Meet our writers

 







Travel Logs April 2018

Stuff You Should Know before You Make Travel Plans: National Park Passes, and a Few Scams and Scoundrels to Avoid

By Teresa Ambord

Trusting vacationers have been known to show up at a beach house or remote mountain cabin, ready to relax. Instead, they’re greeted at the door by a disgruntled property owner, who is not amused his peace and quiet has been disturbed by strangers trying to move into his house.

* * * * *

Some of the travel providers that advertise on these sites aren’t on the up and up. They advertise prices that can’t be beat, you book with them, pay with your credit card, and boom, you’ve been had. The worst ones, according to Clark.com (a site that monitors scams) are those that sell cheap flights.

Visiting a National Park this Spring or Summer?

The price of a National Parks Senior Pass, called the “America the Beautiful Pass,” shot up last summer, from $10 to a whopping $80. Why? It was part of a bill passed by Congress at the end of the Obama administration in December 2016. While the price increase seems harsh, it hadn’t risen since 1994, even while the costs to operate the parks rose dramatically. Non-seniors were already paying $80 so this brings the cost up to level with younger folks, and will help pay the costs to keep the parks open.

What if you already have a pass? Then you’re good to go. No need to get a new one, just get out there and enjoy the parks.

To get a pass, there are a few ways, listed below. If you’re going this year, don’t wait! It takes six to ten weeks to get a pass. Once you get it, guard it like gold. These passes are non-refundable, non-transferable and if you lose it or it’s stolen, it cannot be replaced.

 

How do I get a pass?

There are three convenient ways:

  • By mail. This requires a $10 processing fee. Paper applications will require proof of residency and age.
  • Online. This requires an additional $10 processing fee. Applicants need to upload proof of residency and age, as well as providing credit card information.
  • In person. No additional fees required. This is the preferred option if you’re visiting one of the participating federal recreation sites or offices. Here’s a link to a list of locations that offer the Senior Pass.  https://store.usgs.gov/sites/default/files/PassIssuanceList.pdf. It’s best to call ahead to make sure they have passes available.

 

Looking for a Vacation Rental?

You’ve probably heard about the great deals you can get on sites such as Airbnb (Airbnb.com) or Rentini (rentini.com) and HomeAway (Homeaway.com). I’ve never used such a site myself, but my aunt and my sister have both used them with great results. Last summer my aunt rented a lovely country home with a large deck, tucked away in the mountains, for $140 a night. My sister rented a home for herself and three adult kids for several nights in Pennsylvania, so they could attend my nephew’s college graduation from Penn State. She paid $122 a night, for the whole gang.

It may be tempting to look on Craigslist, but you’re safer to stick to sites that specialize in vacation rentals. But, you say, you found such a great deal, and what could go wrong? Plenty. Trusting vacationers have been known to show up at a beach house or remote mountain cabin, ready to relax. Instead, they’re greeted at the door by a disgruntled property owner, who is not amused his peace and quiet has been disturbed by strangers trying to move into his house.

How does that happen? Scammers find desirable properties, often with great pictures to enhance the scam. Then they post them as vacation rentals. They offer a price that is attractive and affordable, knowing that trusting souls will accept. The scammers might even include a compelling reason why it’s cheap. For example: “Deployed to the Middle East, must rent to keep the mortgage paid.” But of course, the person who advertises and collects your deposit (or full payment) doesn’t own the property, hasn’t been there, and may not even be in the United States.

Homeaway.com and similar sites offer secure payment systems, and sometimes money-back guarantees. Yes, you’ll pay more than a Craigslist ad, but you’re more likely to get the trip you wanted. Regardless of where you find your rental, read the fine print. Sites such as Rentini and Airbnb hold your payment, not releasing it to the property owner until 24 hours after you check in. That gives you time to ensure you are getting what was advertised.

If you go ahead with a deal you found on Craigslist or another less secure site – protect yourself, by not agreeing to pay (especially the full amount), by cash, check, wire transfer, Western Union, or gift cards or something similar. With these payment methods, it’s almost impossible to recover your money if you are unhappy with the deal. It is true that in some countries, it’s commonplace to pay by wire transfer, but if the person you’re dealing with represents a legitimate rental agency, he or she will work with you.

Travel experts warn that if you talk to the owner by phone or email, ask about the local area where the rental is located. The owner will be able to answer questions, but a scam artist probably won’t. Also pay attention to grammar. We all make grammatical errors, but unusually bad use of the language is a common red flag that English is not this person’s first language. Rather than the owner of a beach house, you may be dealing with a thief in a country such as Nigeria. An example of this type of bad grammar is this: instead of stating the rental policy is “Pets are not accepted,” you might hear something such as “Pets not accepting.” The error might be slight, but consider it a red flag, and do some more checking.

 

Are Travel Packages a Good Deal?

The Better Business Bureau warns of some travel packages that you may be offered, involving cheap rate and freebies (such as discounted or free meals at great restaurants). Or you may be offered a big screen TV or other attractive gift. The deal may require you to sit through a high-pressure sales presentation. You might be tempted to think it’s worth it, but if you’re unhappy with the deal, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get a refund if you signed a contract Especially beware of timeshares sales, resales, and donation plans, says the BBB.

 

What about Discount Travel Sites?

They can be a great way to save money and time. Many let you do multiple searches, such as Kayak, Priceline, Booking.com, making it easy to compare prices easily. Just be aware, as with all things, there are bad apples.

Some of the travel providers that advertise on these sites aren’t on the up and up. They advertise prices that can’t be beat, you book with them, pay with your credit card, and boom, you’ve been had. The worst ones, according to Clark.com (a site that monitors scams) are those that sell cheap flights. You arrive at the airport for your flight and the airline asks, “Who are you?” They have no record of you. Your reservation is fake. Your money is gone. And worst of all, your credit card number is in the hands of thieves.

Clark.com says to especially beware of FlightHub, and its sisters company JustFly. These two have been hit with many complaints, which you can read at the Better Business Bureau website, BBB.org. What are the complaints? The sites sell you a nicely low priced flight, but wait! Later you’ll have to pay more. Or the flight details change, mysteriously. Clark.com warns, don’t be fooled that just because a travel provider is listed on a reputable site such as Kayak.com, it is safe. Use the sites, but stick to companies you know.

 

SIDEBAR: Protect Your Belongings in a Hotel Room

Should you trust the hotel room safe? It might be fine. But then again, it might not. Why? Before many such safes have four-digit entry codes that can be overwritten by a master code, making them sadly easy to open. I’ve only used one while on a cruise and had no problems.

According to Clark.com, you may want to consider other options, such as:

  • Rather than leave your wallet or purse unattended in your room, ask at the front desk if they will store it in the hotel office safe. Most will.
  • Employ the “do not disturb” sign. Of course, you won’t get maid service, but if you’re concerned about valuables, this will signal the staff and would-be thieves that you’re still there and your possessions are not left unguarded.
  • Use cable locks. You can easily tether your laptop or your luggage to your bed post. You’ll find these cables in most stores or on Amazon.

 

Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

Meet Teresa