6 Scams & Rip-Offs to Look Out For During Holiday Travel

Heading somewhere this holiday season? If so, you’re not alone—millions of Americans are projected to hit the road over the coming weeks via car, plane, or train. With the seasonal spike in travelers also comes an increase in scammers hoping to make a few quick bucks while you’re distracted with holiday cheer.

Whether heading abroad or only several states away, your best protection is a little knowledge beforehand, so that you are better prepared to deal with them should a would-be scammer single you out. Here’s a rundown of the most common holiday travel scams designed to part you from your cash or belongings.

Holiday Travel Scam #1: Fraudulent Rentals

The most common holiday rental scams involve a rogue ‘landlord’ renting out a property that isn’t theirs to rent. Scammers often make their fake listings look convincing by stealing photos of other home’s interiors from around the internet, then pairing them up with a real address. Most frequently found on vacation rental websites such as Airbnb, VRBO, and HomeAway, victims of this scam arrive only to find they have nowhere to stay.

Another variation of this scam targets vacationers who’ve been searching online with an email offering great rental deals. The catch? They’ll demand a deposit is made by wire transfer, then disappear without a trace. The news story below details both these scams in action.

The simplest way to avoid these kinds of scams is to do some background research on the landlord or agent renting the property. Make sure you have their full address and contact details. If they’re from a company, see if you can find some positive feedback about them online.

Another is to search Google for images used in a vacation rental listing (right-click an image, then select ‘search Google for this image’) to see if it comes up in other listings around the web. While legitimate landlords might list their property on several different sites, you should contact each listing to ensure the addresses and contact information match.

Additionally, never, ever pay for a vacation rental by wire transfer—there’s no way to get your money back.

Learn More: How To Spot a Scam Vacation Rental

Holiday Travel Scam #2: Refundable Airfare Scheme

Holiday travel can be expensive and those looking for a deal will sometimes turn to websites, such as Craigslist, where scammers will advertise a ticket that they claim they can no longer use. The ticket will be advertised at a reduced rate, with the promise that it will be transferred into your name.

However, as soon as you’ve paid cash for the ticket, the other party can call the airline to refund their initial purchase. Often, those scammed in a refunded ticket scheme don’t even realize they're out the second-hand airfare until it’s time to check in.

How to avoid this scheme? Only buy tickets first-hand from airlines, or through trusted websites such as Travelocity, Kayak, or Expedia.com.

Holiday Travel Scam #3: Scammers at Airport Security

You place your laptop on the airport security scanner while waiting for a couple of people to pass through the metal detector. The first passes through, but the second person triggers the alarm. They then begin to laboriously take out coins, jewelry, a cell phone, and any other assortment of items bound to get them stopped and searched.

While this is happening directly in front of you, the scammer’s accomplice has had plenty of time to snatch up your laptop or purse, and then disappear into the departure terminal.

Protecting yourself from this type of theft is simple enough: Never let your belongings pass through the x-ray area until the metal detector is clear. If necessary, remove the bin containing your laptop and other valuables while you wait.

Holiday Travel Scam #4: Taxi Scams

Taxis – like tourists – are everywhere, and every tourist will no doubt at some point need a taxi, which is why they make ideal positions from which to scam a prospective target and this can happen in any number of ways.

The most basic form of the taxi scam is simply overcharging you and making you pay some exorbitant fee when really the journey should cost a lot less (this probably even happens in your hometown).

Taxi drivers looking to scam tourists sometimes rig their meter to run at a certain speed, resulting in a slightly more expensive end fare. Alternatively, they might not even use the meter, often claiming the meter is broken, and then just making up a price at the journey’s end. And wouldn’t you know, the price is considerably higher than what it should be!

A more elaborate scheme involves a taxi driver telling you that the hotel/attraction/destination you want to visit is closed, full, or otherwise unavailable. However, they just so happen to know of this fantastic place that you can stay at or visit. More often than not, this ‘great place’ they know will turn out to be less-than-desirable and more expensive. Unbeknownst to you, the owner of said delightful establishment has given your taxi driver a sizeable commission for delivering you to their door.

How to avoid taxi scams while traveling?

If you’re heading someplace unfamiliar, search online to find out what official cabs look like beforehand. You run less of a risk getting into an ‘unofficial’ taxi and being ripped off.

Many airports strictly regulate taxis, posting predetermined rates to popular destinations and city centers. However, it also never hurts to search online for average rates to places on your itinerary. That way, you can state the price of the journey before buckling up, further limiting your chances of being overcharged.

Finally, if you can avoid it, never admit to being from out of town. Obviously this isn’t really an option if you’re traveling abroad and don’t speak the local language! But, if your destination is somewhere stateside? There’s no need to tell your taxi driver that you’re in unfamiliar territory.

Holiday Travel Scam #5: Fake Front Desk Calls

Shortly after you check into your hotel, you get a call from the ‘front desk’ to notify you that your credit card didn’t go through. The apologetic clerk asks you to read off your card number and security code. The caller is all made all the more convincing, as they ask if you need a wake-up call or help arranging transportation.

Some days later, unauthorized charges start to show up on your card.

This credit card scam isn’t new, but it has become so widespread that some U.S. hotels post signs warning guests that staffers won’t call rooms to request card information.

How to protect yourself from credit card scammers during holiday hotel stays?

First, never give your credit card information to anyone who calls you. If you receive a call, hang up and contact the front desk immediately to report the scam. 

Additionally, always check your credit card bill closely for fraudulent charges after you’ve traveled. Even if examining all your purchases raises your blood pressure, doing so is more convenient than cleaning up your accounts after overlooking credit card fraud.

Holiday Travel Scam #6: Inflated Car Rental Fees

It's the end of your holiday trip, and you’re in a rush to catch your flight. So, when dropping off your rental car, you hurriedly hand back the keys to the car representative, who then gives you a nod and sends you on your way.

Smooth sailing, right? Except, it’s only when you arrive back at home do you find your credit card has been charged for damage to the rental car that you never inflicted!

To protect yourself from this increasingly popular travel scam, make sure you mark any existing damage before leaving the car lot. Also, be sure to get a signature and copy of any paperwork stating that you’re all clear before departing the car lot.

The Golden Rules For Avoiding Holiday Travel Scams

Staying safe while traveling involves staying vigilant—not just of your surroundings, but of who might be willing to take advantage of you when your guard is down. To stay a step ahead of scammers, be sure to do the following before any trip:

  • If you’re going abroad for the holidays, read travel warnings for your destination country.
  • Whether you’re bringing gifts or making pricier purchases while traveling, try to drop expensive items off in your hotel room as soon as possible.
  • If you have to carry your passport, ensure it’s in a zipped, secure pocket.
  • Insure valuables, such as phones and cameras, before your trip.

If you’re not a frequent traveler or are heading somewhere unfamiliar, be sure to check out our article “Popular Travel Scams in 2015 – Learn To Watch More Than Your Wallet!” to ensure you’re prepared for any wily attempt at your wallet.

Have you experienced a scam during holiday travel that we didn’t cover? Tell us about it in the comments below!


Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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