Mama Holiday: beware of travel scams

A little caution won't spoil your family fun.
A little caution won't spoil your family fun. 

Hey, do you have protection? I know, it's a personal question but the boom in online booking agencies could send some of us bust.

Families can be hit hard because (a) we travel in a group and (b) we're restricted to certain times of year. So a scam can leave us out of pocket, with no holiday and no hope of rescheduling.

What do we do if the hotel, airline or attraction goes under? Or what if they never existed in the first place?

Last year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission reported a big blowout in travel-related scams: 100 complaints in the first half of 2013, totalling more than $250,000.

The commission's deputy chairwoman, Delia Rickard, has warned about fake rental listings, fraudulent holiday vouchers and hackers on travel websites. "Scammers are plotting to steal your hard-earned dollars," she says.

One scam, the so-called "bait and switch", works on third party booking sites. You pay for one type of hotel room but arrive to find an inferior one - or none at all.

"We got a special deal launching the opening of a hotel in Tahiti only to find it was still a construction site when we got there," Sydney mother-of-two Jo Sharp laments.

Another trick involves someone approaching you via phone or email to sell vouchers for heavily discounted accommodation in Phuket, Koh Samui or Bali. You may never receive the voucher, or the manager knows nothing about it.

Criminals also use "phishing scams" to assume the identity of holiday property owners, then direct clients to deposit money into dodgy bank accounts.

Here, you're protected by Australian consumer law but if it's overseas, there's no recourse. Australian travellers are now part of a class action against Barclays bank, which held many of these criminals' accounts.

Now a new accreditation scheme set up by the Australian Federation of Travel Agents aims to attract us back to agents by pumping up protections.

ATAS-accredited agents will have mandatory professional indemnity and public liability insurance. This will "ensure that the advice they provide can be relied upon, just as you do for a doctor or a lawyer", says federation chief executive officer Jayson Westbury. It covers online and sole trader agents, as well as the big players. Check out atas.com.au.

But travel law specialist Steven Lewis has a word of warning about the scheme, which follows the demise of the Travel Compensation Fund.

Pointing to the risk (albeit small) of agency failures, he recommends that before travellers hand over their cash, they quiz their travel agent about exactly what protections they have.

Of course, it's wise to have insurance as well but take note of the fine print, especially if one of the travellers is pregnant.

Jane*, from Adelaide, fell pregnant after booking a 12-month travel insurance policy, then booked a trip to Singapore for next month. However, her Allianz insurance doesn't cover her after 26 weeks gestation: the baby's due in October.

Research on travel policies by comparetravelinsurance.com.au shows some companies won't cover unexpected medical complications if the pregnancy is conceived through IVF, and most won't cover premature birth.

Family travel can be a minefield. But using an agent, asking pertinent questions, and checking the fine print in insurance policies is all the protection you need.

 

FIJI FOR TEENS

Kids too big for kids' club? Let your teens explore Fiji with the locals at the eco-friendly, five-star Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, recently voted best overseas family resort by Luxury Travel magazine. The resort is up in the country's wild northern island, Vanua Levu, which teens can explore with a "buddy" from the activities staff. Make a billi billi (bamboo raft) and head off swimming, hike through the rainforest, go river tubing or snorkelling and finish off with a beach bonfire. Free for teen guests 13 years and up. Stays cost from $372 a person, twin share on a six-night stay from October 6 until March 31 (excluding Christmas). 1300 306 171, fijiresort.com.

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