales pitch to buy a timeshare while you’re there.  The tactics some of these company’s will use can amaze you, but trust me – if you take them up on that $50 offer, they will do everything they can during your stay to sell you a real estate interest in a timeshare property.  If you’re one of those people who can easily deflect the ‘hard sell’, then go for it – but if you’re like most people, once you get worn down long enough, you’ll eventually capitulate and that $350 vacation suddenly turns into a $20,000 real estate investment that you didn’t want. 

Tip #4: What to do when your hotel sucks.

Let’s say you’ve booked the vacation of a lifetime online only to arrive and find that the beautiful resort you booked online has magically morphed into a roach motel, or the pool is closed for rehab, or there is massive construction going on right outside your window. Again, while just a little planning and research can often mitigate this from happening,  if you didn’t have time to do a thesis on your vacation destination, there are some other things you can do. 

First and foremost unless you’re booking a package deal, NEVER pre-pay your hotel stay before check-in.  The industry standard is either a credit card guarantee, or the equivalent of one nights charges in advance, with the following exception. 

There is a growing trend of “internet exclusive rates” which require that you not only pay in full in advance, you also forfeit the right to cancel. While it will be the cheapest rate, think long and hard about the terms you’re agreeing to.  Depending on how far in advance you book, if there’s a problem,  you could be jeopardizing your ability to dispute the charge with your credit card company.  Sometimes the few dollars difference between this rock bottom  rate and one that’s more flexible is well worth it.

Bottom line, if the hotel requires full pre-payment in advance of check in with no other options, there’s often a reason that they’re trying to get your money as quickly as possible. 

Second – stay calm.  ‘Upset’ is taken to a new level when you arrive at a hotel after a long day of traveling, only to find the room is filthy and bug infested.  While it may be justified to get ‘angry’ with the front desk clerk, remember – they don’t usually handle the marketing.  Staying calm and remaining polite are usually your best weapons in getting what you want.  If the problem you’re facing is too vast to be corrected, then ask to be moved to another nearby hotel.  Most hotels maintain relationships with other properties to handle overflow traffic, so it shouldn’t take too much coaxing to get them to make a call on your behalf. We also suggest that you research a ‘back up’ hotel just in case the one you’ve booked doesn’t work out.  If you already have information and phone numbers with you for two or three other hotels in the area, after a quick phone call to confirm availability you can be out of Motel Hell and on your way to start your vacation.

We also recommend that you take pictures and/or video of what was wrong.  This may come in handy if you have to dispute charges with your credit card company or with the hotel’s corporate office (assuming it’s part of a major chain).  Also (and I’ve used this), if the hotel in question is being really uncooperative and unfair, don’t hesitate to tell them the video you just took will end up on YouTube as soon as you get home.  It’s amazing to see what happens to an attitude-ridden hotel manager when he thinks that the roach festival in room 212 will be broadcast to the free world. 

One of the biggest complaints people have about booking online is not being told when a hotel is under construction. To arrive on vacation with a jack-hammer outside your window every morning isn't very conducive to a relaxing get-away. While it's true you should be told about this before time, some hotels aren't very good at getting the word out that construction will be taking place during your stay. If the hotel is otherwise acceptable, consider being moved to another room where you may not be impacted by the construction. If not, you should know that hotels generally expect to have some irate guests when they go through a rehab, and are usually prepared to move you to a similar hotel nearby for the same rate you agreed upon. In less than reputable places, you may need to just check out and dispute the charges (and penalties) with your credit card company. If you're using a travel agent, make sure they check if the hotel has construction scheduled, and it's not a bad idea to call yourself before you arrive.

Tip #5:  Consider using a travel agent. 

I’ll admit this tip is a tad self serving as I’m the owner of an online travel agency, but the fact is that a good agent is worth their weight in gold, especially if you have problems on the ground.  Travel agents generally know who to talk to in order to get an issue resolved, and can often put a lot more pressure on a hotel than you can.  This is especially true if you’re using an agency that does a high volume of business in certain markets – no hotel wants to risk losing a good source of referral business and trust me, that kind of money ALWAYS talks. Also, a good travel agent will know which hotels to recommend and which to avoid. These are people who spend their careers researching and learning what’s out there.  If you don’t have time to do the planning yourself, it’s a good idea to turn the job over to a professional you trust.  But even here, the same rules of ‘trust but verify’ apply – before using an agency check them out with some of the same tools we’ve mentioned previously (online forums, the Better Business Bureau).  Be wary of any agency that charges fees.  Most reputable agencies will not charge additional fees over and above what the hotel or package supplier requires for cancellations or changes. 

Remember that most of the offers out there are legitimate, where problems usually arise is when you don’t read what’s involved in the offer. A great price on a vacation usually has a catch – that’s not always a bad thing, as long as you’re aware and willing to accept whatever restrictions are offered.  As I always say, an informed traveler is the best kind.

Tip #6 - Pay careful attention to online car rentals

Renting a car online can be a tricky business. How often have you received an estimated price for a car rental online, booked it, then discovered a big difference between what you agreed to pay and what you're being charged. This is where doing your homework counts - if you know what options to select (and which to avoid) BEFORE booking online, your quoted price will be much more accurate to what you end up paying.

First, is the matter of insurance. You hear many arguments against it saying that your existing auto insurance policy will cover you if you have an accident in another car, including a rental. That's not always true. You need to check and make sure you have that rider on your policy. Also, keep in mind that whatever deductibles you have on your auto insurance policy still apply. If you have a $2000 deductible, that's the amount of repairs you'll be responsible for before you insurance kicks in. By taking the collision insurance at the rental agency, you can pretty much total the car (not suggesting that) and not be liable for damages (provided you didn't intentionally cause damage or were negligent (drunk driving, etc). I'm not saying you should take it and I'm not saying you shouldn't. What you need to do is to check beforehand what your liability would be in the unfortunate event you have an accident with your rental.

Another big car rental pitfall is 'pre-paid' gas. I have rarely seen this make economic sense. Most people don't realize that they are pre-paying for a full tank of gas whether the car needs it or not. For example, say a full tank of gas at prevailing airport area prices (which are already inflated) costs $70. You misjudge the gas mileage and return the car with a half tank of gas. No matter how much gas is already in the tank, you're going to be charged that $70. This happens all the time. On the other side some people misjudge gas mileage in the other direction. Nothing is worse than being out of gas on the side of a highway while precious minutes tick by before your flight leaves. Fill your tank at a local gas station right before you drop off and do it while you're still a few miles away. There are some unscrupulous station owners right by airports who charge top dollar knowing you have to top off your gas tank before turning your rental in.

Just remember, a well informed traveler is the best kind.  Take the time to do your research, use the tools that are available on the web free of charge to make sure you're getting the best deal at a great hotel.  Life has enough stress without having vacation headaches to add to it.

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