Spring break scams trap UI students every year

By Meghan O'Kelly

As students formulate their plans for spring break 2008, Student Legal Services encourages travelers to err on the side of caution when planning a trip.

Thomas Betz, director of Student Legal Services, said he sees students fall victim to spring break travel scams every year. He said a tell-tale sign of a potential scam is a suspiciously low price.

“A price of $450 for a round trip flight and hotel in Florida for all of spring break – that figure is really too low,” Betz said, explaining that some companies advertise artificially low prices and then charge nonrefundable deposits upon arrival.

Many spring break travel companies do not operate all year and are based out of a post office box, and students should also be wary of companies that solely exist for the purposes of student spring breaks, Betz said.

“You should know what airline you’re on. You should have a ticket number,” he said. “You might pay a little bit more, but you get a lot of guarantees with that.”

April Thomas is the manager of Travel Cuts, 618 E. Green St., Champaign. She said students who choose to use a spring break company should be sure the company is a certified tour operator with the American Society of Travel Agents and has proof they have been in business for a significant amount of time.

“You have to use good sense like you would with anything else,” Betz said. “If you’re going to buy a package to go to any of these spring break destinations, you need to find out who you’re dealing with.”

It is untrue, Thomas said, that a spring break trip is best booked with a spring break company, but students who make reservations on their own need to do their homework.

“The last thing we want them to do is for them to get down there and have the hotel say, ‘Sorry, we don’t allow spring breakers,'” she said. “Spring break tends to give hotels a bad reputation.”

Thomas said many companies do not give travelers all available information. She said she works with a company that requires clients to sign a 17-page contract with terms that allow the company to change trip dates within two weeks of departure.

“If they change it from Friday to (an earlier date) and you have an exam, that’s too bad,” Thomas said. “Everything is there for you to know, you just have to read the rules and fine print.”

Thomas also said that spring break travel companies aren’t advertising that spring break falls during Holy Week this year. In some parts of the Caribbean, observing the holiday includes abstinence from alcohol and motorized water sports.

“We’re not telling anybody to go to the Caribbean,” Thomas said.

Spring breaks gone bad are subject to lawsuits, but Betz said students often overlook contract terms that allow for change in travel dates and sharing rooms with other people.

“The problem in many instances (is) these are travel companies that promote spring break that are around for a very short amount of time,” he said. “You can’t sue a post office box.”

Jackie McCambridge, senior in ACES, experienced multiple unexpected inconveniences on her spring break trip to Mexico her freshman year, which she booked through a spring break travel company.

She found herself frustrated and at the mercy of the company after a small, shaky charter flight that made multiple stops combined with fuel surcharges and a last-minute change in the dates of her trip.

“For how much we paid, we were put through a lot of trouble,” McCambridge said.

Betz encourages students to bring contracts to Student Legal Services for review before signing and putting down a deposit.

“After you’ve done it and you’ve had a bad experience, it’s very difficult to get the money back,” he said. “People are always disappointed when they expect a chocolate cake, and they get a Hostess Twinkie.”