How to Avoid Travel Scams

Two women holding hands, traveling and exploring old Mediterranean town on sunny day

Travel scams are schemes that criminals use to steal money or get personal information from you by posing as a travel company.

For example, a travel scam could come in the form of a fake sweepstakes, where you receive a call that says you've won an all-expenses-paid vacation to Dubai, or a free cruise to Cozumel. There's just one caveat: You'll need to wire them money for the booking fee. Then the money disappears and your dream trip never happens.

Travel scams happen all the time, and anyone can be targeted. Fortunately, you can avoid them by learning about the tactics scammers use. Here are five ways to avoid travel scams.

1. Look for Red Flags

One of the telltale signs of a travel scam is an offer that's simply too good to be true. For example, you receive an email delivering the news that you've just won the trip of a lifetime—but you haven't entered any sweepstakes. Or, you find the perfect vacation rental, right in the heart of town—at an unbelievably under-market price.

These are common scams. The "free travel" call is an attempt to get you to provide money or personally identifying information over the phone. The fake rental scheme is also an attempt to get money, but it can lead to the awful inconvenience of showing up to your rental to find that it's already occupied, or simply doesn't exist.

The requested payment method can be a dead giveaway for travel scams. Scammers often ask you to pay them using specific, difficult-to-trace methods such as wire transfers, gift cards and cryptocurrency. Always take requests for payment in these forms as a huge red flag and don't pay them anything.

2. Hit Pause Before You Act

Scammers want you to act before you've had time to think. They'll employ pressure tactics to rush you into making a decision.

For example, a caller will inform you that you've won a free cruise—but you have to pay the booking fee right now to avoid losing your spot. Their goal is to prevent you from hesitating.

If anyone claiming to be a company pressures you to try to get you to make an immediate decision, do the opposite. It's likely a scam. When in doubt, hang up the phone or don't respond.

3. Pay With a Credit Card

Booking your travel accommodations with a credit card offers better protection than other payment methods, including debit cards. Federal law limits your liability for unauthorized purchases to no more than $50, and many credit cards offer $0 liability for fraudulent purchases.

Beyond that, booking your trip with a travel credit card can come with other potential perks, including no foreign transaction fees, lost luggage reimbursement, travel insurance and access to airport lounges.

You can also apply for a travel credit card that allows you to earn points or miles, which can help you pay less for your next trip. And if you look for a travel credit card with an introductory bonus, using it to book a large trip can help you meet the spending requirements to earn even more points or miles.

4. Only Book Through Reputable Sites

The key to avoiding fake travel booking scams—and other imposter scams—is to be wary of contact from people who call, email or text you claiming to be from a certain company. Instead, visit the website of the company you want to book through directly.

One trick travel scammers use is website spoofing. With this tactic, scammers create lookalike travel sites that are nearly identical to the real site. For example, you might think you're on a flight price comparison website, but instead, you're on the scammer's spoof site. The goal is to phish information such as your credit card number, your passwords or Social Security number.

To avoid this, double-check the company's URL using a search engine and look closely to verify that the search result is legit.

5. Consider Working With a Travel Advisor

A travel advisor has the experience to book your trip for you in a way that's sure to be safe and legit. That means you can relax and know that the details—like your flight, hotel, dinner reservations and other logistics—are all handled. As an added bonus, travel advisors can sometimes help you book at reduced rates because they have access to group discounts.

But scammers can also spoof travel sites, so it's imperative you work with someone you're sure is a real professional. To stay safe, look for a certified travel agent through the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), a network that connects you directly to a travel advisor to securely plan your trip.

The Bottom Line

Travel scams can sour your vacation plans. But knowing what to look out for and upping your defenses can help you avoid falling for the traps that scammers set.

If you think you've engaged with a scammer, there are steps you can take. You have the right to place a fraud alert on your credit report for free by visiting the Experian Fraud Alert Center. The alert tells lenders they should verify your identity before issuing any new credit to your name. If you're the victim of fraud, you can report it through the Federal Trade Commission's website.