Groupon, TravelZoo, Living Social and many other places offer some great opportunities for experiences at an excellent price. Apparently they also can offer crooks an opportunity to scam hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, let us tell you about the scam.
In November 2010, TravelZoo was selling $89 balloon rides (“Regularly $180”) through So Cal Hot Air Balloon Tours in Temecula. TravelZoo sold more than 4,400 of them. We bought two for us and two as a Christmas gift. When John tried to book our flight, the company told him they could not schedule the tours until their Web site was updated for accepting online reservations. Finally, on March 12 the Web site was working and immediately filling up. We scheduled a flight for June. We drive down before dawn only to have the flight canceled due to low clouds. We are worried because our vouchers expire Aug. 2011, but the company’s paperwork and the representatives explain that the expiration date is automatically extended to the next flight when they are the ones who cancel the flight.
With very few openings we have to reschedule for November. That one gets canceled due to “high winds.” John receives the news with a call from a woman at the balloon company who asks him to call the next day so they can find an opening. He checks online and there are zero spots in the next six months, so he assumes they have some openings not shown. He calls in and gets Thomas Brundage, the owner. John tells him why he is calling and Thomas tells him to book it online. John asks how we can get a refund and the guy goes nuts. He is cursing, complaining about “the lowlifes” who don’t pay full price, and goes on like this for about 15 minutes. It was impressive. However, John gets the sense that he is eventually going to calm down and book us and sure enough he finds an opening in February. John calls TravelZoo and asks about a refund because he gets a very strong feeling that something is very wrong. Clearly the company oversold the vouchers and can’t fit everyone in. John also figured they sold so many because they were desperate for cash and grew afraid that the cash is now gone and the company will disappear. TravelZoo says they cannot help because the coupons are expired and the company is still willing to take us.
On Jan. 31, we get the dreaded news – the company is out of business. They actually shut down in mid-December and January and were to start flying again on Feb. 2. The company’s calendar showed every day, seven days a week from Feb. 2 to Aug. 31 was fully booked.
John calls TravelZoo for help and is again told they will not help. We don’t like getting ripped off and recognize that this is something that likely affects a large number of people. John sends an e-mail to a friend at the newspaper he used to be an editor for, and doesn’t hear back. He then tries the Temecula area paper and nada. So, he posts on Facebook hoping one of his reporter friends knows a good story when they see it. Armando Barragan, who works for ABC Channel 7 news, is da man. He gives the information to a reporter and she does a solid job turning the story around. Within a couple hours of ABC contacting TravelZoo, John gets a phone call telling him they will gladly refund his money. Better yet, they send a message to ABC saying they will refund every customer ripped off by So Cal Hot Air Balloons. They were slow, but TravelZoo did the right thing. As one large entity they will have a much better chance of going after the crooks and will ensure their reputation for protecting customers.
A couple days after that, we see an article that explains that this company may have ripped off more than 15,000 people – about a million dollars worth – by selling discounted flights through many Web sites.
The bottom line is that if you have any companies making it difficult to use your vouchers, make sure to get your refund before the expiration date on the voucher regardless of proposed arrangements the company makes.
This one bad experience will not stop us from taking advantage of some great opportunities, but it does serve as a warning to be more cautious.
TV story and newscast: http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news%2Flocal%2Finland_empire&id=8533635
Follow-up story: http://www.dailydealmedia.com/127blowing-hot-air-%E2%80%93-balloon-ride-fraud-in-california/
The original TravelZoo page: http://www.travelzoo.com/local-deals/Los-Angeles-Area/Restaurant/174
A traveler and his money are soon parted.
When traveling, it is easy to burn through money pretty quickly. However, there are always people around who will gladly help you burn through it quicker. They aren’t stealing from you … exactly, and some are much worse than others.
Here are a few things we have learned about watching our wallet:
1. Haggling. This applies nearly everywhere, unless you are in established stores (and sometimes even then). They really aren’t trying to rip you off. When you ask how much something is, the seller gives you a price. They are expecting you to come back with a lower offer. They will then counter offer until you can agree on a price. However, there is no set amount that you can expect the price to come down to. In many places, 50% is a good rule of thumb. If the seller says it will cost 1,000 ducats, perhaps 500 really is a good price. Perhaps it should really go for 200 or for 900. Three things will be most helpful in figuring this out. First is to pay attention to what you see similar items selling at elsewhere, and if you see other tourists making purchases, note what they are paying compared to the asking price. Second, and most important, is to decide what you are really willing to pay for the item before you even ask for a price. It will make it easier to walk away if you can’t reach a deal and it will keep you from worrying that you could have haggled a bit further to get the item for less. Never in my life have I bargained for something and then as soon as the seller accepted my offer thought “Darn it, I should have gone lower.” Enjoy the item and don’t get caught up in the haggling game. Lastly, just because you asked about something and tried to agree on a price, do not feel that you need to buy it if it is more than you are comfortable spending. Just end the negotiations and walk away – this is often the best strategy anyway.
2. It’s closed! This one is all the rage in Bangkok and they even have teams of people to help set you up. When you are heading for a location – a temple, National Palace, or in one case a city block – a taxi or tuk tuk driver will tell you they are closed for a special Buddhist prayer meeting or other issue. Instead, they will give you a good deal to take you to a few places, which will inevitably include a gem shop, jewelry store, or some kind of other enterprise. If you refuse to go there, things get much less friendly, if you do go, plan on getting scammed by some very friendly people.
3. Tourist price. Tourists come to town with plans on seeing the sights, buying the local items, and experiencing a wide variety of opportunities. Many businesses will gladly help you do these, but depending on the experience you are after, you can likely do it for less and enjoy it more if you do just a little research or like to explore a bit on your own. Often it begin at the airport. For example, in Bangkok, there are several places labeled “taxis” that will get you to your hotel. Their prices can range from 450 baht to about 1,000 baht. However, if you just walk out the door to the taxi stand and get a metered cab, it will cost about 200 to 250 baht for the same trip. When we wanted to cross the river to go from the Wat Pho temple to see Wat Arun, we were looking for a way across. We had paid 30 baht to come a couple miles up river, so we thought it would be cheap to cross, but just needed to find out where. A helpful woman found us and explained that the only way to do it was to take a long-tail boat (power boats with a propeller at the end of a long shaft used to steer the boats) and she would take us across for only 300 baht. We declined. Three feet from where she stopped us, we found the ferry the locals use. It cost three baht to cross.
4. Transportation. A great many international cities have some excellent public transportation. Use the elevated trains, subways and water taxis to get around and it will not only save you money, but likely allow you to see other places of interest you might have otherwise passed on. It is very easy to get trapped in a hotel room and not know where to go or what to do, but look for opportunities to explore the places you have traveled to.
Keep it in perspective: If you have flown to another continent and are staying in fairly nice hotels, don’t get so caught up in saving your pennies once you have arrived that you miss out on experiences or don’t enjoy them. There are many times where I know I could get a better price or that I am being overcharged, but getting upset, missing an opportunity or losing valuable time should also be taken into account. For example, in Thailand 1 baht is worth about 3 cents American money. We booked a trip to the floating market about 100 kilometers from Bangkok. We knew that there was no way we would be leaving the market without experiencing the market from a boat. They have two kinds of boats: mechanical (long-tail) and paddle boats (a person paddles you through the canal). From a quick bit of research, I knew that the mechanical boats charged several times as much as the paddle boats, plus I didn’t want the noisy boat, so it was an easy decision. However, when we arrived the paddle boat vendor asked 1,000 baht for a half-hour boat trip. It was a ridiculously high starting point, so I countered with an offer of 200 baht for a 1 hour trip. We couldn’t reach any kind of starting point, so we walked away to see what we could find elsewhere. A minute or two later, the vendor found me and said they would take us for 400 baht for 1 hour. We accepted and went back for a pleasant trip through the market. We likely could have negotiated back and forth for a bit and got the trip for as cheap as 300 baht, but the haggling, hassle and time wasn’t worth it for trying to save $3.
The bottom line is you are here to enjoy your vacation. Getting scammed or ripped off can certainly take some pleasure out of a trip. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t trust that kind man just because he speaks English well and you will likely do just fine.
–Peace Out, The Franci