By John Frenaye Travel columnist
updated 2/29/2008 1:54:13 PM ET 2008-02-29T18:54:13

Every year, I hear more horror stories of travel arrangements gone bad. Look at any of the online blogs and you will see what I mean. Our own favorite travel ombudsman, Christopher Elliott, is busier than ever, and my colleague Anita Dunham-Potter recently told a horror story about a group of 73 would-be cruise vacationers who were left stranded when their so-called “travel agent” abandoned ship.

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Bad travel arrangements don’t have to happen to you. Just keep these four pointers in mind as you plan your next trip.

The Internet is not god
Savvy travelers know that the Internet is nothing more than a huge brochure for travel. Before they rely on any online information, they make sure they can trust the source. Do you expect your local restaurant to divulge that cockroaches routinely scurry across the floor or that mice are snuggled up in the cutlery drawer? No? So why would you expect such information to be disclosed on a travel supplier’s Web site?

So-called “third-party” or “consumer-reviewed” sites are not necessarily any more reliable. Trip Advisor is one of the largest travel Web sites on the Internet, but unfortunately a lot of its content is now suspect. Why? Because savvy hotels have started hiring people to post positive reviews. Just look at Craigslist and see how many “pay for review” jobs are out there.

Lesson? Take what you find on the Internet and double-check it with several different sites, a travel agent or perhaps a neighbor or friend who has been to the part of the world that interests you. If it all jives, you are probably good to go; if not, move on. Yes, diligence is time-consuming, but negligence is more so — as you will learn when you try to fix your ill-considered trip.

Your travel agent may be untrained
Lately I have seen an unprecedented increase in what I call “travel-agent-in-a-box” programs. For a $500 fee, these programs offer mostly-useless credentials, promises of perks that seldom materialize, and travel discounts that rarely offset the expenses. But the real issue is that they are infesting the travel industry with untrained, unmentored and unsupervised “agents” all trying to sell you travel — or, in worst cases, the opportunity to join them in their dubious enterprise. Those 73 cruisers would not have been left high and dry had their group leader, Jerry Wilkinson, been dealing with a professional.

Travel suppliers are slowly taking notice of these quickie-agent operations, and are refusing to do business with them. Both Royal Caribbean and the International Airlines Travel Agent Network (IATAN), have terminated relationships with several such companies, including Your Travel Biz (YTB). If you are interested in reading up on these scams, I covered them in a prior column, or you can read the informative, adversarial — and controversial — blog called MLMs and Travel: A Bad Mix, which discloses all the downsides.

And then verify the answers.

You would not trust your legal needs, accounting needs or financial-planning needs to an amateur. Why risk it with your travel arrangements?

Price is not the most important thing
Sure, price matters. In today’s economy we are all watching our pennies. But remember that when you purchase travel, you are purchasing an experience — not a product. You are looking to lie on the beach with the soft Aruban breezes flowing over you while a waiter refills your piña colada and adjusts your umbrella. You are not looking to just sit on a pile of sand. See the difference?

So, when comparing prices (and I recommend that you do compare prices), make sure it is apples to apples. All too often a client will insist that someone else offered the same experience at a much cheaper price. Usually that is not so. A $299 weekend in the Bahamas including airfare from Baltimore is a bargain, alright — until the bedbugs take over and you find yourself saddled with a $1,200 Bahamian hospital bill. When you see a price that seems too good to be true, be skeptical. I’ll bet there’s a reason it is so low.

Common sense will serve you well
Having a great vacation experience is not rocket science. Unfortunately, some people get so wrapped up in the planning that they let their guard down. Jerry Wilkinson let his guard down and it cost his group $21,000. Had he been skeptical of the price, used some common sense, and dealt with a professional agent, he could have avoided the whole mess.

Sure, I’m biased. I’m a professional travel agent myself, and I generally recommend booking with a qualified agent for all but the simplest travel plans. That way you are guaranteed that someone is looking out for your best interests. But if you have an easy trip in mind and you are comfortable going it alone, go ahead and book your travel online. Just make sure there is someone to personally contact if a problem surfaces. If you do book online, book direct with the airline or hotel (my first choice) or with one of the established online agencies like Orbitz, Travelocity or Expedia. Don’t get suckered in to any travel deal. There are too many agency scams operating today, and it can be hard to tell the good from the bad. Look before you leap.

John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company based in Annapolis, Md. With nearly ten years as a senior executive in the retail travel industry and a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective. E-mail him or visit his Web site . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Frenaye's forum.

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